Kerry Wood: Life Changer

KERRY WOOD:
LIFE CHANGER

A year after his retirement from the game and with his foundation’s upcoming inaugural celebrity Wiffle Ball tournament at Wrigley Field, Cubs legend Kerry Wood is making his next pitch to make a difference in the lives of Chicago's troubled youth

August 8, 2013, 2:00 pm
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"We're focused on helping kids ... this has become a passion in my life. Hopefully, we can inspire other people and other foundations and organizations to go out ... to take that leap of faith and help people." -- Kerry Wood

The state of Texas has shelled out its share of some the greatest athletes the world has ever known. Nolan Ryan, Shaquille O'Neal, Eric Dickerson, A.J. Foyt, Willie Shoemaker and even "Stone Cold" Steve Austin are just a part of that massive list.

But it was in the 1990s, that a 6-foot-5 high school pitching phenom from Irving (Grand Prairie H.S.) came blazing out of that always-competitive Texas sports spotlight to become the fourth-overall selection in the 1995 First-Year Player Draft.

His stuff was good. Real good.

The world of baseball knew it. The Chicago Cubs certainly knew it when they drafted him as their first-overall selection in '95. His three years in the minors were solid, including a stellar 10-2 record with the Daytona Cubs in 1996 with an impressive 2.91 ERA to go with 136 strikeouts. That minor league prep only honed this right-handed fireballer's skills to a greater level, a major league-ready level.

Former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who now works for the New York Yankees as special assistant to GM Brian Cashman, saw something very special in Wood early on.

"My first year with the Cubs was Kerry's first year when I was the farm director in charge of the minor leagues, so I was his immediate boss once he signed with us," said Hendry. "I remember taking him to dinner the first night after he signed and we had dinner together with his father at Harry Caray's and you just had a sense that he was a little beyond his years. He was one of those high school kids who was ready for pro ball and not all or many of them are at that point. He was definitely on a fast-track rise to the big leagues."In 1998, Kerry Wood's moment in the big league spotlight had not only arrived, it was about to shock the entire country.

On May 6, 1998 -- in just the fifth start of his MLB career -- this 20-year-old kid from Texas would not only dominate that game, he orchestrated what many baseball experts have called one of the most dominating pitching performances in MLB history.

His performance in that game was one for the ages. He was nearly flawless allowing just one hit, no walks and, of course, an MLB record-tying 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game. After that dominating performance, "Kid K" had officially arrived and a turnaround was beginning to take shape on the North Side of Chicago.

He was one of those high school kids who was ready for pro ball and not all or many of them are at that point. He was definitely on a fast-track rise to the big leagues.
Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry, who was the team's farm director in 1995, on his first meeting with Kerry Wood

After a horrific 68-94 National League Central last-place finish in 1997, the Cubs rebounded big time in that 1998 season with a 90-73 record, making the playoffs for the first time in nine years when they defeated the San Francisco Giants in a one-game, wild card tie-breaker at Wrigley Field.

Even though he didn't play the entire month of September that season due to a sore elbow, Wood was able to start Game 3 of the NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. He pitched well allowing only one run over five innings, but the Cubs eventually lost the game and were swept in the series.

Wood went on to easily win the NL Rookie of the Year award sporting a 13-6 record and a 3.40 ERA to go along with a whopping 233 strikeouts, which was third overall in the National League behind veterans Curt Schilling (Phillies) and Kevin Brown (Padres). Also that year, Wood led all NL pitchers in two key categories: hits allowed per nine innings (6.3) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.6).

However, much to the dismay of Cubs fans throughout the nation and to the sport itself, the late-season elbow issues Wood experienced in '98 would prove to be a significant setback for both him and the team the next season.

In his 1999 spring training debut against the then Anaheim Angels, in which he just threw 10 of 26 pitches for strikes, Wood had damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, forcing the inevitable Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery. He would miss the entire year and the Cubs went back to the NL Central cellar once again with a 67-95 record.

Through perseverance, dedication and a painful process to get back to form, Wood eventually recuperated and returned to the Cubs in 2000.

As the years went on, the future continued getting brighter for Wood. He was a two-time NL All-Star (2003 & 2008), an NL strikeout champion (2003), plus he earned the distinction of being the fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 strikeouts in both appearances (134 games) and innings pitched (853). But, as the years went on, Wood was eventually plagued by a shoulder injury that he would fight through during the last six years of his career. Sure, he could have given up, but Wood had a driving force inside him that made him want to continue battling.

Following stints with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees from 2009-10, Wood returned to the Cubs as an effective veteran leader both in the bullpen and in the clubhouse. On May 18, 2012 -- 14 years after Wood rocked the baseball world with his 20-K performance -- the Cubs faced their crosstown rival White Sox in an interleague battle at Wrigley Field. On that perfect sunny spring day in Chicago, fans from both sides of town would be saying a collective farewell to one of its most respected sports heroes.

