It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball watching Kerry Wood pitch. Limitless talent, high character, endless injuries, Chicago Cub and all the agony that entails.
I went to Wrigley Field to watch Kerry Wood pitch in his rookie year of 1998, went back in 2000 to see his first start after the arm injury that kept him out for all of 1999. A year and a half on the shelf, and he defeated the Astros in that first appearance back, giving up only one run in six innings, hitting a home run just for good measure. I watched every pitch of his absolute domination of the Braves in the 2003 NL division series, I skipped work on opening day one year to eat pizza and watch Wood defeat the Reds despite giving up four runs. I watched him come back from injury after injury, his transition to a closer, his brief stint with the Indians and Yankees, and his return to the Cubs, where he functioned as a very solid reliever.
Wood does not strike me as the sort to attempt a comeback, so I also will likely have had the enormous pleasure of watching his final major league appearance on Friday, May 18th 2012. Entering the game in the 8th inning with a runner on first and one out, Wood immediately got ahead of the one and only batter he would face, punching him out with a sick curveball that started out at the belt and ended up in the dirt, the batter flailing away helplessly.
Wood walked off the mound to a standing ovation, greeted by his son before reaching the dugout, then pulled out a few moments later for a curtain call. Wood had a hall of fame arm, but injuries kept him from fulfilling that potential, finishing his career with a 86-75 record and a 3.67 ERA. Alongside these good but not great numbers, Wood pitched 1380 innings, not too shabby, and struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings.
To put that last number in comparison, only one pitcher in the history of baseball has bettered that 10.3 k/9IP mark. Not Roger Clemens, not Pedro Martinez, not Walter Johnson or Bob Feller or Tom Seaver or Sandy Koufax or Christy Mathewson or Steve Carlton or Nolan Ryan. They were all better pitchers, but to a man they look up in that stat column to Kerry Wood.
I have an old videotape copy of his record 20 strikeout game that my mom gave me, still the most dominant pitching performance I’ve ever seen, and every once in a while I take it out of storage and watch it. It was only fitting that he end his career in much the same fashion as it truly began back on that day in 1998, walking off the mound to a rousing ovation after delivering an unhittable pitch to a batter who stepped into the batter’s box with every intention of driving the ball into the gap and then walking back to the dugout moments later, shaking his head in disbelief, realizing he never even had a chance.