At the age of 20, five weeks into a big-league career that never achieved its unlimited promise, Kerry Wood pitched the most comprehensively dominant game in baseball history.
With a 100 mph fastball, a knee-buckling slider and a curve that was meant to trick but served to taunt, the Cubs’ rookie reduced a lineup of professional hitters into desperate hackers.
Wood faced 29 Houston Astros on May 6, 1998, and fanned 20 of them. He struck out the side in the first inning, the fifth inning, the seventh inning and the eighth inning. The lone hit he allowed – a third-inning grounder that glanced off the glove of the third baseman – was determined to be an infield single by a scorekeeper who likely rules an error if a no-hitter is on the line late in the game.
Kerry Wood was such a force of power and deception that spring afternoon in Chicago, it seemed as if the only question about the Texan’s Hall of Fame induction would be how to confine a summation of his magic moments into an acceptance speech shorter than a president’s state-of-the-union address.
Wood retired Friday after offering Wrigley Field fans a final glimpse of what he was and what he was supposed to be: He struck out White Sox left fielder Dayan Viciedo on a three-pitch sequence that featured a vintage fastball and concluded with a swing-and-miss curve. Between the standing ovation he enjoyed from the crowd, the hug he shared with his son, and the curtain call he made out of the dugout, it was a storybook way for a pitcher to say goodbye to a sport he loved more than it loved him back.
“I had a blast,” Wood said of the 14 seasons he spent in The Show. “I wouldn’t trade it in.”
Still, to look at Wood’s lifetime numbers is to recall the old Peggy Lee song: Is That All There Is?
He finished with 11 more victories (86) than defeats (75), without ever winning as many as 15 games in a single season. The phenom who struck out 20 at the age of 20 – the only other pitcher to strike out as many batters as his age was 17-year-old Bob Feller – would go on to pitch only 10 more complete games, only four more shutouts.
Wood’s delivery – he threw with his right arm across the body – provided him with the velocity that made his breaking pitches a ridiculous mismatch, but it also proved to be his undoing. Flawed mechanics forced the 1998 National League Rookie of the Year to spend the entire 1999 season on the disabled list, recovering from Tommy John surgery.
It was a serious injury that presaged a career plagued by them.
Strains and tears and ruptures and pulls put Wood on the DL roughly once a season. Eight years removed from his arrival as “Kid K,” the natural-born starter had no choice but to reinvent himself as a reliever.
Wood was blessed with enough sheer talent to make the transition work – with the 2010 Yankees, he served as an effective set-up man for Mariano Rivera – but the steady-veteran work of holding eighth-inning leads for a premier closer mocked the potential Wood showed at the age of 20.
Yet he never appealed for sympathy. He never dwelled on his failure to answer the great expectations that invited comparisons to such fellow hard-throwing Texans as Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.
Wood had it, and lost it, and yet he always got it: He understood how privileged he was to accumulate millions of dollars throwing a baseball. He understood how a star pro athlete can assimilate himself into the community that has embraced him. He understood he wasn’t curing cancer, or finding challenging jobs for college graduates, or inventing a reasonable alternative for a gas-dependent car.
Kerry Wood was a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher in 1998, and on the day he threw his last pitch – realizing his Hall of Fame candidacy won’t survive the first round vote in 2018 – he said: “I had a blast.”
Wood’s upbeat assessment of The Career That Could Have Been should be instructive for such Mariners minor league pitchers as Taijaun Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. These Double-A prospects are elite, anticipated as cogs in a starting rotation that’ll rock Safeco Field in a year or two.
But the task of throwing 100 pitches a game – once every five days, over the course of a six-month season – is ludicrously difficult. It’s inevitable: One of the kids will sustain a major injury. Maybe two will, or all three.
If that unthinkable catastrophe stuns the Mariners, fans might want to consider the fact injuries are neither unthinkable nor a catastrophe.
“Kid K” pitched the best game a pitcher has ever pitched, five weeks into his rookie season, and he retired, 14 years later, with only 86 victories.
He also retired to a standing ovation, followed by a curtain call. The adoration of the crowd underscored a fundamental principle about baseball, which is to say, it underscored a fundamental principle about life.
It’s not about the art of throwing curveballs. It’s about the grace of dealing with email@example.com