"I knew going into that day that it was going to be my last game," said Wood. "I played the previous five to six years thinking that every game could be my last game with what I had going on with my shoulder. I felt fortunate I was prepared when that day would come. The decision was fairly easy for me. I knew physically I wasn't going to make it through the season healthy and didn't want to end my career on the DL. I felt like I had an opportunity to be with an organization that I respected very much and who also respected me, so I was able to talk to the front office a couple weeks before that day and give them a heads up that this is where I was at and this is what I was thinking. The Cubs were great about it.

"I talked to [Cubs manager] Dale [Sveum] about three weeks before that day and he talked me out of doing it three weeks earlier than I did, so we held on a little bit longer ... but I wasn't recovering even after a 10- or 12-pitch outing the next day and that really ties the manager's hands. I didn't want to do that to the organization. I didn't want to do that to Dale being a new manager in Chicago. I didn't want to be the guy that he felt he had to give extra days off. Plus, the other guys in the 'pen were eating up innings they shouldn't be eating up. I felt from a player's standpoint, that wasn't fair to my teammates in the bullpen and it wasn't fair to my manager to put him in that situation."

Todd Hollandsworth, who was the 1996 NL Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Dodgers and is currently a Cubs studio analyst with Comcast SportsNet Chicago, can empathize with what it's like when it's time to say goodbye.

"As a player, you reach a point in your career where the butterflies go away and that's really what defined it for me. I knew in my 12th year, in my final at-bat, I was in a position that the butterflies had left and that is what always motivated me," said Hollandsworth. "For Kerry in that situation and being in that final moment and for what he meant to the Cubs all those years, I think with so much of what he dealt with -- the success, the failures, the injuries, the impact that it has on your family at that time, the goals you set for yourself -- those are all things that come with the territory for any big league player. I think for Kerry, he was very much at peace with the decision that he made. Not that family isn't equally as important, but everyone who knows the life of a ballplayer is that your family does takes a back seat to your career and that's really what ends up happening."

Fittingly, Wood's final professional game at a packed Wrigley Field was, as it was 14 years earlier on May 6, flawless. He faced only one batter (White Sox left fielder Dayan Viciedo) in relief of starter Jeff Samardzija. He struck out Viciedo on three pitches. Bedlam naturally ensued at Wrigley, but Wood wasn't quite sure at that particular moment if Viciedo would be the final batter he would ever face.

"I thought I had actually had another hitter after I struck my guy out, so Jamie Quirk came out to get me since Dale was thrown out earlier in the game," said Wood.  "It was shocking because I knew it was my last outing, but I thought I was going to get another hitter so I turned around and said to myself 'that's it.' It couldn't have been written any better."

The noise level at Wrigley was deafening to say the least when Wood handed the ball to Quirk ... and "Kid K" tipped his Cubs hat to the fans for one final time. However, something unusual happened at that moment that no one expected. Wood's little son Justin came running out of the Cubs dugout and on to the field to embrace his dad.    

"I told my wife Sarah, 'Hey, if you see me get up in the bullpen, I'm not going to get up and sit down, I'm going in the game,'" said Wood.  "I told her to bring [Justin] to the clubhouse and told the guys in the clubhouse I'd like for him to be on the bench so I can sit next to him when I came off the field. The plan wasn't for Justin to run out. My teammates picked him up and put him up on top of the stairs and, once he ran out, I didn't think he realized he was in front of 40,000 people! He grabbed on to me and wouldn't let go. It was probably the top highlight of my career at Wrigley Field."

Wood also credits Justin as the driving force in the latter part of his playing career to keep battling, as much as his body would allow him to.

"My son Justin was the reason I continued to play the last five or six years with the shoulder issues," added Wood. "He was the reason I continued to rehab and go through two years of pitching on and off and feeling like I could pitch again and then couldn't use my arm again. He was my driving force for sticking with it and continuing to try to play the game."

David Kaplan, host of Comcast SportsNet's "SportsTalk Live" and a lifelong, die-hard Cubs fan/expert, recalls the first time he ever met "Kid K" and speaks for the city about why Wood made the impact that he did on Chicago for so many years.

"I was the first person to ever interview Kerry when he was drafted by the Cubs and I met him when he came to Wrigley for the very first time," said Kaplan. "He was this pudgy, 6-foot-5, 17-year-old kid who was in awe that he rode in a cab from O'Hare to the ballpark. To see him end his career that way and to see what he's become today is simply phenomenal.

"When you think back, he gets drafted in '95, comes to the team in '98, Cubs have done nothing since '89 when they won their division and they're out quickly in the playoffs and then they had some bad teams, especially in '97 when they were just awful," added Kaplan. "Now, '98 explodes on us out of nowhere and Kerry Wood strikes out 20 and quickly becomes our version of Roger Clemens at that time. Then in 2003, he's this big flame-throwing guy who's the MVP of the NLDS [2-0 record, 1.76 ERA, 18 Ks]. From Day 1, he always pitched with his heart. Kerry was and is Chicago, period. He said 'this is my new home,' he married a Chicago girl in Sarah and this is where he wants to be and our city treats him like he's lived here his whole life."

The next day at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19 -- with his family at his side -- the Cubs held a press conference during which Kerry Wood would formally announce his retirement from the game of baseball. At that very moment, Wood knew that a new chapter in his life was about to begin.

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