(CBS) So I’ve had a weekend to digest the Kerry Wood retirement. All the dust of initial surprise, the immediate realization of a career’s mortality and the contemplation of Wood’s position in Cubs history has pretty much settled.
The dozens of you who read my stuff know that I did not want Wood in a Cubs uniform for the 2012 season. He was a mascot at best, a remnant of what I hope is the old Cubbie way of folk heroism. There was no chance in hell that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had him as a part of their greater plan, and Wood returning was more a favor to Tom Ricketts and the throng of nostalgic nitwits who would cheer an unproductive signing at the team convention than it was anything strategic.
I didn’t want to be right about Wood being done, but here we are. These past two months or so saw what I already knew—he just couldn’t be productive to a major league squad anymore. Kudos to Wood, though, on realizing that before somebody above him in the organization had to force him to realize it. Painful as it was to watch him get touched up almost every outing in 2012, it would be far sadder if Dale Sveum or Epstein or Hoyer had to call him into one of their offices for a come-to-Jesus session.
In what I saw as his career in a nutshell, Wood appeared in his final game on Friday and struck out the only batter he faced in a game that the Cubs did not win. The respect he received from fans, broadcasters, and his son as he walked across the third baseline chalk for the last time was fitting, as was the irony of most being wrapped up in the final chapter of Kerry Wood while the rest of the team took one on the chin. The Cubs fanbase has often made individual players bigger than the team, usually to its own detriment, and Friday was no different.
And immediately the Kerry Wood career autopsy began. He’s as polarizing a player in terms of career assessment as I can think of. On one side you have the loyal followers who place on a pedestal a single pitching performance—in my opinion the greatest of my lifetime, but just one game nonetheless—a playoff homerun in a game the Cubs lost, his longevity with the team, his seeming love for the city and fans, and his willingness to battle back from bad luck. On the other you have those like me who consider his whole career and not just the feel-good.
Wood’s career is ultimately a disappointment to me. Thirteen-plus seasons are nothing to sneeze at, but sprayed across most of those seasons was a body that a sneeze could shatter. Wood’s luck was awful, but his own stubbornness contributed to the “what could have been” theories as well. He flat out refused to listen to those who said his mechanics would be the death of his career, even going so far as to lash out at such people including then Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone, a guy who is rarely second-guessed when it comes to pitching analysis. Stone and those who agreed with him ended up being right, and surgeries turned Wood from dominant starter to yeoman reliever.
He also contributed to zero championship seasons.
Wood himself was not a disappointment. He willingly accepted a bullpen role, and most times he seemed affable with the media, with a few forgivable black marks here and there. His charity work in this town is almost unmatched by other athletes, and he is a guy who genuinely seems to love Chicago.
Those nice things, though, do not deserve a retiring of his number, a topic that’s been bandied about since people started to assume this year was Wood’s swan song. Personally I find number retirement to be passé. Guys get their numbers retired just for dying these days. It’s a cute little show of respect that means little overall and leads to some poor kid in the future having to wear 73 on his back and looking like an idiot because the “normal” ones are all unavailable.
But if retiring a number is second only to Hall of Fame election as many seem to make it out to be, Wood certainly is not worthy. He is not on the Mt. Rushmore of Cubs—Banks, Williams, Sandberg, and Jenkins being those. He’s not Mark Grace, Ron Santo, Greg Maddux, or Lee Smith either.
If the honor truly is that special—his Hall of Fame, as Ron Santo called it—it cannot be done so liberally as to grant Kerry Wood, he of the 86-75 record and just 11 complete games, elite status.
His service was long, but it was not great numbers-wise. Yes, he has the second-best K/9 ratio in the game’s history. But he also never won more than 14 games in a season. Just striking guys out isn’t enough, and the lack of Cub team wins during his tenure proves that.
Kerry Wood was a worthy first-round pick. He provided some great theater while on the mound in this town. Fourteen years of wearing a baseball jersey is 14 more than most of us could ever dream of doing. He’s a nice guy who’ll have a nice post-baseball career, presumably in broadcasting. (He can take Keith Moreland’s spot today as far as I’m concerned) I wish him well and hope that he’s more than just a Scottie Pippen being paid to drink in the stands.
What he was also was the embodiment of all things Cub. He was the what could have been. The oh, if he only just did this. The so close yet so far away. The almost. If he is one of your greatest players, then your franchise isn’t worth a crushed beer cup being crapped on by a seagull. A retired number should be made of sterner stuff. Ditto a statue in this statue-happy sports town.
Wood was the folk hero of baseball folk heroes for fans that love them some folk heroes. The problem with folk heroes, though, is that their legend usually doesn’t match up with their reality.
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa and Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @Ten_Foot_Midget , but please don’t follow him in real life. He grew up in Chicago’s Beverly To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.