Friday, May 18, 2012

We Got Wood

Today saw the last appearance for Chicago Cubs pitcher, Kerry Wood.  Kerry announced Friday afternoon that he'd be retiring after the game today between his Cubs & their crosstown-rival Chicago White Sox.  The White Sox beat the Cubs in Wrigley Field, but the lasting memory will be that of Wood's final appearance on the baseball field.  Wood was summoned to the mound to face Dayan Viciedo.  Wood, who has been struggling mightily this season, channeled his inner 20 year old rookie self & promptly struck out Viciedo on 3 pitches, the final one being a nasty curve that scewed Viciedo into the dirt.  After the strikeout, the Cubs made a pitching change & Wrigley Field created a moment that will live on forever.  Wood began shaking hands with his teammates around him & turned around as he made his way to the dugout.  The Wrigley faithful, both the Cubs & White Sox fans, stood up and gave the man the standing ovation he deserved.  Kerry gave the fans, the very same fans he has pitched in front for 12 of his 14 year career, a tip of the hat.  Kerry's young son emerged from the dugout & gave his dad a hug in front of everyone as Kerry lifted him up, smiling.  He disappeared into the dugout, but the cheering didn't stop.  Kerry was given one last curtain call as he once again emerged from the dugout & offered a 2nd tip of the hat to the fans who loved him so much.  It was one of the greatest moments I have ever seen in Wrigley Field.  Well deserved for Kerry.

1998 saw the debut of Kerry Wood & boy did he ever impress.  In just his 5th career start at the tender age of 20, Kerry Wood pitched a complete game 1 hit shutout & garnered a record tying 20 strikeouts.  It remains as the greatest pitching performance I have ever seen.  To this day, I have never seen a pitcher with such nasty & unhittable stuff.  I remember watching the game with my dad & he turned to my 7 year old self & told me that I should appreciate what I was watching, because I won't ever see a pitching performance like this again.  He was 100% right.  Years later the game was aired again on Comcast Sportsnet here in Chicago & I recorded it on our TiVo.  I can't tell you how many times I have watched that game in my life, but it never gets old.  The complete & utter domination of Kerry is & forever will be astounding to me.  Here's a video of all 20 strikeouts Kerry had in the game...
Kerry went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award as he helped lead the Cubs to the playoffs in 1998.  Unfortunately, Kerry would have to deal with a plethora of injuries in his career, including Tommy John surgery in 1999.  He wouldn't return to form until 2001 & 2002 where he was able to remain healthy.  In 2002, I won a Walgreen's Celebrity Bat Kid contest, meaning that I was allowed to go into the Cubs dugout during batting practice & meet the players & get autographs.  Most of the players stopped to sign my baseball, gave me a pat on the back & a hello, it was awesome.  Kerry, however, was a bit different.  He stopped, signed my ball & sat next to me on the dugout bench.  He asked me how I was doing & who my favorite player was.  I told him he was my favorite player & he laughed saying "No way, you like me better than Sammy Sosa?"  I nodded & smiled telling him that he had been my favorite ever since I watched his 20 strikeout game.  He smiled, gave me a pat on the head & said thanks.  He told me he was having more fun talking to me than he would be having to shag fly balls in the outfield & told me thanks for letting him talk to me.  I was in awe of this larger than life sports star telling ME thank you for talking to him.  He got up & gave me a high five & gave me one of the most memorable moments of my life.  

2003 he was selected to his first career all-star game & helped lead the Cubs to a division title & a deep run in the playoffs.  I remember in 2003, I went to the Cubs/New York Yankees game with my dad & got to see the much anticipated matchup of Wood vs. Roger Clemens.  The Cubs came out on top that game, one of the greatest games I have ever seen, & Kerry got the win.  That was also the game that my dad bought me a grey "We Got Wood" hoody that I still have in my room today.  The injuries came back to bite Wood as he struggled to remain healthy during the 2004-06 seasons.

Wood realized that he no longer had the arm capable of handling a 200+ inning workload of a starting pitcher, so he accepted a new role as a Cubs reliever.  Kerry missed most of the 2007 season & contemplated retirement, but he returned in 2008.  Wood had received much larger contract offers from other teams, but decided to return to the Cubs for a much smaller deal.  Wood rewarded the Cubs for their loyalty by becoming a very good closer, saving 34 games & earning his 2nd all-star selection, helping to lead the Cubs to a division title.  After the 2008 season, Wood stated that he wished to stay with the Cubs, but they couldn't afford him.  Wood signed a 2 year deal with the Cleveland Indians.  He made his return to Wrigley Field as an Indian in July of that year & received a standing ovation from the Wrigley faithful.  In 2010, Wood was traded from the Indians to the New York Yankees where he flourished in the bullpen as Mariano Rivera's set-up man.  Wood became a free-agent & once again returned to the Cubs for the 2011 season, signing a 1 year deal, once again turning down larger offers from other teams to return to the Cubs.  Kerry finished his playing career as a Cub & it could not have ended any other way.

The man was fiercely loyal to the Cubs & the fans will always adore him for it.  He fought through injuries to play for the Cubs & accepted limited roles for the sake of the team.  He is exactly how every single pro athlete should strive to act & will be a beloved member of the Chicago Cubs family forever.

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