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Jay Cutler can learn a thing or two from Kerry Wood

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler comes across as indifferent his best days smug his worst. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler comes across as indifferent on his best days and smug on his worst. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:27AM



Jay Cutler was directing a painless dissection of the St. Louis Rams last month at Soldier Field as the Cubs were saying a final goodbye to Kerry Wood.

Here’s hoping someone sent Cutler a tape. The smirky quarterback could learn something.

As a sports figure, Wood was classic Chicago: a decent, hard-working, down-to-earth guy who carried himself the way we would like to think we would if we were blessed with a 98 mph fastball and breaking stuff so wicked it completely flummoxed a credible Houston Astros lineup in Wood’s fifth major-league start as a 20-year-old.

By one measure, that 20-strikeout masterpiece was the worst thing that could have happened to Wood. It set an unattainably high bar for the rest of his career. Largely because of a succession of injuries, Wood is destined to be remembered for what might have been rather than for what was, save for that one shining moment in May 1998.

He won 80 games in a Cubs uniform, as many as Ken Holtzman and 45 fewer than Carlos Zambrano, neither of whom would be hailed as a franchise icon. He never pitched in a World Series — hardly an exclusive club of Cubs — and squandered one opportunity that pains him still.

After all that went terribly wrong in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, the Cubs had another chance in Game 7, with Wood taking the mound before an adoring, deliriously supportive packed house at Wrigley Field.

He was at the peak of his powers, having won a career-best 14 games with a league-high 266 strikeouts in 211 innings. But he couldn’t close the deal. The Florida Marlins cuffed him for seven runs in 52/3 innings and secured the NL pennant.

Wood’s tearful ‘‘I choked’’ mea culpa in the postgame clubhouse evoked more sympathy than anger. And in any recounting of still another epic Cubs collapse,
Game 6 protagonists Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez and Dusty Baker emerge as the primary culprits.

Woody skates because we love the guy. Always did, always will. All those injuries might have derailed his run at greatness, but he never stopped trying to get there. He didn’t go out of his way to court media favor, but simply by being approachable and honest, he created a good-guy persona that Cubs fans embraced.

Wood is a Texan by birth and background, but he has made himself a Chicagoan for life, and there’s some benefit to that.

Cutler, were he so inclined, could be an even bigger deal. He plays the most important position on the most important team in the city, and he’s acceptably good at it, if not great, with the Bears moving smoothly toward their second playoff trip in his four-year tenure.

Just as important, Cutler put to rest any doubts a self-styled tough town might have had about his own ‘‘toughness’’ by crawling out from under 308 pounds of angry Ndamukong Suh to finish the Bears’ victory Monday against the Detroit Lions with bruised ribs.

What’s not to like?

Well, there’s Cutler’s demeanor. He comes across as bored and indifferent on his best days, smug and condescending on his worst. He simply doesn’t care what you or I or anybody else outside the Bears’ locker room thinks of him and won’t cooperate with a city that wants to love him.

Does it matter? No, except that it does. Fans aren’t privy to the locker-room dynamic and form their perceptions of athletes through the prism of the media. Is that fair? Of course not, but a little civility helps a lot.

Dave Wannstedt probably bought himself an extra year or two as the Bears’ coach by being a decent guy. Mark Buehrle, Steve Kerr, Jermaine Dye, Brian Campbell — they’ve moved on, but they always will be welcome here.

Frank Thomas could have owned the town during his run as the best hitter in baseball. He never chose to, opting for prickly, but he saw the light before it was too late. Watching him yuk it up as part of the White Sox’ broadcast crew, it’s easy to forget he was once an outcast from the organization.

Sammy Sosa remains in Cubs exile, paying the price for being an unethical, unrepentant diva.

This is not to suggest that Cutler morph into Jay Leno — oh, no, not that. Maybe he’s being true to himself by remaining disdainfully above it all. But Chicago would like him better if he liked us back — or at least appeared to. We are, after all, an awfully soft touch for sports stars.

Especially if they’re Bears.



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