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The Times
  • Amy Gehrt: Kerry Wood leaves Cubs fans with striking memories


  • The atmosphere is always electric in Chicago during the Crosstown Classic, but the first 2012 match-up between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox brought an extra emotional element to Wrigley Field: the final appearance of pitcher Kerry Wood.



     

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  • The atmosphere is always electric in Chicago during the Crosstown Classic, but the first 2012 match-up between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox brought an extra emotional element to Wrigley Field: the final appearance of pitcher Kerry Wood.

    Fourteen years after the hard-throwing right-hander first donned a Cubs uniform, the familiar form of No. 34 strode out to the mound for the final time — at the age of 34, as fate would have it. 

    The fresh-faced phenom who began his major league career by fanning the first batter he faced — former Cub Mark Grudzielanek, who was playing for the Montreal Expos at the time — ended it with one last strikeout, this time against White Sox left fielder Dayan Viciedo.

    It was a fitting end for Kid K, who earned the nickname by striking out 20 during a one-hit, 2-0 victory over the Houston Astros on May 6, 1998 — tying the MLB record set by fellow Texan Roger Clemens. Even more impressive, it was just the fifth start for the 20-year-old rookie.

    Since then, a flag commemorating that feat had flown over the Friendly Confines, but that flag came down Saturday and was presented to Woody by Cubs owner Laura Ricketts during a press conference to officially announce his retirement. He was also given a framed photo of himself hugging his son Justin as he left the field Friday to a emotional standing ovation from fans and the congratulations of teammates. 

    It was a moving moment for Wood and his family, to be sure, but I know I wasn’t the only fan struck by the poignancy of watching Woody walk off one last time. There’s no doubt his numbers were impressive. In 446 major league appearances, he had a 3.67 ERA and 1,582 strikeouts — averaging 10.32 strikeouts per nine innings, the second-highest tally of any MLB pitcher in history (only Randy Johnson, with 10.61 strikes, is higher) with more than 1,000 innings pitched. 

    He was the 1998 National League Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star (selected as both a starting pitcher and a reliever), and ranks third among Cub strikeout leaders — behind Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins and Carlos Zambrano. 

    The injury-plagued pitcher, who had Tommy John surgery in 1999 and later struggled with shoulder problems, could likely have done even more had he remained healthy. 

    “He came up with as good of stuff as anyone who ever came into this league,” noted Cy Young winner Steve Stone, who was in the Cubs’ broadcasting booth for much of Wood’s career with the Cubs. “You talk about (Stephen) Strasburg and the impact (Doc) Gooden had, the reality is Kerry’s stuff was better than both of those guys.”
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    “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.”

    Yet even though Wood’s body may have kept him from achieving all that his natural ability made him capable of, that knowledge does nothing to lessen the impact he had on his beloved team and its fans. If anything, his courage in the face of his struggles, and the unwavering loyalty he showed to the North Siders, made him all the more adored.

    Like millions of Cubs faithful, I will never forget the many memories I have because of Kid K — most notably, that historic 20-strikeout game in ’98, and the heavy contributions he made to playoff runs in 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2008. Nor will the class and loyalty he showed by giving us numerous “hometown discounts” to stay in Chicago be written off now that his Cubs career as a player is at an official end. 

    Even his decision to retire came about with the Cubs’ best interests at heart. “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,” Wood said.

    “Mentally and physically we get to this point. 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.”

    It may indeed have been the right time to retire, but as Wood himself says, he’ll “always be a Cub” — and for that, Cubs fans will be eternally grateful.

    Amy Gehrt may be reached at agehrt@pekintimes.com.
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