Kerry Wood arrived in the majors 14 years ago, a fresh-faced kid with No. 34 on his back, slinging fastballs at 100 mph, delivering breaking pitches that were often unhittable and striking out 20 batters in just his fifth start.
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On Friday, he left the game after one final, emotional appearance with the Chicago Cubs.
Fittingly, ”Kid K” struck out the last batter he’ll ever face and retired at the age of 34, ending a career that was eye-popping at times but hampered by injuries.
”I had a blast. I wouldn’t trade it in. I learned from the injuries, I learned about my body and what it takes to compete and go out and play every day,” Wood said Friday after his final game, a 3-2 loss to the White Sox.
”Mentally and physically we get to this point,” Wood said. ”Every player gets to this point where we don’t all get to choose when, we don’t all get to have a say in it. But I was fortunate enough to play this game a long time in a great city in front of the best fans in baseball. … It was time.”
Wood struck out Dayan Viciedo on three pitches, the last one a swing and a miss, in the eighth inning before he was replaced as bench coach Jamie Quirk came to take him out since manager Dale Sveum had been ejected earlier. His teammates joined him on the mound to congratulate him, and he left to a rousing ovation. Even White Sox slugger Adam Dunn doffed his batting helmet and clapped for Wood as he stood at first base.
Wood hugged his son as he reached the dugout, then lifted the boy into his arms. Moments later, he came out for a curtain call and waved his cap to the fans.
”I felt like I was getting ready to pitch my first inning. The adrenaline was the same, the nerves were the same. I can’t give enough credit to the fans, just a tremendous feeling,” Wood said.
Wood went on the disabled list earlier this season with shoulder fatigue – he was on the DL more than a dozen times over his career – and had struggled all year. His frustrations were evident when, after a bad outing against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field, he tossed his cap and glove into the stands.
”My body wasn’t bouncing back this year. I felt like I was putting guys in the `pen in situations they didn’t need to be in. I definitely didn’t want to go out with my last inning being me throwing my glove in the seats,” Wood said. ”I wanted to put up a zero or at least get one guy out.”
One of his best friends, starter Ryan Dempster, said he would really miss Wood’s presence in the clubhouse
”It will be tough not seeing him out there pitching,” he said as Wood was shagging fly balls with his son before the game. ”He’s been a great friend and a great teammate and a great Chicago Cub.”
Coming into the year, Wood was 86-73 with a 3.64 ERA and 63 saves. He left the Cubs as a free agent in December 2008, signing with the Cleveland Indians for two years and $20.5 million. He was traded to the Yankees in July 2010, becoming Mariano Rivera’s setup man, but he remained loyal to Chicago.
”Most every day he went out there, especially before he had the arm surgery, he had no-hit stuff,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi who was Wood’s teammate from 2000-2002 with the Cubs and then managed him in New York.. ”Loved playing with him. He loved to play the game. He really did.’
Wood returned to the Cubs in 2011, when he went 3-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 55 relief appearances before shutting it down because of a tear in his left knee that required arthroscopic surgery. In January, Wood agreed to play for the Cubs again for $3 million – double his 2011 pay – with a $3 million club option for 2013.
It was no secret that Wood wanted to remain a Cub. He lives in Chicago year-round, and the team’s new regime had made it clear the feelings were mutual. New president of baseball operations Theo Epstein called it a ”no-brainer” move to bring back the popular reliever.
Wood, after all, came of age as an athlete in Chicago and his games have provided some welcome bright spots for a franchise that infamously hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century.
The Cubs’ No. 1 selection in the 1995 amateur draft was a 20-year-old rookie when he delivered one of the greatest pitching performances of all time. On May 6, 1998, he allowed only one hit, a third-inning single by Ricky Gutierrez, in a 2-0 victory over the Houston Astros. It was his fifth major league start.
As the game progressed and with rain falling, Wood’s stuff was never better. Throwing fastballs at 100 mph and with his slider dipping around the Houston bats, Wood didn’t walk a batter, hit one with a pitch and gave up that lone infield single on a ball Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie couldn’t come up with.
When Wood fanned Bill Spiers in the ninth for his 19th strikeout, Wood tied the National League record. He struck out Derek Bell to end the game and tie Roger Clemens’ major league mark (the two still remain the only MLB pitchers to do it in nine innings).
”I didn’t know how many strikeouts I had. I knew I had already given up a hit in the third inning,” Wood later recalled. ”I was just trying to get my first complete game.”
He added: ”I’ll never forget it. It’s a great moment in my life and my career.”
Wood said his slider was his main weapon that day as he struck out the side in the first, fifth, seventh and eighth innings, and fanned two each in the second, fourth and ninth, and one each in the third and the sixth. Wood threw 122 pitches, 84 for strikes, and got a congratulatory phone call from Clemens afterward.
”The age, as hard as he threw, the command and the poise that he had on the mound, nothing bothered him that day,” Gutierrez recalled. ”After the game, we just took our hats off to him. He did a great job. There’s nothing you can take away from him.”
Wood struck out 13 in seven innings in his next outing, setting a major league record for strikeouts in back-to-back games. Clemens and Nolan Ryan, whose No. 34 Wood wore on his back, are fellow Texans and the pitchers who most inspired the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Wood, who is from Irving, Texas.
Wood finished the 1998 season ranked third in the NL in strikeouts and won the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He missed the final month with a sore right elbow, then had reconstructive elbow surgery the next April, starting a run of arm and shoulder problems that undercut his career. He missed the entire 1999 season.
He had three double-figure victory seasons from 2001-03, and in 2003 he helped the Cubs reach Game 7 of the NLCS, where he was the losing pitcher despite hitting a home run against the Florida Marlins.
Shoulder problems nearly ended his career, but he made a stirring comeback and a successful transition to the bullpen, emerging as the Cubs’ closer in 2008 and converting 34 of 40 save opportunities.
”The shoulder was a lot tougher in the end there, in `05 and `06, was the toughest thing to come back from,” Wood recalled. ”But you come back from it because you love the game of baseball and you love competing. You love being in that clubhouse with 24 other guys.”
Steve Stone, the Cy Young winner who has been a broadcaster for both the Cubs and White Sox, said Wood threw across his body and that put undue stress on his arm.
”He came up with as good of stuff as anyone who ever came into this league. You talk about (Stephen) Strasburg and the impact (Doc) Gooden had, the reality is Kerry’s stuff was better than both of those guys,” Stone said.
”Kerry had the 100 mph fastball. He had an unhittable curveball. He had an unhittable slider. And that day in his fifth major league start he got them all over the plate. He didn’t walk anybody. It was absolutely phenomenal,” Stone said. ”I think the hopes and prayers of the Cubs fans, seeing that, said, `this is a guy that’s going to rival Ferguson Jenkins.’… But it was a fatal flaw in his delivery that was his undoing.”
Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija said Wood’s influence was heavy on him as he grew up in Indiana.
”I remember being a kid and my dad reading an article about Kerry working out in the pool and that’s why he threw 98. So my dad, the next day, has me in the pool kicking floaties around,” Samardzija said. ”For a kid growing up in the Midwest, that’s what Kerry was to us kids.
"When we were coming up, that’s the dude you wanted to be. That’s how you wanted to throw.”