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Riggleman reflects on Kerry Wood’s 1998 season of highs and lows

(Originally published June 18, 2006)

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Jim Riggleman carries the burden with him to this day. He knows Kerry Wood is serving his 10th stint on the disabled list, and Riggleman can’t help second-guessing himself all the way back to 1998.

Wood’s unrealistic expectations in Chicago were manufactured on May 6, 1998, during a 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros. But

his future — at least until now — was shaped during a fateful debut season with the Cubs.

If you want to know where Wood has been — and where he is headed — you have to go back to that Rookie of the Year season of 1998.

Sammy Sosa was slugging home runs, the Cubs were marching toward the playoffs and Wood — the best thing since Greg Maddux — was

winning over the Wrigley Field faithful.

Riggleman never wanted to promote the 20-year-old right-hander that April. Maybe he should have let Wood spend a few more weeks, months

— shoot, the whole season — at Class AAA Iowa. Maybe then, everything would be different. The injuries, the failed expectations, the second-guesses.

“I have beat myself up over that a few times, believe me,” Riggleman said.

Riggleman hasn’t managed in the majors since the Cubs fired him after a five-season run on Oct. 4, 1999. His baseball life has moved on, but he probably never will stop wrestling with the mixed emotions he has for the way he handled Wood during that delicate time.

“As a manager, one of the things you are most sensitive about is taking care of those pitchers,” Riggleman said from Jupiter, Fla., during a break from his duties as the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor-league field coordinator. “Anytime a pitcher gets hurt, you feel like you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Could I have done something different?’ And I have felt like that. I felt horrible about Kerry getting hurt and that maybe we could have done something different.

“I don’t know that we would have done anything different, but still, as a manager, you look at it and say: ‘Man, maybe I shouldn’t have let him go that other inning in July. Maybe I should have pulled him. Instead of getting 120 pitches, maybe I should have just cut him off at 95 or 100.”’

Riggleman isn’t the only manager to tangle with those questions; he is simply the first when it comes to Wood.

This is a pivotal time for Wood, who turned 29 on Friday. He is eligible to return from the 15-day disabled list Thursday and might start the next evening against the Minnesota Twins. His three-year, $32.5 million contract expires at the end of this season.

The Cubs can pick up Wood’s 2007 option, worth $13.5 million, or spend $3 million to buy out the deal and make him a free agent. They also could tear up his contract and create a new package that has a more realistic salary -- plus a stack of incentive bonuses -- that would keep him in Chicago.

It’s too early for either side to look that far into the future. Wood, who is earning $12 million this season, is 1-2 in four starts. He opened the season on the disabled list after undergoing shoulder surgery Aug. 31. His return from the surgery has been bumpier than expected, putting more question marks on his future.

Each question mark causes more pain for Riggleman.

After a solid spring training in 1998, Wood was headed for Iowa, a move that shocked many of Riggleman’s rivals in the Cactus League.

“Other managers would say: ‘How in the world are you guys that good that you have five starters better than that guy? How does he not make your club?”’ Riggleman recalled. “But we just kind of had him on a plan.”

The plan got altered faster than anyone expected. Left-handed setup man Bob Patterson pulled a calf muscle April 9 and was headed for the disabled list. Riggleman needed a lefty reliever, so he took veteran Terry Mulholland out of the rotation and moved him into the bullpen. That opened a spot in the rotation, and Wood -- two months shy of 21 -- had just struck out 11 in five innings during his first start for Iowa. “It wasn’t predetermined that Kerry was going to come up,” Riggleman said. “But when Patterson got hurt, we made the decision that, ‘Hey, this is maybe quicker than we wanted to do it, but let’s bring him up feeling good and throwing good,’ and we did.”

It was April 12, 1998. Wood lasted 4* innings and took the loss, a 4-1 decision to the Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium. He allowed four runs, four hits and three walks. Wood struck out seven, including future teammate Mark Grudzielanek, the first batter he faced.

“He showed the electric stuff,” Riggleman recalled, “but also kind of the first-day-in-the-big-leagues nerves that come with it.”

His next start, on April 18, marked Wood’s debut at Wrigley Field. Backed by an eight-run first inning, Wood earned his first victory by pitching five scoreless innings. He struck out seven and walked three.

Wood made two more starts and was 2-2. He seemed to be adjusting well to the major-league life. Nothing flashy, but solid.

“Pitched well, kept us in the games,” Riggleman said. “He was really just kind of looking like a young rookie power pitcher who is going to win some games for you. Then that game ...”

“That game” came on May 6. The Astros were at Wrigley Field.

Wood struck out the first three batters, then stopped counting. The fans in left field ran out of cardboard signs after 11 strikeouts and began painting K’s on their chests. At one point, Wood struck out seven in a row. He entered the ninth inning having allowed one hit, an infield single in the third by Ricky Gutierrez that glanced off the glove of third baseman Kevin Orie.

