With his three pitch strikeout of Dayan Viciedo, an era came to an end at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon. Kerry Wood threw the final pitch of his career with the Chicago Cubs, bringing his disappointing, injury plagued career to an end.
Though no prospect to come through baseball has ever carried the hype of Stephen Strasburg, Wood is about as close as you can get. With a blazing fastball and sharp breaking stuff, Wood was a new hope for a desperate Cubs organization when he was drafted in 1995. Wood was expected to put the franchise on his back and help to end years of suffering.
Initially, Wood backed up that hype. The 1998 National League Rookie of the Year made his debut in April of that yea,r and instantly put himself on the map. On May 6th, 1998, Wood put together one of the top few pitching performances of all time. Against the Houston Astros, Wood allowed just one hit, walked none, and struck out 20 hitters. His fastball was top notch and his curveball was simply absurd in that game.
You could say it was all down hill from there, at least as far as his health is concerned. In a career plagued by injuries, Wood underwent Tommy John surgery prior to the 1999 season.
Though he struggled in his first year back, Wood steadily returned to form, and was absolute dynamite in 2003, mowing down 266 hitters and pitching to a 3.20 ERA. That continued in the postseason, when he dominated the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the NLDS. Wood won his pair of starts against Atlanta, posting a 1.76 ERA as the Cubs advanced to that fateful NLCS against the Florida Marlins.
It was during that series that we saw another landmark event in the career of Kerry Wood. Wood hit a game-tying home run in Game 7 against Florida, sending Chicago into a frenzy. Of course, Wood also took the ‘L’ in that game.
Just as the Cubs were unable to pick up the pieces after the infamous 2003 postseason, Wood wasn’t able to put it back together as a starter. A whole slew of injuries all over the place began to dominate his career. If it wasn’t one thing (triceps in 2004), it was another (rotator cuff in 2006).
It reached the point where Wood was forced into bullpen duty, in order to limit his workload. Wood finished his first tenure with the Cubs as the club’s closer in 2008, a stint which won him an All Star nod. Following that year, the Cubs cut Wood loose due to financial reasons, allowing him to cash in with the Cleveland Indians.
Wood spent two years away from Chicago, with the Indians and a very successful stint with the New York Yankees. In 2011, he returned to the North Side on a one-year pact, turning down higher paying gigs elsewhere for what most assumed would be his final ride into the sunset last season.
That pretty much takes us where we are today. Wood signed a new contract this past offseason, something that was in question with the Theo Epstein Era beginning in Chicago. Some felt that it was time to simply let Wood go, while others, including myself, though bringing him back on a one-year, low cost deal would be a plus not only for a thin bullpen, but for the younger guys in the ‘pen who could use the veteran presence from Wood.
It didn’t take long for Wood to figure out this season that he just didn’t have it anymore. Wood had found success as a starter, which continued in 2011, and the fact that he had regressed so much this year meant that he wasn’t completely healthy. His command wasn’t there, contributing to an ERA over eight. His retirement is considered overdue to some, and a sad day for others.
I don’t think you’ll find too many Cubs fans clamoring for Wood to be in the Hall of Fame or mention him among baseball’s all time greats. He had the stuff and the talent for both, but injuries never allowed that to materialize, and we can easily label his career a disappointment. The more you think about it, the more frustrating it gets.
Yet, Wood will go down as a fan favorite in Chicago that few can measure up to, and it has nothing to do with numbers. Stuck in a dark place, Wood helped the Cubs break into a…less dark place and evolve as an organization. He was always a class act, even in attempting to fight through all of that adversity. He was a warrior. Every time he went down, you knew he was coming back, as frustrating as it was to watch.
It’s reassuring to know that it won’t be too long before we see Wood back with the Cubs, as a spot somewhere in the organization is likely in the cards. Until then, use this as a reminder of what could have been, in the disappointing career of Kid K.