We Cubs fans have been blessed with many great and fun players over the years. From Santo to Ryno to Castellanos, each one has left an indelible memory that might never be forgotten. Each member of Cubs DNA is going to write about their favorite Cub, I'm Matt and this is the story of mine. My favorite Cub cemented that status in just his 5th career start, but it all began before that fateful day in Chicago 21 years ago. It started that spring when there were whispers that Kerry Wood might make the opening day roster after just 2 full seasons in the minors.
Kid K bringing the heat. (Courtesy: Sports Illustrated (RIP in Peace, SI))
Back in those days the internet was AOL chatrooms and slow loading geocities pages, there was no easy way to get info about your favorite team. You had to scour the local newspaper, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Beckett Baseball, and Baseball America (the magazine!) for any kind of nugget of info. While I can't find the quote anywhere I recall reading where the Cubs were considering keeping Wood in the minors for the 1998 season and a rival GM was quoted as saying, 'Congratulations on the 1998 Word Series, because if you have 5 starting pitchers better than Kerry Wood it's already over.' That was my introduction to just how good Kerry Wood might be...
Remember baseball cards?? (Courtesy: Fleer)
Wood made his debut in 1998, and his first four starts were a bit of a roller-coaster. You could see the potential but you could also see his weakness, control. In his first four starts, he gave up 12 walks in 18.1 innings, which is what made his 5th start even more amazing.
Garver Hall (Courtesy: Manchester University)
As I remember, it was just a normal Wednesday afternoon at Manchester College (now Manchester University) and I had just gotten back from lunch and was hoping no one was watching TV in the lobby. When I was in college there was no cable TV in the dorm rooms, so if someone happened to be watching TV you were screwed. As luck would have it, the TV was free and I turned on WGN to watch the Cubs. A few friends joined me and it started as a normal game, but we all know that would soon change.
As the strikeouts piled up, the number of people in the dorm lobby also grew. As students would come back from class, they would hear our cheers and come check on the commotion. "He has how many strikeouts?' "It's what inning?!' The movement on his pitches was unbelievable. As the crowd grew, we knew we were watching something historic but would he get 20? After 6 innings, Wood had 12 K's and would have to be nearly perfect to reach 20. More and more people filed into the lobby, including several of the college baseball players who were missing practice to finish the game.
Wood struck out the side in both the 7th and 8th innings--he could do it! The first batter was a pinch hitter, Bill Spiers. Spiers fouled off 4 pitches before finally striking out. 19 strikeouts!!! The next batter was future Hall-of-Famer, Craig Biggio. Biggio quickly grounded out to short, the record could not be beaten but it could still be tied. Derek Bell stood in the way of history.
On the 4th pitch of the at-bat, Bell struck out on a filthy off-speed pitch and Kerry Wood tied the Major League record with 20 strikeouts, zero walks, and one questionable base hit. It's probably the best-pitched game any of us will ever see.
Legends never die.
From the 20 strikeouts to game 163 against the Giants, 1998 will always be my second favorite year of Cubs baseball. (2016 will always be #1) Here was a kid that was my age and he just dominated a 106-win Astros team that featured two future Hall-of-Famers. It wasn't just baseball, it was truly a lesson in believing in yourself no matter the odds.
Going out a winner (Courtesy: Through the Fence Baseball)
If you were to look solely at numbers, you might say that Kerry Wood had a disappointing career. I disagree. He might not have lived up to the casual fans' lofty expectations but he will be forever remembered in the pages of history. His last game was bittersweet for me, as he was the end of an era. Now that I'm a father, it dawns on me just how special his last game was. Hat tip to Theo and the Front Office for making this special moment happen. Kerry Wood lived the dream.
The best part about baseball is that these kind of memories are not rare, they are common! Your favorite Cubs player might not be Kerry Wood, but he's out there and we'd love to hear about it!