Wood had 18 strikeouts with three outs left. Pinch hitter Billy Spiers opened the ninth by striking out, and Wood had tied the National League record. Leadoff hitter Craig Biggio grounded to short, disappointing the crowd of 15,758. Then Derek Bell went down swinging. Wood had 20 strikeouts, matching Roger Clemens’ major-league record.

It took 122 pitches, but who was counting?

“It was just an amazing performance, really,” Riggleman said. “Talking to Billy Williams and Ron Santo, I remember discussing it with them -- and I know it sounds a little bit like an overexaggeration -- but it may have been the greatest game ever pitched in the history of that ballpark.”

That’s a lot of history.

“You had no walks, 20 strikeouts,” Riggleman argued. “I don’t know how anybody could ever find a game that was dominated more by a pitcher than what Kerry did that day. Along with what he did, that was a heck of a team that he beat. All of those guys were in their primes -- Biggio and Jeff Bagwell -- just some real pro hitters on the team.”

Biggio was at Wrigley Field during the Astros’ three-game sweep of the Cubs last week. He remembers Wood’s big day clearly.

“He was throwing real hard,” Biggio recalled. “Obviously, you have to respect his fastball, but he had a great curveball going and a slider. I mean, 20 strikeouts in the big leagues is pretty hard to do. That was just flat-out dominant. He was on his game. And he had just such a tight curveball going, too, that guys were just having bad hacks all day long.”

Then Biggio summed up the outing perfectly: “Total dominance for a day.”

In Chicago, when you’re talking about the Cubs, that was enough.

Expectations skyrocketed. And it wasn’t just Cubs fans thinking big.

“Just throwing 97 mph alone, not many guys can do that,” Biggio said. “But to have the rest of the pitches he had, he was pretty nasty. So you knew his career was going to be just fine.”

Suddenly, this hyped-up prospect was being eyed as a savior. Forget all the veterans in the rotation such as Kevin Tapani, who won 19 games that season, or Steve Trachsel. Wood was appointed the new ace.

Was that fair?

“It was kind of unavoidable,” Riggleman said. “People love the Cubs, and there had been a lot of losses in the few years before that. We were playing OK at that time. And here is this young guy who maybe was going to be an answer to when Greg Maddux was there. A different style of pitcher, but another winning guy like Greg Maddux was. So the fans couldn’t help getting excited about it. Kerry handled it very well. He didn’t get ahead of himself.”

Wood didn’t disappoint, either. By Aug. 31 -- in his 26th start of the season -- Wood reached 233 strikeouts, the Cubs’ 20th-century record for a rookie.

That was Wood’s final start of the regular season. Five days earlier, Riggleman allowed Wood to throw 135 pitches during a 9-2 victory against the Cincinnati Reds. When he awoke after the Aug. 31 victory against the Reds, Wood’s right elbow was killing him.

Wood had strained ligaments in the elbow, and Riggleman shut down the kid in the heat of a pennant race.

But the damage was done. Wood was allowed to reach 120 pitches nine times that season.

He made one more start in 1998 -- Game 3 of the National League Division Series against Maddux and the Atlanta Braves. Wood left after five innings with the Cubs trailing 1-0. They eventually got swept in a 6-2 loss.

Wood blew out his elbow the next spring training, requiring reconstructive surgery and missing all of the 1999 season. Riggleman was fired before Wood returned to the Cubs’ rotation.

And Riggleman still questions his choices in 1998.

“It’s very tough to have a young power pitcher in the big leagues in a situation where you are trying to win,” Riggleman said. “We weren’t just going out there like we were in ‘97 and trying to get through the season; we were trying to get in the playoffs in ‘98. So you are trying to win ballgames. And young power pitchers are going to throw a lot of pitches.

“You find yourself in a lot of gray areas. Six innings of pitching has taken place, and there are 95 or 100 pitches. You know that it is a tremendous psychological boost for the team in the other dugout that Kerry is not going back out there for the next inning. They’re like, ‘Oh, boy, I’m glad that guy’s out of there.’

“So you send him out there, and next thing you know, some guy fouls off 10 pitches. His pitch count is up there at 118, 120. You win the game. He goes seven. And you know, man, you just can’t have it all when you have a young power pitcher. They are going to throw a lot of pitches.”

In the heat of a playoff race, Riggleman put the team first.

“Had we been a second-division club that year and he was there, we probably would have said: ‘You know what? We are never going to let him throw more than 100 pitches. We’ll just bring him along that way,”’ Riggleman said. “But if we didn’t have a good team that year, he probably would have been in Triple-A all year.”

Riggleman has had time to reflect. Given the circumstances, he thinks he would do it all the same way. He points out that closer Rod Beck got pushed into a league-high 81 games, saving 51. Beck wasn’t the same in 1999, another casualty of a playoff race.

“I don’t think there is anybody to blame,” Riggleman said of Wood’s injury woes since 1998. “It is the nature of high-caliber baseball. When you are in playoff contention, those horses get rode.

“We were just enjoying the moment and appreciating what Kerry was doing for us, not really thinking about what he would have years later.”



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