Commentary

Memories are striking

Kerry Wood powered his way to 1,582 Ks and a spot in the hearts of Cubs fans

Updated: May 18, 2012, 10:36 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- You shouldn't be surprised Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood struck out the first batter he faced in the major leagues. It was Mark Grudzielanek, then of the Montreal Expos.

Fourteen years later, you shouldn't be surprised that Wood struck out the last batter he faced, Dayan Viciedo of the Chicago White Sox.

Both strikeouts were swinging. For everything Kerry Wood didn't do in his roller coaster career, he always did one thing better than almost anyone: Make guys miss.

In between Grudzielanek and Viciedo, he struck out 1,580 batters with an array of fastballs, cutters, curves and sliders. He retires with the second-best strikeout-per-nine-inning ratio in history (minimum 1,000 batters) at 10.3, and is one of three pitchers to be at 10 or higher. Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are the others. Not bad company to keep.

The Texas-born power pitcher, an archetype baseball will always cherish, ended his career on a warm Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, coming out of the bullpen to face Viciedo in the eighth inning.

Only 18,506 were at Olympic Stadium in Montreal for Wood's first start, on April 12, 1998. The revered top prospect took the loss, giving up four runs and striking out seven in 4 2/3 innings. Relievers Ben VanRyn and Marc Pisciotta finished off that fifth inning for him.

[+] EnlargeKerry Wood
David Banks/Getty ImagesCubs reliever Kerry Wood hugs his son Justin after recording his final major league strikeout on Friday.

Wood finished his 14-year career (15 if you count the season he lost to Tommy John surgery) in front of 34,937, throwing a 96-mph fastball and finishing Viciedo with a nasty curveball in a 3-2 loss to the White Sox. Kid K one last time.

Wood had talked about retiring for weeks because he wasn't healthy enough to make guys miss. He only had five strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings coming into this game. He wanted that last batter, because he didn't want an angry glove toss after a failed outing to be his last memory of pitching at Wrigley.

It worked out perfectly. His last strikeout reminded him of being young again.

"Exactly the same," Wood said. "I told (James Russell before I went in, I feel like I'm getting ready to going in to pitch my first inning. So the adrenaline was the same, the nerves were the same."

"It was a great way to go out in that situation," said Dale Sveum, who was already tossed for arguing a call at second base in the fifth inning. "And to do it on a curveball was awesome."

Wood jogged to the mound to applause and left to a thunderous ovation and presumably quite a few tears as his young son Justin ran out from the dugout to hug him. Wood hugged him back and carried him into the dugout, where he choked back tears as his teammates mobbed him. He made a curtain call. It ended a day spent with his son in the outfield and in the scoreboard. Just hanging out, as he said.

All in all, not a bad way to go out for a pitcher who represented his organization, for better or for worse, for most of his adult life. Considering Wood was barely brought back this season, it turned out to be a farewell he deserved. The guy gave his body to the Cubs. He's the provincial saint of the city's lost cause, and he certainly embodied the franchise.

Few remember Wood's first start. But everyone remembers his fifth. A 20-year-old Wood struck out 20 in a 2-0 win over the Houston Astros. Many call it the greatest pitching performance in history. Amazingly, only 15,758 lucky fans were at that game at Wrigley.

For Wood, that game defined his career. And while he was fantastic in 2003, pitching the Cubs to their first playoff series win in a generation and homering in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, nothing will ever top May 6, 1998.

"Good and bad, no doubt about it," he said. "Obviously, it raised the bar and raised the expectations for me every time I took the mound. I felt like I fed off that and thrived off it. But you get labeled from it. I'm not going to say it was all bad."

There will be a lot of debate on how Wood should be remembered, and that's fair. His body didn't hold up. His mechanics were flawed. He only made 30 starts twice and never won more than 14 games. Wins are an outdated statistic, but for Wood, that stat partially highlights what was missing: durability.

Jeff Samardzija, who started Wood's last game, is from nearby Valparaiso, Ind. He was 13 when Wood struck out 20. His dad read an article that said Wood worked out in a pool. And since Wood threw 98, Samardzija found himself in a pool the next day, "kicking floaties around."

"As kids, when we were coming up, that's the dude you wanted to be," he said. "That's how you wanted to throw. You wanted to throw hard and you wanted to throw a big curveball. Really, there's not enough to be said about it."

Wood's final line was 86-75 with 63 saves and a 3.67 ERA to go along with those 1,582 strikeouts. And that doesn't includes the simulated games. He made 16 trips to the disabled list, so there were a lot of them. He made $70 million in his career.

But Wood, as corny as it sounds, was about more than numbers. He was well-liked by teammates, enjoyed helping young pitchers and was a consummate professional. Asked to characterize his career just after it ended, the pitcher seemed at peace with the way it turned out.

"I had fun," Wood said. "I had a blast. I wouldn't trade anything in. I learned from a lot of the injuries. I learned about my body, what it takes to compete in this game every day. I've got respect for guys that have played this game a long time because it's not easy to do."

Wood said he retired at 34 (he turns 35 in June) because he couldn't handle the preparation it was taking to throw 10 pitches, mentally and physically. His shoulder betrayed him again.

"It was time," he said. "You saw how things were going this year. Just not being able to recover and bounce back and do my job, essentially."

I don't feel bad for Wood. He's a young man with family, health -- though he noted he'll still be dealing with his balky shoulder on Saturday -- and more money in the bank than he could spend.

You might remember Wood for what he wasn't. You might remember him for that 20-strikeout day or the "We Got Wood" T-shirts or his 2003 season or his injury-plagued pairing with Mark Prior. You might remember him at the end, coming out of the bullpen with no idea where his pitches were going.

But you will remember Kerry Wood.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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