|Looks a lot like an 'M', or if you prefer, an inverted 'W'|
Kerry Wood is still a Chicago Cub, signing a one-year deal for $3 million to set-up cardiac closer extraordinaire Carlos Marmol. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I was thrilled when Wood signed with the Cubs prior to the 2011 season, coming off his brilliant flash of dominance with the Yankees, and even more so upon learning the sentimental details of his contract negotiations with then GM Jim Hendry following Ron Santo's funeral. Wood took a discount to come back home to Chicago. Such a mutual display of loyalty between player and management has always been rare and is almost unheard of in modern baseball business. But coming into this offseason, I've had a difficult time shifting my weight on either side of apathy.
I am 100% behind Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's drastic rebuild of the organization. The last thing either one needs to do is let sentiment or the past cloud the difficult and bridge-burning path to consistent competitiveness. Jim Hendry slipped into Brian Cashman/Yankee dreamland for several years and could never quite wake-up. Perhaps Alfonso Soriano kept him plunging into the nightmare. But Epstein/Hoyer are doing the hard, thankless work of dismantling all the promise of the past (thankless, at least in the short-term). They let Aramis Ramirez go, a very good player and favorite of nearly every Cub fan. They paid $15 million to remove the comic frustration that was Carlos Zambrano. And I thought for sure Kerry Wood would be the final link to that 2003 team of fantasy what-ifs* to be let go. And I was okay with that. For many reasons.
*Cubs fans can't help but bemoan the injuries to Wood and Mark Prior. What if they had stayed healthy, having all three young phenoms (Wood, Prior, Zambrano) come of age at the same time with the underrated Matt Clement and the sage Greg Maddux to pull up the rear. "Oh, Boy!" as Dr. Sam Beckett would yelp.*
All numbers and productivity aside, Kerry Wood is a walking talking reminder of all that was, and could've been the Chicago Cubs after the 2003 season, and everything that went wrong instead. Cubs fans will always be bitter about those years, those injuries, those signings, those failures to live up to projections. I imagine they will continue to be bitter even after the Cubs win the World Series. And the Cubs will win the World Series, eventually. But by the time the Cubs are in a position to even come close to that glory, Kerry Wood will be gone anyway, and I am one of the many that is very happy that Epstein/Hoyer deviated from their course to bring him back for one more year. Though never one of my favorite players (I have a hard time with players that fail to live up to their promise for any reason, injuries resulting from bad mechanics being one of the most frustrating), Kerry Wood holds a special place in my baseball heart, as he was instrumental in bringing me back to the game.
I was raised on baseball by a father who loved the game and took great pleasure in teaching it and by a mother who was all too happy to abide the countless hours spent at the ballpark, in the cages, and the constant thuds of a tennis ball hitting the side of the house each day after school. I ate it up, both playing the game and following it obsessively. I won many a bag of Cheetos sitting next to my father at a bar (a child could do this back then) and fielding questions from the patrons. They were impressed, but not so much when I predicted that Barry Bonds would break the home run record back in 1993. The man I said this to laughed and bought me a Sprite. But then, after reacting poorly to one of those things that happens in life, I turned my back to the game. By the 1998* season, I was hardly paying any attention at all. I didn't see Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout game that year, wasn't really all that aware of him during his Rookie of the Year campaign, or for the several years after that. I should have, would have under different circumstances, been completely enthralled by the fire-balling youngster, but things don't always go the way they should (ie. Cubs history 2004-2008). I indulged in unsavory, selfish adolescent assholery for about five years, finally being shaken from my haze in April 2003.
