Just as spring training 1998 was ending, someone asked Terry Collins, then the manager of the Angels, who he thought would win the World Series that year. He said, without hesitation, "The Cubs." The questioner was surprised and asked why Collins felt that way. His response: "If the Cubs have five pitchers better than Kerry Wood, they'll definitely win the World Series." Wood had just been sent to Triple-A Iowa after having lit the Cactus League on fire that spring with consistent 98 MPH fastballs.
That trip to Des Moines lasted one start (in which he struck out 11 in five innings). He was in a Chicago Cubs uniform on April 12 in Montreal, and though that major league debut was shaky, four starts later he rocked baseball's world, on May 6, 1998 at Wrigley Field, when he tied Roger Clemens' major league record of 20 strikeouts against the Astros. He allowed only one hit -- a partly-bobbled ball that might have been ruled an error if it had happened in the seventh inning instead of the second -- and when he got a call from his high school coach congratulating him, he told his old coach he was most proud of the fact that he hadn't walked anyone.
It is arguably the most dominating pitching performance in major league history. Only Sandy Koufax' perfect game from September 9, 1965 is close.
Kerry Wood was a phenomenon in the true sense of the word. Not knowing what would happen that wet May day at Wrigley, a large group of fans had brought red and blue signs with "K" on them and waved them around in the bleachers with every strikeout. Wood couldn't even have a legal drink to celebrate; he was about six weeks from his 21st birthday. "Kid K" was born. "We Got Wood" T-shirts became a popular seller in Wrigleyville.
And I bought the very first game jersey I ever owned. Kerry Wood had that much of a hold on Cubs fans in 1998. The team rode his strong right arm all the way to the playoffs, though he missed the last month of the regular season, ominously, with elbow trouble. He returned for a playoff start against the Braves and was defeated by former Cub Greg Maddux, although he threw five strong innings. He won the NL Rookie of the Year award
The next spring training, something went "pop" in Wood's right elbow and he missed the season, undergoing Tommy John surgery. Returning on May 2, 2000 against the Astros, not only did he pitch well, but he hit a home run in his first at-bat.
It is the stuff of legends. We thought we were getting the next Nolan Ryan. Instead, we got the next Gary Nolan -- a pitcher with Wood's talent with the Reds in the 1960s whose career was done at 29.
Wood threw well enough to help lead the Cubs back to the playoffs in 2003; on the mound for the decisive Game Seven of the NLCS, he hit another home run to help give the team the lead, but he couldn't hold it; sitting at his locker in tears after the loss, he took total responsibility for not getting the job done. If Cubs fans hadn't loved him before, they surely did after that -- an athlete not making excuses and feeling as bad as the fans did after defeat.
I won't go through the litany of injuries that kept Wood mostly on the DL for a good part of the next four years. In 2007 he nearly gave up and quit, but decided to throw one more time to see if he still could. Surprisingly without pain, he returned to the Cubs and threw reasonably well near the end of the season and had a successful season as closer in 2008 -- his 34 saves matching his jersey number.
Inexplicably, the Cubs cut ties after that season. Brave reasons were given: "he should go and get his money", said some Cubs officials, which either said the Cubs couldn't afford it or thought he didn't deserve it. Exiled to Cleveland, he never looked or felt comfortable in that uniform, and often went 10 days without a save opportunity on that bad team. But when traded to the Yankees last year, then-Yankee pitching coach Dave Eiland found mechanical flaws in Wood's delivery (could it be that cross-body throwing many of us had noticed?), fixed them, and turned Wood into a lights-out setup man for Mariano Rivera.
It's that setup man who returns to the Cubs on a far-below-market $1.5 million, one-year contract. He's exactly who the Cubs need -- another setup man to help out Sean Marshall, which may allow Andrew Cashner to move to the rotation, as well as a strong clubhouse leader. It's never been proven, but Wood is supposedly the player who smashed Sammy Sosa's boom box at the end of the 2004 season.
Taking far less money to come home, showing us he never really wanted to leave, Kerry Wood is one of us. He's from Texas, but having met and married his wife Sarah here, he now wants to settle in Chicago permanently and raise his three children here. And what better way to do it than to come home, play in front of fans who adore him, and maybe, just maybe, be part of a future Cubs championship team, the one that just didn't happen in 1998, 2003, 2007 or 2008. Kerry Wood is the first Cub since the 1930s and 1940s (Charlie Root and Stan Hack) to play on four Cubs postseason teams. Make it five, and he'd be unique in team history.
Welcome home, Kerry Wood. The ovations you'll receive at the Cubs Convention, and in spring training, and the first time you run in from the left-field bullpen at Wrigley Field -- all well-deserved, for your performance and your humanity, reminding us that there is such a thing as loyalty in sports.