Saturday, May 19, 2012

Wood Ends Career On His Own Terms

It's hard to believe that it's been 14 years. It seems like only yesterday that Kerry Wood burst into the lives of Cubs fans on an early May day, a day that seemed to be the start of a long and prosperous career. Wood struck out 20 Astros that day and was instantly crowned the savior of Chicago baseball. It's hard to imagine more pressure being placed upon the right arm of a young player, an arm that we all now know couldn't hold up to it. Over the course of his career, we saw the dominating talent that made Wood such a prodigy when he arrived in the league, but we also saw the downside of the abuse of that arm, resulting in Wood taking up a second home on the disabled list for most of his career. Even through all of that, and the subsequent failure of another phenom, Mark Prior, and his career due to injury, Woody was a figure that endeared himself to Cubs fans. He was a Texas transplant, but over the past 14 or so years, he's become a Chicago man through and through. That's why, even though he was only a portion of what he could be, it was so hard to see him go yesterday.

I'll never forget that 20 strikeout performance. I was only 11 years old, or something like that, but I remember the game. This was back in the days of some real desperation for the Cubs. Fans didn't even show up to Wrigley just for the hell of it yet, and the lack of attendance that day was reflective of that. I remember it being an overcast, typical Chicago spring day. Perfect for a Cubs savior to show up.

A young Kerry Wood, after striking out 20 Astros
Kerry Wood was cut from the line of Texas fireball pitchers like Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan. He was a legend in Texas, where he dominated for most of high school with a blazing fastball and an array of nasty off speed pitches. Eventually, he was drafted 4th overall by the Cubs, a team in desperate need of rejuvenation, in 1995. Presumably, the Cubs brass didn't know the extent of overuse that Kerry dealt with in high school. I remember reading stories, probably when Wood had landed on the DL again, of how he would pitch both ends of a double header, or back to back games in a tournament, or several consecutive games in a row. He was such a dominating high school pitcher that his coaches wanted to use that talent as much as possible. Little did they know that they, combined with Wood's coaches in Chicago, were dooming the young phenom's career before it started.

But none of that had happened yet. Sure, Kerry would spend the entire 1999 season on the DL after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but on that May 6th day, the future of the Cubs was bright. On that day, he did this:

Two phenoms, careers marred by injury
The official box score says only 15,758 were there to witness it. But the entire fanbase saw a pitcher who could bring the Cubs out of the depths of consistent mediocrity. With a complete game, 1 hit, 20 strikeout epic performance, for once, the future of an organization who even then hadn't won a world series in 90 years looked bright. That year, the Cubs would end up in the playoffs, and even though they lost, you had to think it was only a matter of time the "curse" would end. We all thought this especially in 2003, when Mark Prior showed up to form a duo of ridiculous pitching talent that we once again thought would lead us to the promised land. But it wasn't to be. Prior began a career much the same way as Wood, only to end up spending years marred by injury. The two were never able to bring a championship to Chicago, but that didn't stop Wood from becoming a Cubs legend.

Wood's career really began to stall in 2004. That season he missed two months with a triceps injury. In 2005, at the end of the year, he had surgery and missed the remainder of the season. In 2006, he attempted to comeback, only to reinjure his shoulder. It ended up being the end of his career as a starter, only 8 years after it began. Wood had missed the entire 1999 campaign, parts of the 2000, 2004, and 2005 campaigns, and most of the 2006 season. By the time he came back to the Cubs midway through the 2007 season, he had transitioned to a reliever. This transition proved to be successful in 2008, where he notched 34 saves and 84 strikeouts in only 66 innings of work, all on a Cubs team that won 97 games. Then, that offseason, Wood wasn't offered a contract (still upset about that, Jim Hendry), and spent the next two years with the Indians and Yankees, before returning to the Cubs for the 2011 season at a discount rate. He had a successful year in 2011, but this year came back and some of the same arm and shoulder problems were dogging him. No wonder he retired.

Wood goes out on his own terms
After enduring more than a dozen stints on the DL, Wood wanted to go out on his own terms. At nearly 35, Kerry had become the elder statesman on a Cubs team that was finally beginning to move into the right direction. He was a leader in the clubhouse, and continued to be the fan favorite he had always been. Just what exactly was it that made Woody such a favorite, when his career so full of promise was never fully lived up to? Perhaps it was because his career served as a parallel - even a microcosm - of the entire existence of the Chicago Cubs. Maybe it was because he came from Texas with a gregarious personality and an infectious smile that made baseball fun again. Maybe it was even because he was yet another player that represented the hope that Cubs fans bring to the table every year. Or maybe it's because we watched the kid grow up before our eyes, adopted the Texas fireballer as one of Chicago's own, and watched with the sadness we would all watch our own kids as he experienced setback after setback. Regardless of the reason, and it's probably all of those, there's no question that Wood will retire as one of my favorite Cubs, a player who personified everything about the team that we love. That's what made it so hard to watch this yesterday:

It was an emotional, fitting end to the class act's career - a nasty off speed pitch in the dirt that had the batter flailing. Wood retires with a career 3.67 ERA and 1582 strikeouts in 1380 innings. He finishes second all time in strikeouts per nine innings, with an absurd 10.31, second only to Randy Johnson. He missed bats with a frequency only second to the amount of actual games he missed.

It's a shame that Woody couldn't hold on a couple years, because the Cubs are in the midst of a rebuilding project that is already starting to bear fruit. The team plays an exciting brand of baseball that is actually fun to watch. Sure, right now they lose more than they win, but this Cubs team already does more basic things right than any Cubs team has since 2008. They hustle, play hard, and as evidenced by their near-comeback against Philadelphia on Thursday, they never give up. It really does appear that the mentality Theo Epstein espoused in the Cubs Way is starting to take hold. The play of guys like Bryan Lahair, Starlin Castro, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, and the like makes you think that after a couple years the Cubs will finally be on the right track. It makes me wish that Kerry could have held on a couple years and become that veteran presence on a newly emerging successful team in a couple years.

Instead, Kerry goes out on his terms. After a career full of injury, Kerry just wanted to go out in a way that he controlled, instead of some serious injury down the road that he probably felt was coming. He knew he could battle back from his latest shoulder troubles. He could gut through a few more seasons like he had his entire career; there's no telling how many seasons he played for the Cubs at far less than 100%. But instead, Kerry leaves the Cubs in a dignified way. He walks off Wrigley Field for the last time after a strikeout, really a perfect way for his career to end. Wood loved the Cubs and their fans just as much as we loved him, so he must have figured that putting them through a few more years of injury problems just wouldn't be fair. Really, though, Kerry, it's been a pleasure. Like anyone's career or life, there were ups and downs and certain goals weren't realized. But when you recognize that life isn't as much about the destination as it is about the journey, you have to be happy. His journey as a Cubs player was fun, enjoyable, emotional, sad, exciting and ecstatic all at once. And regardless of injury, a lack of championships, or unfulfilled promise, that's all that matters. Thanks for the memories, Woody.