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Praise for Kerry Wood rules the day

Kerry Wood right talks with umpires Wrigley Field Friday May 18 2012 Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Kerry Wood, right, talks with umpires at Wrigley Field Friday, May 18, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 1, 2012 12:24PM

James Russell was a 12-year-old kid in Texas when Kid K was born in Chicago.

From then on, ‘‘That’s all you hear about growing up in Texas, is Nolan Ryan and Kerry Wood,’’ Russell said. ‘‘That’s who you grew up watching, who you wanted to be like, and that’s who all the kids playing Wiffle ball would act like.’’

Back then, Russell could picture being a left-handed Wood in the backyard.

But nobody back then pictured this day, this moment this soon. Not this Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field 14 years later, when Russell sat on a folding chair in the Cubs’ bullpen next to Wood for several innings, waiting for the last pitch of the iconic Cub’s career that everyone in the park knew was imminent.

Russell had the closest seat in the house for Wood’s last day in the majors after news of the 34-year-old pitcher’s retirement was leaked by his wife, Sarah, via Facebook early Friday.

‘‘We just talked about life in general, what he’s going to be doing now with all his time,’’ Russell said of the thoughts he shared with Wood, ‘‘just kind of cherishing the moments that we had together. It’s tough to see a guy like that go. I fought like hell to make him stay.’’

Wood’s abrupt retirement channeled the usual high passions of White Sox-Cubs weekend into an emotional day for many on the home side of the field.

‘‘It’s tough to talk about, man,’’ Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija said. ‘‘Woody was here when I got here in ’08, and he’s been a great guy, helping young guys and really showing everyone how to play this game the right way. … It’s a tough day, man.’’

For Wood, it was a day two years in the making but no less emotional.

He spent the morning with his son, Justin, visiting the scoreboard and later taking him to the outfield to shag during batting practice with teammates.

‘‘It was definitely special,’’ said Wood, who later was greeted by Justin at the dugout steps when he left the mound for the last time after striking out Dayan Viciedo in the eighth.

‘‘I wasn’t expecting him to run on the field. I didn’t talk for about five minutes after that to the guys [to compose his emotions].’’

The day was as surreal as it was emotional for many watching the last afternoon of baseball for the guy who struck out 20 Houston Astros as a rookie in 1998, who clinched the franchise’s only playoff-series win since 1908 in Atlanta in 2003, who was an All-Star starter and All-Star closer in a 15-year career that includes 1,582 strikeouts despite 16 trips to the disabled list.

‘‘I’m waking up in Bizarro World hearing the news,’’ White Sox reliever and former Cubs teammate Will Ohman said. ‘‘I’d just gotten drafted in 1998 when the 20-strikeout game happened. I just remember watching on TV and saying, ‘I’m expected to play with this guy? I cannot do that.’ ’’

For Samardzija, who grew up in northwest Indiana, ‘‘I remember being a kid and my dad reading an article or something about Kerry working out in the pool or something: That’s why he threw 98. So the next day, my dad has me in the pool kicking floaties around and stuff.

‘‘As a kid growing up in the Midwest, that’s what Kerry was to us kids when we were coming up. That’s the dude you wanted to be.’’

And if you got to know him, if you watched him fight back from injury after injury, watched him get within hours of a retirement call in 2007 only to have his shoulder finally recover one more time?

‘‘And to get another five years out of that says a lot,’’ teammate and close friend Ryan Dempster said.

‘‘He’s taught me a lot of things — not just that have to do with baseball but about being a human being. … I just appreciated everything he’s ever done for me.

‘‘It’s going to be weird not seeing him out there.’’

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