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posted: 5/18/2012 7:31 PM

This time, Cubs' Kerry Wood found perfection

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  • Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood gets a hug from his son, Justin, after Wood struck out White Sox hitter Dayan Viciedo in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on Friday, May 18, 2012.

      Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood gets a hug from his son, Justin, after Wood struck out White Sox hitter Dayan Viciedo in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on Friday, May 18, 2012.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Kerry Wood gets a hug from his son, Justin, after Wood retired White Sox hitter Dayan Viciedo by striking him out in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on Friday, May 18, 2012.

      Kerry Wood gets a hug from his son, Justin, after Wood retired White Sox hitter Dayan Viciedo by striking him out in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on Friday, May 18, 2012.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • The Cubs' Kerry Wood gets a hug from his son, Justin, after Wood stuck out Dayan Viciedo of the White Sox in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on Friday. Wood left the mound to a standing ovation and strode into retirement.

      The Cubs' Kerry Wood gets a hug from his son, Justin, after Wood stuck out Dayan Viciedo of the White Sox in the eighth inning at Wrigley Field on Friday. Wood left the mound to a standing ovation and strode into retirement.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
 

At 10:03 a.m. Friday, Kerry Wood skipped up the dugout stairs and stepped out onto Wrigley Field.

Accompanied by his 6-year-old son, Justin, they went to stretch with the pitchers in the outfield and shag flies during batting practice.

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Father and son spent just under 100 minutes together amid the green grass and ivy, under a glorious sun on a picture-perfect day at Wrigley Field, the elder Wood drinking in every last minute of a scene that will never play again.

He stared at his son, held hands with him and hugged the boy, often draped all over him, knowing this pregame, on-field ritual -- while still a major-league player -- is now only a memory.

And that was how Kerry Wood's final day in the big leagues began. It ended 5 hours later with majesty and respect, a fitting and proper tribute to a grown man often referred to while a teen as "the next Nolan Ryan."

That he never reached such lofty heights is not important today. His career was what it was, a superstar when healthy and an enigma when injured.

But hanging on at age 34 was hardly befitting a player held in such high esteem, and by doing the proper thing Friday he righted many wrongs of the last year.

"It was time," Wood said after the Cubs lost to the White Sox. "You saw how things were going. I couldn't bounce back. I couldn't recover. I couldn't do my job. It was time."

There is almost nothing as unbecoming in sports as an athlete completely lacking self-awareness, especially at the end of a quality career.

And there are few moments as satisfying as an aging athlete deciding discretion is the better part of valor, that calling it quits shows more bravery than trying to suspend time when the clock has run out.

In matter of a few hours, Kerry Wood went from one to the other and came out the other side Friday having recaptured the hearts of Cubs fans who were sorry to see him failing on a major-league mound.

Now that he has done the right thing, they are genuinely sorry to see him go and can remember with fondness the greatness they once saw in a young Texas stud.

No longer are they disturbed by the sight of him, last year wondering why he wouldn't rather be somewhere winning, and this year wondering why he was pitching.

"I was putting Dale (Sveum) in a bad situation," Wood said. "I was making it difficult for the other guys in the pen. It was unfair."

And just like that, the boos of yesterday were replaced by pregame shouts of, "We love you Woody," and a standing ovation when he entered the game -- worthy of a retiring Hall of Famer.

Wood falls short of such designations, but debating his relative successes and failures can be reserved for another day. On this one, Wood's triumphs can be remembered with fondness, and his decision to retire applauded with passion.

"You have admire him," said Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney. "I have so much respect for him."

It's hard to believe it's already 14 years ago that in his fifth career start as a 20-year-old, Wood pitched the game of his life, a game many consider as good as any ever thrown in baseball history.

On May 6, 1998, Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros, walked none and allowed only an infield single off the glove of third baseman Kevin Orie. He was an inch away from what would have to be considered the most perfect of all perfect games.

I was supposed to write a column that night from a Bulls playoff game. I showed up at Wrigley in about the second inning -- planned as a brief stopover -- and never left, writing instead about the greatest game ever thrown at Wrigley Field.

Not many stories could have moved Michael Jordan from the top of the sports page, but Kerry Wood did it that day.

"I've seen perfect games. I've seen no-hitters. I've seen some great pitchers throw great games," Jake Peavy said Friday morning. "But I believe, with all due respect, that Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game was the best game ever pitched.

"Completely dominated a big-league lineup filled with all-stars and future Hall of Famers. Dominated."

The adrenaline he felt that day was with Wood when he arose to warm up in the pen at 3:17 p.m. Friday.

"It was exactly the same," Wood said. "It was like my first inning ever."

With Sveum having been tossed earlier, bench coach Jamie Quirk went to the mound and motioned for Wood. The big right-hander shook hands with bullpen coach Lester Strode, gathered himself and jogged toward the mound to a thunderous ovation.

The infielders occupied the mound, greeted Wood, stepped back and home plate umpire Tim Timmons had a private word with Wood.

Third baseman Ian Stewart and Barney stood just five feet away and watched him toss his warm-up pitches.

"I wanted to soak it all in. I didn't want to miss anything," Barney said. "I was witnessing a piece of baseball history and I felt lucky to be here, and even luckier to be on the field."

It was an important situation -- one in which Wood has not fared well this season -- with the Cubs down a run, a man on and one out in the eighth.

He went right at Dayan Viciedo with a 95-mph fastball. Viciedo swung and missed for strike one, and bounced a breaking ball foul near third for strike two. And in the final pitch of his career, Wood threw a nasty, 77-mph curve and Viciedo waved and missed for strike three.

A perfect ending. Kid K's career was over.

"I'm glad (Quirk) came to get me because I don't know how I could have got the next guy," Wood said. "Normally, you don't bring in a lefty (James Russell) to face a righty (Alex Rios), but I'm glad he did."

Wood got the ball from catcher Welington Castillo, hugged all his teammates on the mound, tipped his cap to longtime foe Adam Dunn standing on first, and walked off the field to an ovation reserved for only the most beloved Cubs.

As he got near the dugout, Justin came running out to hug him. Wood grabbed his son, who buried his face in his dad's arms, and carried him off the field.

"I couldn't say anything to the guys for five minutes after that," Wood said. "It was great to be with him all day. The day was all about him."

Wood took a curtain call, tapping his heart to Cubs fans, and walked off into the sunset.

Under the circumstances, it's hard to imagine -- even for the most cynical among us -- a more wonderful way for any player to retire.

"I had a blast," Wood said. "I wouldn't change anything."

Before he arrived in Chicago, I predicted multiple no-hitters and Cy Youngs for Kerry Wood. He nearly had one but never sniffed the other. He did win a Rookie of the Year award, won two playoff games against Atlanta in 2003, and finished with the second-best, strikeouts-per-9-innings ratio (10.32) in baseball history, behind only Randy Johnson.

"I'll miss being around the guys. I'll miss the competition. I'll remember the great times," Wood said. "I've spent half my life in this organization, in this ballpark with these fans. I've been very lucky."

There have been times when you wondered why Kerry Wood was here, or what was on his mind, or why he made the decisions he made. That can all be forgotten and forgiven now.

Today is a day to remember that Kerry Wood was -- at his best -- as good as anyone who ever pitched on a big-league field, in the history of Major League Baseball.

It's no small statement to make.

But it's also the truth.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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