The news that Kerry Wood is retiring from baseball today comes as quite a shock. He’s been a part of my Cubs’ experience for so many years that it will be hard to imagine not seeing his familiar number 34 in the dugout. Life goes on, of course, but it’s still a startling turn of events.
I’ve been hard on Kerry Wood in this space, as recently as a week ago. It wasn’t because I’m not attached to him on an emotional level, because clearly I am. It was because I saw his performance out of the bullpen as weighing the team down. He apparently saw that too, or else he’s still be out there, regardless of the results we’ve been seeing lately. I applaud him for hanging them up, and giving the team a chance to fill his roster spot this season. That’s certainly more selfless than I would have been.
Much will be made of his 20 strikeout game back in 1998, and rightfully so. The only hit he gave up that day was a judgment call by the official scorer in the third inning, and one that went against the rookie in favor of veteran Ricky Gutierrez. That was it. He walked no one, hit Craig Biggio in the sixth inning (who, incidentally, is second on the all-time list in that category), and shut down the Astros like nobody ever has before, or likely ever will again. Derek Bell, who suffered stikeout number 20 to end the game, is quoted as saying to Mark Grace “This is unfair” between innings of that game.
I remember listening to a recap of the game on my way home from my teaching job that day. Teaching seems like a lifetime ago to me now, and yet that’s what I was doing on that day. Just before the final strikeout was recorded, Cubs radio announcer Pat Hughes commented that it felt like a World Series game at Wrigley Field. The late Ron Santo’s reply was a memorable one: “If he keeps pitching like this, there’s gonna be a World Series here.”
Of course, he didn’t keep pitching like that. He missed most of 1998 with an injury, which became a recurring theme throughout his career. His first game back from that injury, he hit a home run and the cheers were so loud at Wrigley Field that I could hear them from my back porch, which literally was a mile away from the park. Woody had returned in a big way, and the fans loved it.
I have no doubt that Harry Caray would have loved Kerry Wood. Sadly, Harry passed away just a few weeks before Wood made his debut. But over the years, he brought Cubs fans like me a lot of happiness, and for that he will always be fondly remembered. Godspeed to you, Kerry Wood.