*In the 2003 playoffs, I became aware of Pedro Martinez. I have since retroactively become a Pedro fanatic. It is one of the great regrets of my life that my self-imposed exile from the game coincided with the rise of Pedro Martinez. He was one of those players that future generations will wax poetic about, wish upon a star that they could have seen in his prime. I was of age to appreciate the flaming comet of greatness that was Pedro Martinez, and I wasn't watching. Oh, the regrets that we make. I did, however, watch every inning of the 2001 World Series, in part because of the 9/11 effect, but mostly to see my favorite ballplayer of all time, Mark Grace, play in the World Series. I have the wonderful real-time memory of seeing him perform at a high level on the biggest stage and even get the base hit off the un-hittable Mariano Rivera that represented the tying run in the bottom of the 9th of game 7. So at least I didn't miss everything.*
It seemed just a random college weekend of screwing around that sent a few of us up to Chicago from our southern Ohio school. It happened to be April and baseball had started up, but my mind was on other things. A friend of a friend went to school in Chicago, I had never been, so what the hell. The Cubs weren't even on my radar. Going to the ballgame that Saturday, April 12 was suggested by said friend of a friend. "Oh yeah?," I replied. I had dreamed of going to Wrigley Field since age five, racing home from school to catch the 2:20 ET start and hear Harry Caray say those magical words (every word he said was perfect). "Do you think we can get tickets," I asked. I was already getting excited; little did I know at the time, but it was all coming back to me. He looked at me as if I were a damn foolboy. "Of course we can get tickets! We'll get 'em at the gate. It's the Cubs for chrissakes!" Things, of course, change quick.
So that Saturday afternoon we arrived at Wrigley Field, punch-drunk from the Old Style we drank until the early hours of the morning, and sad say, began drinking again in the late hours of that same morning. And upon entering the ballpark, all those wonderful romantic sentiments that one's literary mind may conjure did in fact overwhelm me. It was freezing cold, and my stubborn foolishness saw me wearing but a thin jacket. But the weather was perfect. The ivy was dead. But it was beautiful. It was Wrigley Field. No television and nothing but a ballgame. The Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates that day, the day I fell back in love with baseball. And Kerry Wood had the ball.
The Cubs won that game, 4-0, behind an eight inning effort from Wood, in which he struck out 13, walked 4, and gave up only 3 hits. A vintage Wood performance, where his lack of consistent command worked as an asset. The Pirates looked lost from the start and never found their footing. And I soaked up every minute of it. I watched and read everything from that point on. I was back in, and what a splendid year to come back to the Cubs. Kerry Wood led the way, setting the tempo for Prior and Zambrano as the Cubs made their unlikely push to the pennant. Wood kicked off that season for me, and he carried it to the end. He had the best season of his career in 2003, pitching over 200 innings for only the second time in his career (2002 being the only other season in which his arm held up), leading the league in Ks, H/9, K/9, and even HBP. He was damn scary up there because if he didn't strike you out, he may well pull a Carl Mays.
Mark Prior may have had the better year, but Wood felt like the ace. You loved it when he had the ball. And when he took it for Game 1 of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, I actually felt good about beating them. And when he took the ball for Game 5, I knew we would beat them. Which is an unusual feeling for a Cubs fan, especially one that grew up in Atlanta from 1990-2002. And he did. Wood dominated that series, winning both starts while striking out 18 along the way. And it never seemed in doubt. That series was it for me; the Cubs had never won a playoff series during my fanship. And they were swept by the Braves in 1998*. What happened against the Marlins hurt, but that season was already made for me with or without the pennant.
*I did watch this playoff series, even attending a game. A few in Atlanta may try to argue it is good sports town, but their fans took the Braves for granted. Perhaps all that success gets boring, but I find it pathetic that we were able to buy playoff tickets at the gate minutes before first pitch.*
Timing and circumstance certainly played a large role in my re-entry into baseball, as it does in many aspects of life. I just happened to agree to attend a college only four hours from Chicago. The Cubs happened to be in town the weekend I was there. And the Cubs happened to be pretty good that year. Kerry Wood happened to be pitching that day, and it was beautiful watching him work. Wood helped me remember some of what is great about baseball. How to work and learn and hope. Baseball is hard work, it is fun, and it requires unabashed optimism of hope. Timing and Place are what lifted the veil clouding my vision, that evil veil of youthful arrogance and ego, of wanting to shed and displace much of what one grew up loving. Wrigley Field and a better outlook, yes, that's what really did it. But Kerry Wood dominating in a Chicago Cubs victory helped me find the way back home.