20 years since 20 Ks: Reliving Cubs phenom Kerry Wood's memorable day
On most days, life comes at you with the speed of a 95-mph fastball. Or it throws you the nastiest of nasty curveballs.
But on one damp, dank afternoon at Wrigley Field 20 years ago, Kerry Wood took complete control, firing the fastballs and snapping off the curveballs and other wicked breaking balls.
Wood, a fresh-faced phenom more than a month away from his 21st birthday and making only his fifth career big-league start, struck out 20 Houston Astros without walking one. He gave up only an infield hit as the Cubs won 2-0. Wood became only the second big-league pitcher to strike out 20 in a nine-inning game, joining Roger Clemens, who did it twice. Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals accomplished the feat in 2016.
Nothing was ever the same, not in the lore of the Cubs and certainly not for Wood himself.
Wood does not want to be defined by the one game -- he pitched 14 seasons in the major leagues. But sitting in the Cubs' new offices recently, he appeared to be more comfortable than ever in talking about and reveling in his big day and his legacy in the game.
"You don't ever want to be defined, especially when you have a long career, by one game," he said. "But it most certainly put me on the map. People, when they remember me being a strikeout guy, that's what they're going to remember. I feel like I had several more meaningful games, more important games (that) in my mind were better games because they were team wins and not just a single performance in the first part of May in a meaningless game at the time. So I look back on it with great memories, and as every year rolls around, I see the highlights again.
"It showed me that personally that I belong here. It's not a fluke that I'm here. I deserve to be here. I can compete at this level. Then again, it set the bar for the rest of my career, the rest of my outings after that."
May 6, 1998 dawned cloudy and cool in Chicago. The gametime temperature was 64 degrees, and only 15,758 fans made their way to Wrigley Field.
On this day, no one knew the Cubs were in for something special that season, with Sammy Sosa's home run duel with Mark McGwire and the NL wild card run still ahead.
Wood started the game as inauspiciously as one could. His first pitch struck home-plate umpire Jerry Meals in the face mask. The Cubs catcher was backup Sandy Martinez, filling in for Scott Servais.
"Sandy Martinez couldn't get his glove on it," said Pat Hughes, the Cubs' longtime radio play-by-play announcer. "I thought, 'That's very puzzling.' It almost looked like he was crossed up. I thought, 'When is the first pitch of the game ever a cross-up between the catcher and pitcher?' That's what I asked Sandy the next day. I said, 'Were you guys crossed up?' He said, 'No, it was just so fast I couldn't really get my glove up in time.' That's how hard he was throwing."
Wood recovered well enough to strike out leadoff man Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell, three of the Astros' famed "Killer Bees."
It was the first of four times he would strike out the side.
"Curveball was there early," Wood said. "Everything came at the end when I had such confidence with the breaking ball and the fastball. I was locating. Once I was locating fastballs and was able to drop the curveball in, the way I was doing it, the confidence came with the other pitch. I was just aiming kind of that way with the slurve. It just never stopped breaking. It kept breaking and breaking and breaking and breaking. I felt confident with that later in the game after I had 5 or 6 innings of good location of the fastball and being able to command the curveball."
The weather may have played a part with the breaking pitches break so much.
"When there's more moisture in the air, the seams have something more to grab," said Steve Stone, the Cubs' TV analyst then. "When that happens, when it's high humidity, the ball grabs on to the air, essentially, and it breaks larger and breaks more quickly. His curve and slider were both overwhelming that day, and it had to do as much with the elements as it did with Kerry. Kerry could always spin it, but this day he spun it like maybe he never spun it before and might not have spun it again.
"This day everything came together. The stars aligned. The moons were in the proper place. And it was chilly, so the hitters didn't care to hit that particular day. Kerry was so pumped up that everything came together. It became a special day."
Ricky Gutierrez, who got the only hit off Kerry Wood in the pitcher's memorable 1998 game, became a teammate two years later.
- Associated Press/2001 file/
The only hit of the game:
Ricky Gutierrez and Kerry Wood became close after Gutierrez came to the Cubs for the 2000 season and played two years in Chicago.
Gutierrez led off the third inning and had the only hit off Wood when he grounded a ball between third base and shortstop. Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie moved to his left, reached down but could not come up with the ball.
Official scorer Don Friske, who is associate sports editor at the Daily Herald, ruled it a hit without any hesitation.
Wood agrees with the call to this day.
"Basehit, all the time," Wood said. "I would never tell Ricky that. I tell Ricky it's an error every time. No, it was a basehit. It never crossed my mind. It really never did. Even if that was in the fifth inning, I don't think it would have crossed my mind because the only way Kevin gets to the ball is if he lays out and dives. And at that point, Ricky still had decent wheels, and you're not going to get him on a slow-hit ball where you got to leave your feet. It nicked his glove, but he was in full stride, full stretch, full everything. But no, it was a basehit all the way."
During Cubs spring training a few years later, the strikeout game was playing on a clubhouse TV at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Arizona.
Players were marveling at Wood's fastball and the "Wiffle ball" breaking pitches. Gutierrez wandered by, took a look and said: "I got a hit off that sorry (so and so)."
Today, Gutierrez is the manager of the Cincinnati Reds' Class A farm club at Daytona.
"We were just like, 'Wow, we're witnessing something special,' he said of the buzz in the Astros dugout. "We're still up there trying to grind, and it got to a point where we were just trying to make contact, just get a hit, just put the ball in play. He was just mowing us down left and right.
"When I first got the hit, it went off his (Orie's) glove to his left, off the tip of his glove, and everybody pretty much thought it was a hit. I thought it was a hit. I didn't even look to the scoreboard. Once I did look up, it was flashed up right off the bat. There was no hesitation by the scorekeeper. Later on down the road during the game, there were going to be questions with it."
Friske and Wood struck up a conversation in the Wrigley Field TV booth last season, and Wood reiterated that he felt Gutierrez's ball was a hit.
"The only person that really mattered was when Wood said it last year," Friske said. "Everyone has an opinion on scoring and everything else. I don't know if it made me feel good. It made me feel good just to hear the person who was involved in it say it."
Gutierrez got as far as third base, on a sacrifice bunt by pitcher Shane Reynolds and a balk, but Biggio grounded out to end the inning.
From there, it was smooth sailing, save for Wood hitting Biggio with a pitch with two outs in the sixth. Wood struck out the side in each of the seventh and eighth innings. In the ninth, he struck out pinch hitter Bill Spiers before Biggio grounded out. After Wood struck out Bell to end the game, he gave a little fist pump. That wasn't for the 20th strikeout. It was because Wood, who had led the minors with 131 walks in 1997, had walked no one.
Cubs catcher Sandy Martinez, left, and first baseman Mark Grace, right, are the first to congratulate rookie pitcher Kerry Wood after he tied a major league record with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game.
- Associated Press/May 6, 1998 file/Fred Jewell
Aftermath and legacy:
The day after the 20-strikeout game, the Cubs and Wood held a news conference in a room near Gate K, appropriately enough.
There were offers to go on national talk shows, but Wood turned them down.
"I had hype coming out of high school, so I was used to some of the media attention but not on a national scale like what was getting ready to happen after that game," he said. "Everything I did became really important, which was really weird for me at the time. I was just a private guy. I just wanted to come to work and just play baseball. I don't think anybody expected, me included, 5 starts into it, that things like that were going to happen.
"But it raised the bar for me personally. At 20 years old, I thought I could go out and do that every time. I expected to go out the next time and go, 'That was fun. I should do that every time.' "
Wood sat out September of the 1998 season in an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come. He pitched in Game 3 of the division series against Atlanta, but the following spring he had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
That turned out to be the easy one. Shoulder problems plagued Wood later in his career, and he went from being a starting pitcher to a reliever.
Although some were predicting a Hall of Fame career for him, Wood enjoyed a 14-year journey, putting up a record of 86-75 with a 3.67 ERA, 63 saves and 1,582 strikeouts in 1,380 innings pitched. His 10.317 strikeouts per 9 innings rank fourth all time.
The 20-strikeout game will be the one that's remembered.
"For Kerry, he had some terrific years, had some great games but never a game that great," said Stone. "But he had it. Most guys will chase that dream forever and never attain it. He got it in his fifth start. For me, watching what he did was a special day for me because as a pitcher, I really appreciated that. And it's one thing to have all the skills. There are a lot of guys with skills. Guys don't bring it forward. He did.
"He is an integral part of this community. He will always have a place in the hearts of the Cubs. Kerry Wood should be applauded for what he did, not be defined by, 'He reached his zenith in his fifth game.' That's ridiculous. I have the utmost respect for him, a tremendous amount of respect for Sarah (Wood's wife) and also just the fact that what he's done after his career is over should be the things that define Kerry Wood, not just the fifth start."
For Wood, he seems at peace with how his career evolved.
"You can look at my career any way you want," he said. "You could look at it as it was a disappointment -- I didn't achieve what I was supposed to achieve. Or you can look at it as I battled adversity and came back and grinded through and got 14 years out of a career that a lot of people and doctors said I wasn't going to.
"Six years after I was pitching with a tear, I got to close. I got to set up for Mariano (the Yankees' Rivera). I got to pitch in the playoffs two more times. I had opportunities after I was told I was never going to throw again.
"So I looked it as I had a great run early, young. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about myself as an athlete, my career. I made some adjustments, didn't quit and came back and was able to help teams win in a different way."