Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Better Than a Perfect Game

A stunned Kerry Wood is embraced by Mark Grace after win.

I let an important anniversary slip by yesterday.  It was 15 years ago on May 6, 1998 that twenty year old baby faced Kerry Wood hurled one of the most impressive games in baseball history and became a Chicago Cubs legend.  And it wasn’t even a no-hitter.
No hitters are impressive, but a dozen or so are thrown every year.  Even the golden charm of the elusive perfect game (no one reaches base on a hit, walk, or hit batter, a man reaching on a fielding error does not count against the pitcher) has been thrown 23 times in all of Major League history, and 21 times in the Modern Era (since 1900.)
By contrast twenty batters have been retired on strikes by a single pitcher in a 9 inning game only three times.  The now disgraced Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox tossed two of them.  Them the other was pitched by Wood on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the Houston Astros.  Despite allowing two base runners on a single and a hit batsman, most baseball historians consider it the most dominating performance by a pitcher in history.
Comparing it to Clemens’s two 20 K games, in 1986 he allowed a home run to the Mariners’ Gorman Thomas and ten years later he gave up five hits to the Tigers and needed 151 pitches to close out the game.  Wood only needed 122 pitches in his one-hit game.
I remember the game well, although I only saw parts of it is stops and starts.  It was my last year as a night shift custodian at Briragate School in Cary, Illinois.  I caught about the first three innings of the 1:20 start at home before walking the mile and a half to the train station in Crystal Lake.  In Cary I bopped into the Tracks tavern for a quick beer and about an inning and a half before I had to shank it to school.  I heard the final results on the pocket radio I carried as I worked, but didn’t see the mammoth celebration until I got home after midnight and caught tape on the late, late news.
Like most fans, I was immediately in love with Kid K as the media dubbed him.  He went on to have a stellar season until his hard throwing and an unusual delivery started causing him pain late in the season.  He sat out the last month.  Still, he went 13-6 in the regular season easily winning the National League Rookie of the Year.  He returned to make one playoff appearance against the Atlanta Braves but was obviously working in pain and lost.
Fans thought that Woods would be the future of the franchise, the dominating pitcher around whom to build a franchise that would finally win the World Series.
But the following spring he aggravated the injury in training camp and had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow and missed the entire season.
Woods struggled in his comeback year of 2000, earning only a journeyman’s 8-7 record and going on and off the Disabled list (DL).

He seemed to rebound in 2001 with a 12-6 and 3.36 ERA. The following season, he finished 12–11 with a 3.67 ERA, but did not miss a start all year long, setting career highs with 213.6 innings pitched and 33 starts. He rang up 217 strikeouts in both seasons.
Wood was a fan and press favorite, willing to face the music with reporters even after bad outings.  He was active in the community and accessible, living in Old Town and mixing easily with fans.  He made many charitable appearances and founded a popular a celebrity bowling tournament, Kerry Wood’s Strike Zone, which also featured a silent auction that raised over two million dollars.
In 2003, Wood continued to improve, setting career highs with 266 strikeouts, in a 14–11 record, a 3.20 ERA, and two shutouts.  His lightning fastball led in the majors among starters, averaging 95.4 miles per hour. Despite the control problems common to power pitchers resulting in  100 walks and surrendered 24 home runs, both career highs, he was selected as a National League All-Star and helped lead the Cubs to the playoffs as one half of Chicago Heat along Mark Prior.
Wood earned two wins in the Divisional Series against the Braves and was the starter in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, which the Cubs won in extra innings. The Cubs lost in seven games to the eventual World Series champion Florida Marlins. In the decisive Game 7, Wood hit the first home run by a pitcher in an NLCS game since another Cub, Rick Sutcliffe, did so in Game 1 in 1984. However, the Marlins won the game 9-6 and Wood was the losing pitcher.
Repeated injuries marred Woods career. In 2004 he went 9-8 and missed more than two months with a torn triceps.  Shoulder surgery ended his 2005 campaign and multiple injuries, including a freak slip getting out of therapeutic hot tub sidelined him for most of 2006.
With his hefty contract up the next year, Woods elected to take a salary cut and agreed to go into the bullpen in order to stay in Chicago rather than be traded.  Even staying healthy enough to remain in the bullpen was a challenge.  He rehabbed in the minors most of the year and was not called up until August 1, 2007.  He was used very sparingly mostly as a single inning set up pitcher and generally not allowed to throw on consecutive days.  But he was an effective role player appearing in 22 games and posting a 1-1 record with a solid 3.33 ERA.  In the drive for another NL Central Championship he poste 8 holds and one win. 
Although he filed for free agency I was clear that he wanted to stay with the Cubs and turned down better offers for a one year $2 million plus deal.
With former closer Ryan Dempster promoted to starter, Wood competed for and won the job of closer in 2008.  He started off strong, with dominant heat and improved control.  He posted 34 saves in 39 opportunities, 82 strike-outs and was selected to the 2008 MLB All-Star Game as a relief pitcher.
But later in July the wheels came off with a deceptively simple on a finger of his pitching hand, a minor injury compared to those he had endured.  But the blister stubbornly refused to heal.  That was it for the Cubs, who acquired another reliever.  They announced that he would not be resigned.
2009 found Woods in anther league with the Cleveland Indians.  Cubs fans gave him a standing ovation when he came into town with the team in June.  But once again he was plagued by injuries, first a back spasm and then another round of an un-healing finger blister. 
The Indians dealt him to the New York Yankees on July 31, 2010 where he turned things around.  He went 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA in 24 games, including 21 straight scoreless appearances.  In the post season he had a miserly 2.25 ERA appearing in 7 games.
But the Yanks ultimately lost in a seven game American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers.  Despite his contributions, the deep pocket Yankees declined to sign him for another year, preferring to invest in a healthier pitcher.
Wood returned to Chicago for the 2011 season, turning down more lucrative offers to play for “only” $1.5 million to stay in the city where he had made a home with his wife and family.  He was not consistent and still had time off for injuries, but his performance that year was enough to convince the club to resign him for 2012 at double the salary.
But there was trouble in spring training.  Old injuries were acting up.  Woods decided on his own that it was time to go.  On May 18, 2014 just a little more than 14 years after that stellar game, he walked to the mound and struck out one batter, Day├ín Viciedo of the Chicago White Sox.  That was it.  His six year old son ran on the field to his father’s arms.  The stadium stood and cheers.  Woods told reporters, “I had fun, I had a blast. I wouldn’t trade anything in.”
So Kerry Wood never became the pillar of a dynasty.  Too bad.  Life sucks.  Being a Cub or a Cubs fan is hard.
But he still had a remarkable record despite all of the injuries.   In addition to co-holding the strike out record with Clemens, Wood was also the fastest to reach 1,000 strikeouts in MLB history in appearances—134 games—and—in innings pitched—853.

1 comment:

  1. You done it again, Patrick. This is a great column. You should have been a sports writer...