By Adam Hoge-
WRIGLEY FIELD (CBS) Shortly after ending his career with one last strikeout, Kerry Wood was asked about which moment sat atop the career achievements list.
“Probably Game 7 homer,” he said with a smile, of course referring to his home run in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. “I’m a pitcher. It’s gotta be something hitting.”
Wood went on to mention pitching against Greg Maddux as a rookie in the 1998 NLDS and clinching Game 5 of the 2003 NLDS in Atlanta in front of thousands of Cubs fans who made the trip south.
Noticeably missing, however, was the one moment most baseball fans will remember him for forever:
May 6, 1998. When Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros.
So why was the most obvious career achievement omitted from the list?
“(It was) good and bad,” Wood said Friday about the 20-strikeout game. “No doubt about it. Obviously it raised the bar and raised the expectations for me every time I took the mound, but I felt like I fed off of that and thrived at it. But again, you’re labeled. You get labeled from it. But I’m not going to say it was all bad.”
Indeed, Wood was labeled as the next phenom. The next Roger Clemens.
Current White Sox and former Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone called that game the best individual pitching performance he had ever seen.
“The 1927 Yankees couldn’t have hit him that day,” Stone said Friday.
Wood’s electric fastball and knockout curve baffled opposing hitters and made the bleacher bums who hung the “K” signs in the outfield almost as famous as him.
Wood would go on to win the Rookie of the Year Award in 1998, finishing with a 13-6 record, a 3.40 ERA and strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio of 12.6. Unfortunately, that would be the highest K/9 he would ever post in his career.
Wood missed all of the 1999 season with Tommy John Surgery and he was never quite the same. He was still very effective and quickly became the fastest pitcher to ever record 1,000 strikeouts, but the damage had been done.
The right-hander put together a solid 2003 season, making the All-Star Game and leading the Cubs deep into the playoffs. Unfortunately, despite hitting a home run in Game 7 of the NLCS to tie the game, he couldn’t hold it together and gave up seven earned runs as the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs.
The Cubs’ collapse in 2003 also signaled Wood’s collapse as a starting pitcher. After starting 32 games that season, Wood would only start 36 over the next three years before being converted to a reliever. He’d go on to make the All-Star Game in 2008, saving 34 games for the Cubs, but for the most part, Wood battled trips to the disabled list as much as he did opposing hitters.
But no one fought harder than Wood to stay in the game. For all he went through, it’s remarkable he lasted 15-years in the big leagues. And for that, he was loved by Cubs fans as much as anyone.
Sometimes he fought too hard — most noticeably this year when he tried to come back for one last season.
“The grind of getting ready everyday,” Wood said Friday when explaining why he was retiring. “Going through hours to get ready for 15 pitches and go out there and not be successful. It was just time.”
Speaking like a man who realized he was starting to do more harm than good, Wood admitted he had been putting his fellow relievers in difficult situations with his ineffectiveness.
“I definitely didn’t want to go out with my last inning being throwing my glove in the seats,” referring to his May 8 outing against the Braves, which culminated in him storming out of the clubhouse after being asked about the way he walked off the field. “So I wanted to put up a zero or at least get one guy out.”
That’s exactly what Wood did Friday, coming in for one last batter and striking out White Sox left fielder Dayan Viciedo, fittingly, with one last curveball.
Not surprisingly, Wood has no plans to leave the organization. He has adopted Chicago as his hometown and has probably done more off the field for the community than he has on the field for the Cubs.
“I want to be a part of this organization,” Wood said. “Gonna be a part of this team and this organization for a long time. To what respect, I don’t know.”
The right-hander talked about helping young pitchers like Jeff Samardzija, who started Friday’s game for the Cubs and afterward paid Wood the ultimate compliment by saying he wanted to be like Wood when he was growing up as kid. Samardzija talked about reading about how Wood did exercises in the pool, so he immediately started doing workouts in the pool.
“I don’t feel like I’m at the end of helping young guys and helping guys get better in this game,” Wood said. “I’ll be around.”
That he will. His playing career might be over, but his career in baseball is not over.
A career that certainly has been anything but irrelevant, dude.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.