Editor's note: Gene Wojciechowski, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, moved from his suburban Chicago home to an apartment 4½ blocks from Wrigley Field all to chronicle the 2004 Chicago Cubs, and those who live and die with the franchise. His book, "Cubs Nation: 162 Games, 162 Stories, 1 Addiction" (Doubleday), will be available April 12.
2004 background: Kerry Wood received a five-game suspension for going postal on home plate umpire Eric Cooper during an April 17 game, and on Aug. 22, with a 10-2 lead and only two outs away from qualifying for the win, he got booted by ump Bill Hohn after hitting his third Houston Astro. His reaction to my interview request was typical Wood.
I ask Wood if we can talk about the art of coexisting with umpires. After all, it is such a strange dynamic: pitcher, home plate umpire ... separated by only 60 feet, 6 inches and subjectivity.
This amuses Wood.
"Me?" he says. "I don't know if I've really learned how to yet."
Wood was born and raised in Irving, Texas, which is just outside Dallas. He watched former Longhorn Roger Clemens. He was there at old Arlington Stadium the night Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh no-hitter.
"Left-field bleachers, halfway up," he says. "Got free tickets at the grocery store. Minyard. We were collecting tickets in the bleachers after the game was over."
These were Wood's pitching role models. Ryan was a stoic, hardball pitcher, and a hardass too. Clemens is the same way. Give no quarter, take no crap.
"They never got really excited when they got a big out," says Wood. "It's like they expected to get a big out and then it was time to get back to business to the next inning, or the next hitter, or the next pitch. I kind of liked the way they walked around the mound, how they handled the game."
So Wood behaved in a similar way. His unspoken deal with hitters: You don't embarrass me, I won't embarrass you.
But no one taught Wood how to deal with big league umpires. Wood was 20 when he was called up from Triple-A Iowa in 1998.
"When you first come up," says Wood, "a couple guys will say, 'Hey, don't do anything with this ump because he might think you're showing him up.' A veteran might say, 'Good luck tomorrow. You've got so-and-so, don't piss him off.' But there's no do's and don'ts. I mean, it's pretty much clear-cut what a pitcher can do on the mound."
It is, but it isn't. Even in Wood's six-plus seasons there has been a gradual change in player-umpire etiquette.
"When I first came up, you could ask a guy where a pitch was," says Wood. "If he called it a ball, you could ask where it was I've seen Randy Johnson do that a bunch of times. A pitcher could have thought it was a strike where it crossed the plate, but the umpire thought it was maybe too high, too low. So you kind of ask, with a hand gesture, 'Where did you have that? Is it down? Up?'
"But this year, I've seen where a guy will ask that, and it ends up in a shouting match, the mask comes flying off. I think they're taking a lot less questioning from players."
Wood isn't exactly Mr. Social when it comes to the men in black. He pitches. They call balls and strikes. That's it for niceties.
"The day I'm pitching, all I see is a mask," says Wood, who would be hard-pressed to tell you the first names of most of the big league umpires. "But I think that's what makes Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds so successful at what they do. I don't do that. We see so many different umpires. It's a mask back there to me. I'm out there to do my job, and they're out there to do their job."
This makes no sense to me. If building bridges of understanding works with a 300-game winner and the best hitter of our generation, shouldn't it work for Wood?
Wood shrugs his shoulders. "Yeah, I guess," he says. But his body language says something else: WWND (What Would Nolan Do)? Nolan wouldn't cultivate or nurture a damn thing with an umpire.
Carlos Zambrano shows his emotions on the mound. Wood shows his intensity. Sometimes he shows it a little too much, which is why he's always doing the compare-and-contrast thing when he sees other pitchers throwing a small fit.
"If I see somebody standing out there yelling, I'll turn around to somebody in the dugout and say, 'Do I look like that when I'm doing that?' If they tell me, `Yeah,' then I don't feel so good."
Has anybody told you that? I ask.
"No. They tell me it's not that bad."
So they lie? I say.
"Yeah," says Wood, "they lie."