New deal for Kerry Wood and his adoring Cubs fans
by Gordon Wittenmyer firstname.lastname@example.org January 14, 2012 12:48AM
Theo Epstein (left) gets applause from bosses Tom (center) and Todd Ricketts, as well as from the fans, at the Cubs Convention. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: January 14, 2012 11:11AM
In his first season as Kerry Wood’s teammate, Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd last spring referred to Chicago’s favorite pitcher as ‘‘Mr. Cub,’’ the
Ernie Banks of his generation.
That Byrd made the comment just a few weeks into Wood’s second tour with the team only goes to show how obvious and persistent Cubs fans’ affections remain for the one-time Kid K, the former Texas phenom whose promise of annual dominance and championships was betrayed by repeated injuries and adversity beyond his control.
And it remains one of the damndest love stories in sports.
What Byrd recognized almost immediately last year was on display again Friday night during Cubs Convention opening ceremonies. Engineering their own drama around a long-expected re-signing of the free-agent reliever, the Cubs announced the deal with a ‘‘surprise’’ appearance by Wood.
The result was a deafening roar from the crowd and a chant of ‘‘Ker-ry! Ker-ry! Ker-ry!’’
More than 50 players, former players and other team personnel were introduced during the ceremony Friday, but only the response for the Cubs’ savior and team president, Theo Epstein, came close to the passion and volume directed toward Wood.
Why? Not even Wood can explain it.
‘‘I don’t know. You have to ask them,’’ said Wood, whose new one-year contract pays $3 million with a 2013 club option for the same salary that inexplicably includes no buyout clause. ‘‘They’re die-hard fans. They’ve seen me grow up here in the city and seen me go through injuries and bounce back and be part of some special teams. . . . And obviously, they know I love the city and love being here.’’
Maybe that’s it.
Maybe it’s that 20-strikeout game as a rookie that left such an indelible impression, it holds power 14 years later. Maybe it’s Wood’s role in getting that 2003 team so close to the whole thing. Maybe it’s his willingness to keep coming back, to keep trying again — and to keep showing those All-Star flashes — each time an injury has knocked him down.
What’s certain — and the part that defies reason — is that it wasn’t Cy Young awards or 20-win seasons or pennants or media butt-kissing, which have carried so many other star players in so many other places to the altar of undying fan devotion.
‘‘The first game I saw was the 20-strikeout game,’’ said Mike Barnas, 27, of Oak Lawn, who wore a Wood No. 34 jersey to Friday’s event. ‘‘We ditched school and went to the game. And that’s when I became a fan. I’ve been a fan ever since.
‘‘But it’s more than that,’’ he added. ‘‘He’s been in all the greatest games, the way he kind of propels the team. He’s a team-chemistry player in my opinion. He’s been a leader. He’s there when the times are bad, and he’s there when the times are good.’’
In other words, he’s all Cub. All Chicago.
His trophy case may be as empty as the ’69 Cubs’, but he’s every bit as celebrated, every bit as beloved. And in return, it seems, he shares their pain.
Wood was once linked inextricably, it seemed, to fellow phenom Mark Prior, whose Hall of Fame path was similarly, painfully altered. Maybe this is what separated them in the end.
Whatever makes this strange sports love affair work, it says at least as much about the Cubs’ heartsick fan base as it does the man who would have been their Maddux, could have been their Clemens.