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Telander: Chicago’s affair with Kerry Wood defined by unreal promise, painful setbacks

Kerry Wood is congratulated by Mark Grace Sandy Martinez after finishing off his 20-strikeout 1-hit shutout Astros 1998.  |

Kerry Wood is congratulated by Mark Grace and Sandy Martinez after finishing off his 20-strikeout, 1-hit shutout of the Astros in 1998. | RICHARD A. CHAPMAN~ SUN-TIMES

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June 1995

Eighteen-year-old Kerry Wood from Grand Prairie, Texas, is the fourth overall pick of the amateur draft.


Wood leads the Cubs’ farm system in strikeouts (136 in 1141/3 innings).

April 12, 1998

Wood makes major-league debut at Montreal and takes 4-1 loss.

May 6, 1998

In his fifth career start, Wood ties a major-league record with 20 strikeouts against the Houston Astros. He allows one hit and hits one batter in the 2-0 victory. He finishes the season winning the National League Rookie of the Year award, the first Cubs pitcher to do so.


Wood misses the season with Tommy John surgery. He would go on the disabled list 15 more times in his career.


After missing much of the last two seasons, Wood appears in just four games as he recovers from right shoulder surgery.


Moves to role of closer and makes the All-Star team again but doesn’t appear because of a finger blister. Leaves the Cubs after the season as a free agent, signing a two-year contract with the Cleveland Indians.


After being traded to the New York Yankees, Wood goes 2-0 with an 0.69 ERA and 10 holds to help the Yankees clinch the AL wild card. After the season, he returns to the Cubs, signing a one-year free-agent deal.

May 18, 2012

Wood lets it be known before a game against the White Sox that he’ll retire after one more Wrigley Field appearance. He enters in the eighth and strikes out Dayan Viciedo on three pitches in his final major-league action.

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Updated: July 1, 2012 12:22PM

It was the perfect way for Kerry Wood to go out: striking out the last batter he’ll ever face, on a filthy curveball, as the Cubs lost.

‘‘Bittersweet’’ comes to mind when reflecting on Wood’s 14-season major-league pitching career, 12 of those years in two stints with the Cubs.

Bittersweet and amazing and might-have-been.

At the end, after the standing ovation at Wrigley Field, after the hugging of his batting-helmeted son Justin (was the lad afraid of a wild pitch?), after the back pats and handshakes and cheers from the loving home crowd, and after the Cubs had lost 3-2 to the White Sox to fall into last place in the National League Central, Wood said of his abrupt retirement, ‘‘It was time, you know.’’

Nobody disagreed.

Wood, the same age as his jersey number 34, has had so many injuries in his career that it will almost be a relief not to worry if he’s on the DL tomorrow.

The arm of a big-league pitcher is a rare and complicated and delicate thing. It has so many moving parts and so much torque and twist and acceleration and deceleration when performing that it can blow at any moment. Pitchers have broken their arms in half throwing stuff.

But when Wood first pitched for the Cubs as a rookie in 1998, it seemed the 21-year-old from Texas might have some mojo sauce that wasn’t quite human. He threw like his arm was on fire. He threw buckshot. He threw neutrons.

In his fifth start he struck out 20 Houston Astros, tying the major-league record set by Roger Clemens, then struck out 13 Arizona Diamondbacks in his next game.

He went 13-6 that season, was named Rookie of the Year and had the highest strikeout-to-innings-pitched ratio of any Cubs starter in the 20th century. Cubs fans were overjoyed to have a ‘‘natural’’ on their team, especially since one-time favorite Greg Maddux had left town after an ugly contract dispute.

Wood deepened the fans’ joy and relief when he struck out 11 Braves in Atlanta late in July and beat Maddux head-to-head, 3-0. Ah, the promise!

And then, like the bolt of doom that ever seems to lurk over the Cubs franchise, Wood’s right elbow exploded.

There was no sophomore season for ‘‘Kid K’’ as he recovered from surgery for all of 1999, and after he came back in 2000 it was, in a sense, a slide into oblivion.

Torn ulnar collateral ligament, strained oblique, finger blister, rupture of the labrum, rotator cuff damage, pulled lat, shoulder strain, triceps tightness, surgery again and again — Wood became a walking anatomy quiz.

And so, like the Cubs themselves, he never put it all together again.

There was the splendor of 2003 when the patched-together Wood threw what seemed like a million smoking pitches, led the NL in strikeouts (and hit batsmen), had his most wins (14) and was named an All-Star.

But in the biggest game of his career, the game after the epochal ‘‘Bartman Game,’’ when all the Cubs needed was a win against the Florida Marlins at Wrigley to make it to their first World Series in 58 years, he fell apart, giving up seven runs in 52/3 innings.

And that was that. His arm was fried, damaged like a computer board with too many melted chips. He would soon be a reliever. He would go to Cleveland and New York for inspection, be found average, get sent home to the Cubs.

The dream had long since vanished.

Yet Cubs fans love Kerry Wood. They love the fact he and his wife, Sarah, have been active in charitable causes in Chicago. They love that Woody has stayed off the police blotter. They love that he obviously gave his all.

They love that he is, despite his talent, pretty much like them — a striver who yearns for more, who glimpsed more, but has had to settle for what he was dealt.

It’s stunning, but flamethrower Kerry Wood won only 86 games in his career, just 11 more than he lost.

The Cubs understand all that.

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