From the time the Chicago Cubs used the No. 4 overall choice in the 1995 amateur draft on Texas high school phenom Kerry Wood, their fans were excited about a pitcher who drew comparisons to fellow Texans Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.
Wood, who entered pro ball with three unhittable pitches, struck out the first batter he ever faced, on April 12, 1998, and did the same to the last batter he ever faced. But in between, there was a lot of heartache for fans, and a lot of pain for Wood.
More than one headline pronounced his farewell strikeout, followed by a hug from his son, as a perfect ending. Yes, unless, you consider that the Cubs lost the game on the way to the worst winning percentage in the National League.
Wood epitomized what is wrong with the whole organization. Cubs fans liked him so much and wanted him to be good so bad, that they just considered him to be good. But the fact is, 15 seasons after his career began, Wood had just 86 career wins, 16 trips to the disabled list, and way more simulated games than anyone would like to count.
Perhaps the most glaring stat for Wood is that somebody with that great of an arm, never had 15 wins in a season. Now, the Cubs didn’t have a lot of good teams during his career, but eight Cubs pitchers, a total of 11 times, did have 15-win seasons while Wood was on the Cubs. Even the two full seasons he stayed healthy (2002-03), he won only 12 and 14 games.
But the trouble, of course, is that there just weren’t enough full seasons, thanks to all those trips to the disabled list. The big question is could anything been done to avoid this history of hurt?
Many want to blame Jim Riggleman and Dusty Baker for riding Wood so hard early in his career. Wood threw at least 120 pitches in a game 11 times as a rookie and missed the next season after Tommy John surgery. But the Washington Nationals have handled Stephen Strasburg with kid gloves and he had Tommy John despite never throwing 100 pitches in a pro game.
The bigger problem was the violent, across-the-body, delivery that put so much pressure on his arm and led to the shoulder problems that basically ruined his career. Those were what really derailed his career. For whatever reasons, no one would, or maybe could, do anything to change Wood.
The Cubs rewarded him with a 3-year contract after he put together back-to-back full seasons. He made more than $30 million during that time and went 12-15.
He finally developed a much more closed delivery by the time he became a short relief pitcher. But back, knee, and blister problems took a toll on him by then.
There were actually some who spoke so glowingly of Wood that they want his number retired by the Cubs. For those, please remember that Ryan Dempster entered the majors the same year as Wood and had 26 more wins and 24 more saves at the time of Wood’s retirement; Ted Lilly, who started one year after Wood, had 44 more wins; and Carlos Zambrano had 41 more wins, although he started three years later.