Wood puts heart ahead of money

A player returning to his original team for a relative pittance?

That’s a man-bites-dog story in the world of professional sports. Or, as one baseball executive put it, “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.”

But with Kerry Wood and the Cubs, it’s different.

And if anything good can come from the death of Ron Santo, perhaps it’s this.

Wood, a highly coveted free-agent reliever, will rejoin the Cubs Friday on a one-year, $1.5 million contract, sources say. His deal will include appearance-based incentives and other bonuses in the event he closes games.

But it is not about the money. Not even close.

Don’t be surprised if Wood says at his news conference Friday that Santo’s passing only reinforced his desire to rejoin the Cubs family, one that he never wanted to leave in the first place.

Wood, 33, was the team’s first-round pick, and fourth selection overall, in 1995. He unleashed a 20-strikeout, one-hit game in his fifth major-league start, then endured a star-crossed, injury-filed existence with the team from 1998 to 2008.

Over the years, he became extremely close not only with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, but also with Santo, the former Cubs great who became a beloved team broadcaster.

Yes, his relationship with the team is that special.

Wood signed a two-year, $20.5 million free-agent contract with the Indians after the 2008 season only because the Cubs were in a financial bind while in the process of being sold.

He kept his family in Chicago. And this time, after earning nearly $70 million in his career, according to baseball-reference.com, he did not want finances to stand in his way of coming back.

Wood’s new $1.5 million salary will be just above what the Mets will play backup catcher Ronny Paulino and the Braves will pay reliever George Sherrill — and frankly, not all that far above baseball’s minimum salary of $414,000.

But there are other benefits.

A contending team could be one: The Cubs, by paying Wood such a low sum and deferring part of free-agent first baseman Carlos Pena’s $10 million salary, will retain the flexibility for other moves, specifically the addition of a starting pitcher.

A lifetime relationship with the team could be another: New owner Tom Ricketts surely will take note of Wood’s financial sacrifice and commitment to the team. Wood could be the next Cubs ambassador — different than Santo, of course, but unique in his own way.

It’s the most touching story of the offseason.

Only Kerry Wood. Only the Cubs.