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Kerry Wood’s career struck out

Kerry Wood's career embodied Cubs—much promise start but unrealized potential end.   | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Kerry Wood's career embodied the Cubs—much promise to start but unrealized potential in the end. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 18, 2012 4:08PM

There stood Kerry Wood in the clubhouse on Friday morning, saying goodbye to teammates in one of the worst kept secrets in recent Cubs history.

A history full of worst kept secrets.

But the pitcher once embraced on the North Side as “Kid K’’ wanted to go out on his terms. That meant spending the morning acting like it was business as usual. Even for one of the more underachieving pitchers baseball has seen in the last 20 years.

“Kerry can’t talk, he’s going to throw,’’ one member of the Cubs PR relayed to a swarming media that had been gathering. Gathering because of an early AM Facebook post by Wood’s wife, Sarah, which read, “every story has an end but in life every ending is just a new beginning.’’

So this chapter of the Wood story does have an end, with the right-hander expected to announce his retirement following Friday afternoon’s game. It just doesn’t have a happy one.

Not when there was so much talent.

Not when he burst on the scene in 1998, fanning 20 in just his fifth major-league start. Then following that up with 13 strikeouts in a win in Arizona five days later.

Not when having a lead in Game 7 against the Marlins in 2003, innings away from a trip to the World Series, only to have that lead pulled from his grasp.

It’s not a happy ending. But it’s one that Cubs fans embraced, identified with. Wood symbolized decades and decades of Cubs fans hoping for better, only to be disappointed. He was their poster boy.

“From a Cub perspective, and you have to look at the entire career, for every Game 5 in Atlanta [to get the Cubs to the National League Championship Series], there was a Game 7 in Wrigley Field against the Florida Marlins where he didn’t get the job done,’’ broadcaster Steve Stone explained on Friday. “But one of the reasons he will always be engrained in the pantheon that is Cubs legend and why he will always be close to Cubs fans and their team is because like so many of them in their lives, he was always supposed to be better.

“The unfortunate part is he was very good, but it didn’t matter what he did, he had the gifts to make him better.’’

That sums up Wood’s career perfectly.

He was 1969, 1971, 1984, 2003. He was the Goat. He was Bartman. If it could go wrong, it did. And it did with Wood, specifically an across-the-body delivery that wasn’t going to hold up over time.

The Mount Rushmore of impact rookie pitchers the last 30 years was Wood, Dwight Gooden and Stephan Strasburg. According to Stone, Wood was better than both.

“Gooden it was the overhand curveball and the fastball,’’ Stone said. “Strasburg it was pretty decent curveball, very good fastball, he throws really hard. ‘Woody’ threw harder than both when he wanted to and had a distinct curve and slider that no one could hit. I mean his stuff was overwhelming.

“The only problem was that motion, that motion of throwing across his body really hurt him. Unfortunately, the most games he ever won was 14. That’s reality. That’s a non-debatable issue. However, had he been able to stay together, to correct that delivery flaw, he might have been a guy like Fergie Jenkins, who for six years in a row won 20 games.’’

What he was this year was simply the pitcher formally known as Kerry Wood. He was more ambassador than quality reliever. Who would have guessed that his best throw of the season came last week when he tossed his glove and hat into the stands?

So Wood calls it quits today, as nature plays that mean trick of telling an athlete that it’s over.

In Cubbie legend he goes out as “Kid K,’’ one of the best pitchers to wear the blue and red in recent memory.

Then again, Cubbie legend is always a bit distorted.

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