When you looked at your Cubs schedule in early 2012 and saw May 18 on it, you looked forward to yet another Cubs/White Sox game. Maybe you bought tickets for the game or made plans that week to watch it on TV, but until that morning, you did not know you would stand witness to the final page of the storied career of Kerry Wood.
Word had gotten out that morning that Woody would be making his last appearance in a major league uniform, but a small group of people–most importantly, Wood himself–knew several weeks before that the time was coming.
“My arm had been through enough,” said Wood, “and I could tell where it was going. I didn’t want to end my career or season on the DL.” Wood had given Theo Epstein and then-manager Dale Sveum a heads-up that he could get about two to three more weeks but that the day was coming soon.
With one out in the 8th, Wood came in to face Dayan Viciedo, who he set down easily with three tosses, a pitcher-perfect ending. Although it seemed like Wood had the stuff to close out the inning, he was lifted for James Russell. It’s important to remember the names Viciedo and Russell, answers to bar trivia questions that were wiped from our memories by the sight of Wood’s son greeting him at the top of the dugout.
The kid we all saw come up in 1998 now carried his own off the field. A storybook ending to a long career.
Looking back on that day, Wood is appreciative of Epstein for giving him the chance to finish his career where he started, especially since he didn’t exactly fit into the baseball operations overhaul that was just underway at the time. “It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to have me on the roster, but they gave me a shot. I got to finish my career here and in return help some of the younger guys move in the right direction,” he says.
“It was special. It was home to me and where I felt I belonged. I didn’t want to call another place home for the summer. The Cubs drafted me out of high school. I started my career with them, and I wanted to finish my career with them.”
It is a career for which he most credits Oscar Acosta, his first pitching coach in pro ball. “He was a hard-nosed guy, but I learned a lot from watching him and listening to him talk. He spent a lot of time talking about pitching and stuff away from the field. He was influential in work ethic and how to be a man. You come in as a 17-year-old kid and you think you’re invincible and you’ve made it. He taught me how to handle myself and how to respect the game.”
It was perhaps that coaching which led to Wood’s poise two short years later during what Cubs fans will forever remember and tell their kids and grandkids about: the 20-strikeout game.
Looking back on that performance, Wood remembers thinking at the time, “I was like, ‘man, that was easy. I can do that again.’ I look at it now, and it was just a freak game.”
He had nothing going into the game, and he didn’t even throw a strike during warmups. But the baseball gods shined down on that circle of dirt just east of Clark and Addison, as Wood threw things over and around the plate that mystified and stupefied a murderer’s row of Astros hitters. Bagwell. Biggio. Alou. Bell. “I just got out on the mound and things just fell into place and stayed there. I had other days where I felt like that, but I obviously didn’t get the [same] results.”
That game entrenched Kerry Wood in the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere. They loved his nerves of steel, aggressiveness and competitive drive. They watched him grow as a player and a man, saw him through healthy and injury-riddled seasons, hated seeing him play for any other team—let alone the Yankees—and stood witness to his most personal on-field experience during his last game.
When it comes to his time in the game, Wood has only one regret.
“I would have loved to have had a World Series, but the accomplishment I look at is four times in the playoffs with the Cubs. I’m not sure how many Cubs out there can say that. I thought we really had a good chance in three of those four years. In 2003, we should have won it.
Wood says, “For me, that’s what it’s all about. Trophies are great. Individual accomplishments are great, and the kids can look at those numbers later, but for me, the ultimate goal is to win at the highest level as a team.”
Aside from not bringing a World Series to Chicago, Wood has no regrets about the days he played or how he played the game. But what about that competition? That need to face a hitter one-on-one, to play and compete at the highest level of the game. The body may say it’s time, but that need to compete can’t be amputated or even muffled.
For someone who competed as hard and as long as Wood, who started playing baseball at age five, that competitive fire doesn’t just extinguish itself when you walk away. “You compete your whole life. You compete for success. You compete against someone else trying to take your job. Then you get to the highest level the game has to offer and you get to compete at that level, you need it to keep you alive.”
Since retirement, he’s sought challenges to satiate that competitive thirst. He’s picked up—and put down—the guitar on a few occasions. His golf game? “Beyond repair,” he says. The sport that has caught his fancy, oddly enough, is tennis. He likes the competition of learning how to play the game and “the little strokes and nuances that make it fun.”
He plays when he has down time, which he has found comes at a premium, even in retirement. He’s now, happily so, Kerry Wood the dad and husband. Like any of us who would be so lucky as to have the chance to retire in our younger years, his time consists of his kids’ sports, spending extended vacations at the family’s house in Wisconsin and catching up with friends he didn’t get as much time to see during his playing days.
Wood also keeps tabs on his former team and is optimistic about the near- and long-term future for the Cubs. Looking at the Cubs now, Wood sees good things coming—and fast.
“Realistically, I don’t see why it can’t happen this year. We’ve got some young talent, there are also a lot of good veterans here. Maddon is going to be our leader, and he will have the guys go out there and play the game the right way. A combination of all those things falling into place, and I feel like we can compete for the Central Division this year and surprise some people.”
“I do know when we get to the playoffs and the World Series, this is an organization that is being built to stay there. This should be one of the dynasties pretty soon.”
When it came to new ace Jon Lester calling him to ask to wear his old number 34, Wood was humble but surprised.
“I thought it was great. It was no longer my number to give away. I wish it was, because I could have made a good trade for it. I think it was great. I am honored to have him wear it and am sure he will do it proud.”
The one thing Wood won’t trade away in retirement is the amount of time he now gets to devote to the Wood Family Foundation. Over the years, this charitable organization has made differences through donations to hospitals, hosting baseball clinics, setting up drives for school supplies and providing coats and toys to kids during the holidays.
Despite this great work, Wood still wanted the foundation to do something to provide immediate impacts on kids. To meet that goal, they launched the Pitch In mentoring program for students at Lawndale Community Academy in Chicago. In the eight-month mentoring program, which launched this past Fall, students meet after school with volunteer mentors.
According to Wood, the early results of the program are very positive, as grades and attendance of the students have increased. He says what makes him most proud about the foundation’s work is, “To see the happiness of our mentors who are getting in there and teaching and being there for kids, and the results of seeing the effects of what we are doing for kids in the city.”
You can help support the Wood Family Foundation and its Pitch In program by attending the 2015 Woody’s Winter Warm-Up, January 16 at Harry Caray’s 7th Inning Stretch. You will have the chance to mingle with Wood and other current and former Cubs, which should include Glendon Rusch, who “hands down” threw more 88-MPH fastballs than any other of his former teammates.
To find full event details and to purchase tickets, or to get additional information on volunteer opportunities to help Chicago kids, just visit the Wood Family Foundation website.