Kerry Wood's talent inspired awe
Whether you played with or against him, you simply wanted to watch him play
Anyone who played with Kerry Wood knew that, when he eventually retired, they would immediately feel old. There was something perpetually youthful about Wood, even through the injuries and the 14 years he served in the league.
The first time I saw Kerry Wood, I understood what people meant when they said "man amongst boys." Like any major league player, you know the feeling of being the best in your town, high school, county, state, even country, but Kerry Wood came on the scene and you thought you were watching someone who would rewrite baseball history.
In 1995, I ended the Triple-A season with a lot of question marks on my back. The Chicago Cubs decided that I needed to go to instructional league in Arizona to continue my work after the season. For a Triple-A player, this is partially a test, and partially a suggestion that you're "running out of time," since instructional league was reserved mostly for newly minted minor league players, guys in their late teens or early 20s at the latest.
So one day, there was Kerry Wood at 18 years old, pitching against the Oakland A's instructional league team. Before I could actually see Wood pitch, I heard it. The catcher's mitt had no chance, nor did the professional hitters standing in the box. I had never seen anything like Kerry Wood up until that moment. His fastball looked like he was throwing snowflakes at 100 mph, and his curveball was what happened when that snowflake hit a tornado halfway to home plate.
It was truly mesmerizing to watch him pitch and I had seen a lot of good pitchers by that time in my minor league journey.
But that was Kerry Wood, from the very start of his career. All eyes had to be on him, because there was something almost spiritual about watching him pitch. It was as if baseball was unveiling one of its most divine possibilities on the mound.
He was from Texas, a place where pitchers were grown like the finest wine on earth. Nolan Ryan was mentioned, Roger Clemens was mentioned. Pitchers from Texas who would change the definition of a power pitcher were his comparisons. Yet even in that company, Kerry Wood had his own name. He stood by himself.
I arrived in Chicago in June 1996, two years before Kerry Wood would make his major league debut, so my first encounter with him on a big league diamond would be as his opponent on the Phillies. Being a dead-red fastball hitter, I fared well, but then he threw that slurvy slider, I remember thinking, "Wow, he hung that pitch and I actually saw it, but there was not a single nerve in my body that could react." I was frozen solid for strike three.
He would earn entry into the club of pitchers I called "Over-nasty." This was a club reserved for a pitcher that had a pitch or two that was unhittable if he located it. The pitch they threw was better approached as a spectator since embarrassment was right around the corner. It was what Wood would demonstrate to the world in one of the most dominating performances in baseball history: A nine-inning, 20-strikeout performance, with no walks and one hit. Any game in which you can reduce major league hitters to kittens is one for the ages and everyone got the feeling he could do this at any given time.
But "over-nasty" pitchers get hurt, as if the baseball gods wanted to create fairness and a way to give everyone time to get back their confidence. They also have trouble controlling their repertoire. In tandem, those things led to a bevy of injuries that would overcome Wood, but he came back, each and every time, more loyal to the city of Chicago and the Cubs.
Wood the teammate was a class act. He and his wife Sarah were and are a dynamic and generous duo to their community. I would get Christmas cards with personal notes. He was always respectful to his teammates. One day when my family was throwing a going-away party at a children's playland, a friend ran into Wood downstairs. He told him, "Glanville is upstairs for his family's going-away party." Wood immediately came upstairs to say hi and goodbye, taking the time to meet people and give us a nice send-off.
He had time for his close circle, for sure. We both shared a friendship with a journalist named George Castle, who was a true underdog in the industry. From day one until his retirement, Kerry had time for George, someone who had been covering him from when he first started his career.
In 2003, Wood finally became my major league teammate in Chicago for the playoff race and there he was, the same guy he was nearly a decade earlier. Warm welcome, competitor, good teammate, not flashy, just a guy getting it done. He was a gentle gunslinger, always.
I played against Chipper Jones all the time when I was in Philadelphia and Jones backed down from nothing or no one. Yet in that 2003 playoffs, in an interview with Jones before Wood's decisive win to put us into the next round, Jones said he was seeing if they could solve "the riddle" they called Kerry Wood. That is a high compliment from Jones given the way he neutralized the best pitchers in the game with consistency.
In the end, Wood will most likely not be a Cooperstown inductee by his numbers. But when you measure the ability of a player to capture the sheer possibility that baseball inspires in us all, he was one of the best I have ever seen. Fearless and human, divine and grounded, unique and loyal. And magnetic, because you had to watch him. Even behind him in the outfield, you had to enjoy his work from time to time.
I get the feeling the stories of his performances with live on forever in Chicago and anyone who faced him at his sharpest and healthiest will no doubt know that they faced the most dominant force in the game. You tried to hit him, but really like everyone in the stands, some part of you just wanted to watch.