[picappgallerysingle id="1523517"]“I just pitch,” said the reluctant Chicago Cubs leader back in the day.
That always was Kerry Wood’s mantra, similar to Greg Maddux’s, whenever you tried to drag him into deeper issues, such as Sammy Sosa (no, Woody did not mash the boombox all by himself) or what it takes for the Cubs to finally win. He was a carefree twentysomething, still chucking it near 100 mph with awkward mechanics, but winning friends and corralling respect all along even while older players were the team leaders.
Now that Wood’s back, hopefully for good, as a Cub, he’s a changed man. He’s a father of three who will turn 34 next June. Even though he’s just a setup man now, he’ll be the most respected man in the clubhouse and the most beloved Cub to almost every fan.
Wood won’t beat his chest that the mantle of leadership has been passed to him. He already had it, quietly, as Cubs closer in 2008 before misguided personnel strategies and a soon-to-be-bankrupt temporary owner in Sam Zell cast him out of his Wrigley Field comfort zone for two seasons.
He was the Cubs’ sorest loser. I’ll never forget a disastrous loss in which Wood was not central to the final score. He sat by his locker staring a hole in the clubhouse for 10 minutes. The angry eyes were so powerful laser beams should have been shooting out. Another time he blew a save against the Brewers in 2008. More media surrounded Wood locker than after his 20-strikeout game 10 years previously. That’s how impactful a personality he was. Wood was closer to tears than any other time I’ve ever seen him, but somehow held it together to answer every question.
Now he’ll be expected to mentor Andrew Cashner, who grew up following fellow Texan Wood as Wood himself keenly watched fellow Texan Nolan Ryan in his own formative years.
“I can’t think of a better mentor for a young, hard thrower from Texas than the older, hard thrower from Texas,” said Cubs GM Jim Hendry.
Wood knows know that he’s passed into a Greg Maddux role as savvy counselor to younger pitchers and conscience of the clubhouse. Great for the Cubs that Maddux works as Hendry’s special assistant; the team can never get enough character into the operation from these old-school pitchers.
“I’m sure that’s something that’s going to take place naturally,” Wood said of his team elder’s role. “I’m not going to try to go in there and start coaching people, for sure. Obviously, he’s (Cashner’s) going to have questions and there’s going to be a lot of guys having questions. I’ll have questions for them…I’m here to help in any manner I can, whether it’s talking to guys, helping with them, doing anything.”
Back in August, Wood shook his head at the Cubs’ condition after Ted Lilly, another leader, was traded away in a lost-season salary dump. All the leadership pressure was on one man — his close friend, Ryan Dempster.
On Friday, Dempster unburdened himself. He joked Wood can assume the lion’s share of leadership onto himself. “He can take it all,” Dempster mused from Arizona. In reality, they will be the two pillars of professionalism in the clubhouse.
“The more veteran guys you have, the better off you are,” Dempster said. “You need youth and good players to win. It’s a combination. Maybe someone’s not comfortable going to me or Aramis (Ramirez), but maybe they’re comfortable going to Woody. He’s Another veteran presence.”
Wood’s legend simply grew, if you listen to a further stream of consciousness from Dempster, who was mightily impressed Wood passed up more lucrative offers from the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox to try to finish his career as a Cub.
“This right here lays out what kind of person Kerry Wood is,” Dempster said. “To sit down and turn down way more money from other places, including the South Side of Chicago, to still put on Cubs uniform, is something. He’s one of greatest teammates I’ve ever had. What he brings on the field isn’t as important as what he brings in the clubhouse.
“He’ll be good for (closer Carlos) Marmol, man. They had a great relationship.”
In the ultimate winter of discontent for the Cubs, the ultimate feel-good story warmed it up just in time for the holidays.