Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Chicago Bred Indians Closer : Why I Miss Kerry Wood

The Chicago Cubs pitching and catching staff, and the rest of Major League Baseball's specialized staffs, reports to Mesa, Az. (and Florida for everyone else) today to open the spring training season. The biggest difference from this season and last season is that Kerry Wood no longer sports the royal blue and white pin stripe number 34. He's a Cleveland Indian.

Let us flashback to 1998 and remember what made this Rookie of the Year a Chicago sports superstar. The man threw 20 strikeouts during his fifth career start on May 6, 1998. That game was a one-hit, no walk, 20 strikeout shutout against the Houston Astros, that tied Roger Clemens' record for strikeouts in a 9-inning game and breaking Bill Gullickson's single-game rookie record of 18 strikeouts in 1980.

Wood was the fourth overall selection in the 1995 Amateur Draft and spent three years playing in the Minor Leagues before his Major League debut.

I wont lie. I miss Kerry Wood.

The 2003 season broke my heart. Millions of Cubs fans watched as their beloved team went from five outs until the World Series to the Florida Marlins taking it all away. That was also the year Dusty Baker used and unintentionally abused the two aces of the Cubs pitching staff -- Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Both of which won positions as pitchers on the 2003 All-Star team.

Various shoulder surgeries put Wood out of a dominant and result producing starting position between the 2004 and 2006 seasons before coming into his own as a "force to be reckoned with" closer for the Cubs, but 2005 started the transition.

I witnessed Wood's first relief appearance under unique circumstances. It was my last night in Chicago before leaving for college the next day. It was a night game. The lights of Wrigley field were that of a sanctuary, illuminating the field on that warm, non-windy Chicago evening. It was August 2005 -- and I had first row seats behind home plate.

kerry wood on the mound Kerry Wood, August 2005. Photo By R.H. Levitin

My dad took me to that game as a final, "Goodbye, You're going to college now so Cubs games in Washington, D.C. may or may not be a scarce entity to experience." And -- that it was.

Wood shot the ball over 94 mph at a time -- every time -- for the three batters he faced on the Cincinnati Reds. He even whizzed the ball by Griffey, Jr. I had never seen anything like it.

Even if the Cubs lost (I blame the loss on the Cubs' starting pitcher of the day, Jerome Williams, he choked. It was embarrassing.), it was a good day for me.

First row behind home plate at Wrigley Field to see a Chicago Cubs night game with your dad the night before you leave for college? What could be more memorable ...than a Cubs World Series victory? Nothing.

A few less than memorable players left the Cubs this season though. Mark DeRosa and Henry Blanco are playing elsewhere -- but that's okay. The Cubs will be fine. They just have to focus on cultivating the youthful talent, ensure the veterans stay healthy and happy, and -- most of all -- they need to have fun. Because after all, that's what baseball's all about.


All photos in this post are compliments of R.H.Levitin's baseball photo collection.

No comments: