By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Mascots don’t get to have bad nights.
That’s something Kerry Wood needs to keep in mind the next time he considers behaving like he did yesterday, stomping off the mound after giving away the game to the Braves.
After surrendering two walks and the decisive, two-run single, Wood flung his glove into the stands, and then did the same with his hat. Even after having time to cool down before the media entered the postgame clubhouse, he attacked a reporter who dared ask him about the incident.
“Irrelevant, dude,” Wood snapped. “Why the (bleep) would you even bring that up?” He then stormed away from his locker.
Good thing this involves the still-beloved former phenom, and not, say, Carlos Zambrano or Milton Bradley. Were it a notoriously moody hot-head instead of “Kid K,” this would result in more than a shrug.
Wood needs to be careful if he wants his post-career vision to be realized, and actual baseball is only a part of it. A look back to December of 2010 is in order to understand what he’s even doing here in the first place.
Ron Santo died on the 3rd, and his funeral mass was held at Holy Name Cathedral on the 10th. Wood attended, and was moved by the outpouring of affection for the longtime player/broadcaster. A free agent at the time, he decided to try to map a similar path for himself in Chicago, understanding that his playing days were beginning to wind down. With new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts also fresh in the thrall of mawkish sentimentality, the environment was just right.
Six days after Santo was eulogized, Ricketts and Wood hashed out a deal. Two deals, actually.
One would pay him $1.5 million to pitch in 2011. The other, a personal-services agreement, would sit in a drawer in Ricketts’s desk until Wood’s baseball days were over. At that time, Wood could continue as part of the Cubs family with a media presence of some kind – no specific job detailed, but something far more substantial than being a living statue like Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, merely waving and shaking hands, and appearing at various banquets and ribbon-cuttings.
Other teams were offering more money and longer terms, but Wood wanted to settle his family in Chicago. He wanted to begin the next phase of his professional life, and base his charity efforts here after a two-year exile split between Cleveland and New York. He was back to rebuild his brand.
He pitched effectively enough last season, posting a 3.35 ERA and 10.1 SO/9. Again, he became a free agent and received offers from around the league for multi-year deals. Again, he wanted to remain a Cub, prioritizing his life off the field and plan for the future.
But times were changing. GM Jim Hendry, a longtime ally of Wood, had been dismissed in August. Then, the never-thought-possible confluence of events forced Theo Epstein out of Boston, and into Ricketts’ warm embrace.
Epstein was given free rein to re-launch the organization in a manner befitting a serious business, focused on the goal of winning championships. He needn’t be another slave to nostalgia, another in a long line of those selling the preposterous notion that there’s anything cute or cuddly about a major-market MLB franchise being bad at baseball.
Understandably, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer preferred to allot resources somewhere else than for a 35-year-old pitcher with a long history of shoulder and elbow problems. The start of the digging-out process involved paring payroll, concentrating on the draft, and sorting through any possible prospects by seeing what they could do. Wood seemed to have no place in this, now.
Ricketts, however, assured that he did. At the opening of the fan convention in January, radio play-by-play man Pat Hughes made a splash with the surprise announcement that Wood had re-signed with the team. You can bet Epstein and Hoyer were surprised, too, when the pressure came from above to make it happen.
That’s why manager Dale Sveum seems to talk sideways when asked about Wood, since it’s no secret to anyone that he’s here as the owner’s pet. Nobody felt comfortable being honest about his tender shoulder in spring training, and now Sveum makes it clear that it’s hard to find a role for a guy who can’t yet pitch consecutive games. His ERA is 14.54, and he has walked six batters in four innings.
Wood has to realize two things. One, that he has not built up the same capital with fans as Santo did. Where Santo was one of the greats ever at his position, Wood is more a reminder of unrealized promise. Santo was associated with Cub disappointment, but Wood is a Cub disappointment. Name recognition is not the same as emotional connection and identification.
Second, the new regime is beginning to usher in baseball modernity. It will take time, but the Cubs are taking steps to get on the right side of history, away from the hokum. Whatever old-timey thing Santo had that made him endearing probably died with him.
If Wood is to succeed at being a happy, fulfilled lifetime Cub, he’s going to have to work at it. That much is clear. Just having the blue hat and one historic game isn’t enough, anymore.
In-game tantrums and f-bombs at reporters are questionable choices for someone who has based recent career decisions on taking a lot of love for granted.
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