Jim Riggleman remembers: Like Bryant, Kerry Wood was instantly electric

The Cubs phenom was the talk of spring training.

He may have been the best player in camp, and he certainly was the most exciting and the most talked-about.

“He was just so good,” his manager recalled. “He was so dominant. He had a great spring.”

However, the Cubs didn't allow him to break camp with the team. Instead, they sent him to Class AAA Iowa and waited until the middle of April to bring him up.

Kris Bryant?

It's happening that way, but the guy we're talking about is Kerry Wood.

In 1998, Wood was a rawboned, flamethrowing phenom out of Grand Prairie High School in Texas. The Cubs took him with the fourth overall pick of the 1995 draft, and by '98 he was trying to force his way onto the big-league roster by dominating spring training.

The Cubs had other ideas as March ended. With a starting rotation of Kevin Tapani, Steve Trachsel, Geremi Gonzalez, Terry Mulholland and Mark Clark, they felt comfortable opening without Wood on the big-league roster.

When left-handed reliever Bob Patterson was injured in an April 9 game, the Cubs moved lefty Mulholland to the bullpen and called up Wood on April 12 to make his debut in Montreal.

By doing so, the Cubs saved a year of service time with Wood, just as they now have accomplished with third-base prospect Bryant, whom they will call up for Friday's game at Wrigley Field. Because Bryant won't spend the requisite number of days on the major-league roster, the Cubs will get seven full years of service instead of the six a player needs to become a free agent.

Media and social media being what they are now compared with 1998, there is much more talk about the free-agency clock with Bryant than there was about Wood.

“To be honest with you, I don't remember any discussion about it,” said Jim Riggleman, the Cubs' manager in 1998. Riggleman currently is the third-base coach of Cincinnati. He talked about Wood this week when the Reds visited Wrigley Field.

“Kerry had a great spring,” Riggleman said. “There was just a general feeling that he was so young and hadn't pitched that much in the minor leagues and, ‘Let's just let him start down there in the minor leagues and see where he's at.'

“Kerry had one game in the minor leagues and went 5 innings and struck out 11. So it was probably going to happen pretty quickly.”

Like Bryant, Wood caught the eyes of his teammates in the spring of 1998. Veterans on that team wanted Wood to make the club, and catcher Scott Servais simply held up his index finger when I asked him where Wood's stuff ranked among pitchers he had caught.

Wood's nearly 100-mph fastball and devastating breaking pitches had everyone in Mesa, Arizona marveling.

“I evaluate results,” Riggleman said. “As far as most guys pitching, I'm not that great of an evaluator as in this guy's slider is better than that guy's or this guy's changeup is better than that guy's. But Kerry stood out. His stuff was electric. You couldn't help but notice how dominating he could be.

“He certainly pitched his way onto the staff. He was the best pitcher in spring training. You could say, ‘Hey, he should have been there.' But being that he was signed out of high school and had only been pitching for a couple years in the minor leagues, I don't think anybody thought he was going to break with us. But he certainly made it a possibility the way he pitched.”

Wood was National League Rookie of the Year in 1998, going 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts in 166⅔ innings pitched. He missed all of 1999 after blowing out his elbow in spring training and undergoing Tommy John surgery.

In a career that ended in 2012 with the Cubs, with stops in Cleveland and New York with the Yankees, he went 86-75 with 63 saves and 1,582 strikeouts in 1,380 innings.

Of course, the game fans remember most came on May 6, 1998, when Wood fired off 20 strikeouts against the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field in a 2-0 victory. He gave up only an infield single to Ricky Gutierrez and walked none.

“That was heck of a lineup he was facing,” Riggleman said. “We're trying to win the game. It was a 1-0 game (until the eighth, when the Cubs scored another run).

“Ron Santo and Billy Williams both were on the team that had a perfect game thrown at them (by Sandy Koufax in 1965). When I talked to Billy and Ronnie, they said Kerry's game was more dominant than the perfect game that was thrown against them.

“Kerry's game was probably the best game ever pitched in this stadium, and this stadium is how old? But of all the games ever pitched here, it was to be the greatest game ever pitched here.”

It's his day: Bryant to make Cubs debut

Chicago Cubs rookie Kerry Wood delivers a pitch to a Houston Astros batter during the fifth inning Wednesday, May 6, 1998, in Chicago. Wood tied the major league record with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, pitching a one-hitter to beat the Astros 2-0. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)

Cubs scouting report

Cubs vs. San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field

TV: ABC 7 today; Comcast SportsNet Saturday; WGN Sunday

Radio: WBBM 780-AM

Pitching matchups: The Cubs' Jason Hammel (1-0) vs. James Shields (1-0) today; Kyle Hendricks (0-0) vs. Tyson Ross (1-0) Saturday; Jon Lester (0-1) vs. Andrew Cashner (0-2) Sunday. All games 1:20 p.m.

At a glance: The Padres have been picked by many to contend in the NL West, and they're off to a 6-4 start under manager Bud Black. Justin Upton has 3 homers and 7 RBI. Closer Craig Kimbrel, acquired in a big trade with the Braves before the season, has 3 saves for San Diego. Cashner was traded by the Cubs for first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs (5-3) have homered in five straight games, and their pitchers have tossed 2 shutouts. Starlin Castro leads the team with 10 hits and is batting. 323.

Next: Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, Monday-Thursday

— Bruce Miles

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