Kerry Wood’s retirement is bittersweet for Cubs fans

Kerry Wood was greeted by his son Justin after recording the final out of his career with a K.

Kerry Wood’s retirement this week was the most surreal one I’ve yet experienced. It was hard to see someone who’s pitched for the Cubs in parts of three decades walk away from the game. He was the final link to the 1998 Wild Card season — which was also his rookie year — and the the great disappointments of 2003 and 2004. But the way that it happened was strange and uplifting at the same time.

All of the career retrospectives on Kerry Wood hone in right away on his 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros. If you haven’t been told it was in his fifth career start, you haven’t been listening very well. And it was the most dominant pitching performance in big league history, without a doubt. Here’s all 20 strikeouts if you haven’t seen them before. Derek Bell is reported to have said to Mark Grace between innings that it wasn’t fair to be facing that stuff. And the final strike thrown to Bell in the ninth inning proves the point. You might not ever see a sicker pitch than that one.

But I actually saw Wood pitch before that start. Before he became the strikeout phenomenon that he was for the bulk of his career. It was his first start in Wrigley Field, and he was matched up against Hideo Nomo of the Dodgers. It seemed like it would be a great matchup, pitting the established star against the unknown rookie. All of us in the bleachers that day were excited at the prospect.

But some things just don’t live up to your expectations, and this game was one of them. Nomo had no control that day, and he walked several batters to start the game. In fact, he was lifted from the game before making it out of the first inning. When Kerry Wood took the mound for the first time at Wrigley Field, he had a eight-run lead to work with. By that point, the game felt like it was already over.

Wood pitched the five-inning minimum needed to get the win, and struck out seven along the way. He collected his first big-league win, but didn’t need to push himself too much. The world would learn about his abilities soon enough, and the rest of his career would be an impossible quest to top that one dominant performance.

He pitched the Cubs into the second round of the playoffs in 2003, and hit a home run to get the Cubs back into it for game seven of that series. When he went into the fifth inning with a lead, the World Series was coming into view. Had he held that lead, and led the Cubs into the promised land that is the World Series, he would have been the king of Chicago for the rest of his career.

But it was not to be. He inexplicably issued a leadoff walk to the unheralded Brian Banks, and then issued another walk to Luis Castillo with one out in the inning.  Those two runs would be enough to tie the game, and when Pudge Rodriguez scored on a single by Derrek Lee, the World Series had finally slipped through the Cubs’ collective fingers.

The next season, Sports Illustrated put Kerry Wood on the cover of their baseball preview issue, along with the bold headline “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series. And if that’s not enough to make you believe in the SI cover jinx, I don’t know what more proof you need.

As Kerry Wood rides off into the sunset, Cubs fans like me will remember his achievements on the field, but we’ll also lament the promise that was made in 1998, but never fully reached. It’s a bittersweet feeling, to be sure.

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