Kerry Wood: One Game Away From Legendary

The Cubs said goodbye to Kerry Wood yesterday. A nice crowd turned out, even if many wore Cardinals red and had little or no interest honoring the most accomplished pitcher the Cubs have put on the mound since Greg Maddux.

A friend of my family has a son with a burgeoning baseball card collection, just as I did at his age. He brought two binders full of cards over to the house Sunday, and we flipped the pages as we watched the final Cubs-Cardinals tilt of the year. As the broadcast showed highlights of the pre-game ceremony honoring Wood, I turned to a Josh Beckett card, and suddenly my wistful mood went sour.

To understand why Josh Beckett rained on the Kerry Wood parade, at least for me, we need to travel back in time to 2003. Wood and Mark Prior were the Cubs’ unbeatable 1-2 punch in September, carrying the team to their first National League Central title. And Wood’s victories in Games One and Five of the NLDS against the Braves lifted the Cubs to their first postseason series win in any of our lifetimes. Almost single-handedly, the hard-throwing righty from Texas brought the Cubs to the doorstep of the World Series.

After the Cubs lost Game One of the 2003 NLCS to the Marlins, they peeled off three wins in a row, and were poised to close out the series in Miami. But Josh Beckett took over the series in Game Five. He shut down the Cubs on two hits to send the series back to Chicago, and we all know what happened in Game Six.

But there was still Game Seven left to be played, and it could have been a career-defining moment for Wood, even more so than his 20-strikeout performance against the Astros in 1998. One game, and everything might have been different—for him and us.

It started well. Wood hit a homer onto Waveland to tie the game in the second inning, and he had a 5-3 lead going into the top of the fifth.

But Wood issued a leadoff walk to the unknown Brian Banks, and another walk to Luis Castillo. The Marlins made Wood pay, and by the end of the inning the Marlins had a lead they would not relinquish, thanks to four innings of stellar relief work by…yeah, Josh Beckett. Nine years later, it still makes no sense.

When the Marlins began dismantling their team after their 2003 championship, the Cubs became the team to beat for the 2004 season. Sports Illustrated, on the cover of its 2004 Baseball Preview edition, declared that “the Cubs will win the World Series.” Remember which player graced that cover? Yes, Kerry Wood.

And Wood’s performance in 2004 was one big reason the Cubs didn’t play to expectations. He made just 26 starts that year, compiling a record of 8-9. In fact, Kerry Wood never again threw a complete game after the 2003 season. He never again hit double digits in wins for a season, either. He finished with 86 wins, 75 losses, 63 saves and a 3.67 E.R.A. through 14 injury-marred seasons.

I have a recording of the final out of Kerry Wood’s breakout performance in his rookie season. Pat Hughes pointed out, during that at-bat, that it felt like October in Wrigley Field. The fans were on their feet, hoping to see history made. The late Ron Santo then pointed out that if Wood kept this way, the Cubs would surely play in a World Series someday. Wood recorded the final strikeout, setting off a wave of exuberance in Wrigley Field and giving birth to a legend never realized.

We all get older. Our baseball cards get handed down. Young flamethrowers like Kerry Wood all retire someday. But Sunday’s ceremony, to me, didn’t seem a celebration of a long and worthy career. It seemed like a sad recognition of what might have been.

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STORY ART: Photo of Kerry courtesy Mike LaChance/cc.

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