MESA, Ariz. -- Kerry Wood admits to loving his short time in New York, New York.
But when it comes right down to it, Chicago is his kind of town.
That, he says, is why he's a Cub again, a little older, a little wiser.
You know the story of Wood coming back. After the funeral of Cubs legend Ron Santo in December, Wood met with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. A few days later, they pleasantly surprised Chicago by announcing that Wood and the Cubs had agreed on a one-year contract worth $1.5 million, a bargain these days.
What is it about Chicago that made him want to return?
"It's everything," Wood said. "It's the city. Obviously, it's the place I worked for so long, the neighborhoods, just the people. I got drafted when I was 17, signed when I was 18, I was up there at 20, and now, I'm raising my kids in the city.
"I think it's a great city. You can't beat it, in my opinion. My wife and I talked about it. We want to spend the rest of our time up there. We plan on raising the kids up there. It's everything, minus the winters."
Wood, who turns 34 in June, was a Cubs icon from his Rookie of the Year season in 1998 through 2008. The highs during that time were dizzying: a record-setting 20-strikeout game in his fifth career start and three playoff seasons.
The lows were subterranean: elbow surgery that cost him the entire 1999 season, multiple stints on the disabled list, shoulder surgery in 2005, and a heart-wrenching defeat in Game 7 of the 2003 National League championship series in which Wood admitted to choking.
At times, Wood wearied of the media asking daily about his injuries.
Wood's first run in Chicago ended when he signed two-year deal with the Cleveland Indians to be their closer. Even though the Indians flopped, it was good for Wood to get out of Chicago and see baseball from a different perspective.
"It was," he said. "It's not always greener on the other side, but there are places that are. It was a good experience for me. It was the first time I had changed teams.
"Obviously, the first team didn't work out the way any of us had expected. For me, personally, it didn't either, and I was fortunate enough to get traded to New York last year and kind of bounce back."
The Indians traded Wood to the Yankees last July 31, and he spent the next two months setting up Mariano Rivera as the Yankees made it to the championship series before falling to Texas.
"It wasn't nearly what I thought it was," he said of New York. "I was just a small, small piece of that puzzle, a small fish in that big pond with that team. I was left alone, which was great. I flew under the radar. I did my work. I was two or three weeks into it before I even got asked a question.
"It was great for me just seeing that those guys really didn't start their season until the postseason. You could see that switch kind of flip. That was interesting to see because we were on teams (with the Cubs) in '07 and '08 where we had great teams and couldn't flip the switch."
The Cubs beat the Atlanta Braves in the 2003 division series, but they fell in heartbreaking fashion to the Florida Marlins in the championship series and didn't win a playoff game in 2007 or 2008.
"I think lack of experience," Wood said. "With those guys (on the Yankees), you've got (Derek) Jeter, you've got (Andy) Pettitte, you've got (Jorge) Posada. You've got these guys who have been doing it for years and years and years.
"It's a pretty good core group of guys to watch and follow from that standpoint. You see their intensity change the last week of the season like it's getting ready to be time."
Wood liked his time in New York, but Chicago is home.
"I enjoyed staying in New York the last couple of months but, I don't know, I thought this is where I belong," he said of the Cubs.
Things are different for Wood this time around. Except for the first day of spring training, there haven't been crowds around his locker. That's the way he likes it.
"It's great," he said. "I'm at the point in my career where I can do my job. Yeah, people are going to come to me and still ask questions. I'll still be influential in the clubhouse. I had my chance to be that guy and did it.
"I kind of enjoy my role of being down there (in the bullpen) and learning from the young kids and giving as much knowledge as I can before my time is up."
Although Wood sparred at times with the media in Chicago, he said it was only because there was nothing new to report on his various injuries on many days.
"A lot of times, when guys are going through stuff, we don't have answers for you," he said. "I went for 22 months of feeling great and feeling like (crud) every other day.
"When I was rehabbing, I'd come in and be able to throw it 200 feet on the line and two days later I wouldn't be able to throw it 40 feet. You ask me one day, and I'm like, 'I feel great. I feel like I could pitch tomorrow.' I may come out two days later, and I'm like, 'I may never pitch again.'"
Looking back, Wood says he's at peace with his career, even though he didn't end up being the Cubs' ace for the next 20 years after his rookie season as many people had hoped or predicted.
"It's never going to be what people's expectations are, especially after my fifth start," he said of his 20-strikeout game. "Look what happened there. The bar was raised quite a bit after that game. I had never struck out more than 11 or 12 in a game before that. For me, that was the best thing and the worst thing that happened.
"I'll be just shy of 14 years at the end of the season here. I got to start for a while and come back from some injuries. I got to close for a couple years. I got to set up for Mariano Rivera last year, which was pretty cool.
"So I feel like I've had a great career. It's had its ups and downs, sure. But when it's all said and done, my son can look back and say, 'You know what? He didn't quit. He didn't give up when a lot of guys could have.' So maybe that means something.
"I'm not a what-if guy. I'm not a, "I should have been this; I should have been that.' I am who I am."
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