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updated: 5/19/2012 6:42 PM

Why did Cubs fans fall in love with Wood?

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  • Charlie Wood, daughter, hugs her dad, Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, after he announced his retirement from baseball during a news conference at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012.

      Charlie Wood, daughter, hugs her dad, Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, after he announced his retirement from baseball during a news conference at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012.
    Associated Press

  • Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood is backed by teammates as he announces his retirement from baseball at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Saturday, May 19, 2012.

      Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood is backed by teammates as he announces his retirement from baseball at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Saturday, May 19, 2012.
    Associated Press

  • Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood holds the strike out flag that flew over Wrigley Field after his 20 strike out game in 1998, as he announces his retirement from baseball at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012.

      Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood holds the strike out flag that flew over Wrigley Field after his 20 strike out game in 1998, as he announces his retirement from baseball at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012.
    Associated Press

  • Katie Wood and her brother Justin hug their father, Kerry Wood, after he announced his retirement from baseball during a news conference at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012.

      Katie Wood and her brother Justin hug their father, Kerry Wood, after he announced his retirement from baseball during a news conference at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012.
    Associated Press

  • Sarah Wood kisses her husband Kerry Wood after he announced his retirement from baseball during a news conference at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012, in Chicago.

      Sarah Wood kisses her husband Kerry Wood after he announced his retirement from baseball during a news conference at Wrigley Field on Saturday, May 19, 2012, in Chicago.
    Associated Press

  • Video: Cubs on Kerry Wood retiring

 
 

It's a question I've been trying to wrap my mind around for the last day or so: Just what was it about Kerry Wood that made him so wildly popular among Cubs fans?

It's not a question asked out of disrespect, not at all.

Of the games I've covered over these many years, Wood's 20-strikeout performance in May 1998 remains my favorite.

The Cubs have had many popular players since the Ernie Banks-Billy Williams-Ron Santo days: Andre Dawson, Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe and Sammy Sosa, to name a few.

But Wood seems to have a special hold on the Wrigley faithful.

I have a theory or three, and I asked Kerry about it Saturday afternoon after he officially announced his retirement from baseball during a nice ceremony attended by his now-former Cubs teammates, the front office and the media, whom Wood did thank, by the way.

Cubs board member Laura Ricketts hosted the ceremony and presented Wood with a photo of him and his son, Justin, from Friday's on-field exit, which saw Wood strike out the only batter he faced on three pitches. My guess is only Ted Williams had a more dramatic or more fitting departure in the history of baseball, as he homered in his final at-bat for the Red Sox.

Ricketts also presented Wood with the flag commemorating the 20-strikeout game. That flag was one of the many flying atop the Wrigley Field roof on game days.

Wood finished with a record of 86-75, 63 saves and an ERA of 3.67. He had 1,582 strikeouts in 1,380 innings pitched.

Plenty of pitchers had better records with the Cubs than Wood, but none captured the imagination of the fandom he did. Here are some theories why:

• The 20 strikeout game. In the year chicks dug the longball race between Sosa and Mark McGwire, Wood still turned in the most captivating game of the season.

The poor Houston batters didn't have a chance against Wood's blazing fastball and a breaking pitch that moved like a Wiffle ball.

Wood was the classic baseball phenom. He wasn't yet legally old enough to hoist an Old Style. And he had that classic "phenom" profile: the rawboned kid from Texas who seemed in awe of the big city.

But that rawboned kid held the ball in his hand, and nothing happened until he let it go. And if you weren't careful, that ball might end up under your chin. Kerry was old-school like that.

• Wood's resilience. The career-that-could-have-been was marred by 16 trips to the disabled list. There was the Tommy John surgery in 1999, followed by shoulder problems that finally ended his career.

After each setback, Wood got up off the deck and came back for more.

I put the question to him Saturday about his own theories, and this one seemed to resonate.

"I think just being here so long," he said. "Being here so long and bouncing back from injuries. People like to see guys not quit and give up, and things work out for them, and they battle through stuff.

"I've been battling injuries since after my first year. It made me who I was. If I didn't have those injuries, I don't think I would be the person I am."

• Community involvement. Although Wood is a Texan by birth, he has become a true Chicagoan. He lives here year-round, and his family foundation does loads of work in the community.

Laura Ricketts talked of Friday's emotional moment when Wood hugged his son, a moment Wood said became the instant favorite of his own career, topping the 20-strikeout game.

"It wasn't just such a meaningful moment only because of your skill, your talent and the player that you were on the field, but also because of your character and the man that you are off the field," Ricketts said. "You are very much loved by Cubs fans everywhere. You are very much loved by your Cubs family. And you will always be a Cub."

No, there was no World Series title for Wood. There was no 20-win season. There probably wasn't a pain-free season in his career.

With that, I asked him if he'll go to bed satisfied with the career he had.

"Absolutely," he said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more. I spoke of (bullpen coach) Lester Strode when I was talking, and he had to talk me out of going home in Double-A. I had a rough start in Double-A. We've gone through a lot.

"I couldn't ask for anything more. I'm not going to look back and say it could have been, what should have been. It is what it is. I did it for 14 years, and I had a blast doing it."

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