Wood retires: The Final K

He began his career with a strikeout, he ended his career with a strikeout and he gained the love of a city and 1,580 strikeouts in between.

Seeing “former major league pitcher” next to Kerry Wood’s name will never seem right to those who grew up in the steroid era. With a blazing fastball, nasty curveball and a slider, Wood was the guy striking out those over-sized men, starting in 1998 and ending Friday with one final strikeout, a tip of the cap to people Wood referred to as “the best fans in the world,” even though he’s played for the New York Yankees, and a hug from his son Justin, who squeezed his dad with the intent to seemingly never let go.

Chicago Cub fans could relate to Wood’s son, for they also never wanted to let go of the guy, who was not only talented enough to be a star, but had the personality that made people want him to be a star. Cub fans never let go of the hope a 20-strikeout game in just his fifth career start brought.

Wood was just the third pitcher (Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson) to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. Wood was the quickest to 1,000 strikeouts, taking just 134 games and 853 innings pitched to do so. He struck out over 200 batters in four of his first five seasons.

There’s a blind hope which comes with being a Cub fan. The hope in Wood looked to be a clear sight.

What comes with the blind hope of being a Cub fan is seeing reasons to be hopeless. It is one thing to see losing when you expect it to happen and use pessimism to shield any feelings toward a team, but it is a completely different ballgame when you have an unquestioned dedication to a team no matter what all logic tells you.

After becoming the fastest pitcher to 1,000 strikeouts in 134 games and 853 innings by 2004, it took Wood 312 games and 527 innings to strike out 582 batters by 2012.

It was the usual sight Cub fans were used to seeing behind eyes brawling with tears. Wood had collapsed. This wasn’t the normal Cub collapse the outside world laughs at. Sure, we mocked Cub fans for stupid nicknames like “Kid K” or shirts which said, “We Got Wood” on them, but to watch Wood go through injury after injury wasn’t funny.

He missed a month in 1998 for elbow soreness, missed all of 1999 for Tommy John surgery for a UCL tear in his right elbow, came back strong only to be run into the ground by Dusty Baker in 2003, which was followed by missing two months in 2004 thanks to a strained tricep, only to never pitch more than 66.1 innings again.

Wood had the talent. In years filled with loud steroid users owning the spotlight, Wood quietly went about his business. Mix this with the fact he raised money for children’s charities (over $2.5 million) and you have the perfect guy to cheer for.

Unfortunately, he had an arm neither coaches nor he himself, seen in his mechanics, knew what to do with.

And to add to everything, when it was his turn to use and abuse free agency, after sporting a 3.13 ERA  in 46 innings out of the bullpen, including going 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA in 24 games with the Yankees and setting up Mariano Rivera in the postseason with a 2.25 postseason ERA in 2010, Wood turned down millions of dollars ($3.5 million from the Chicago White Sox) just to come back to the Cubs.

His fastball was loud like the streets of Chicago, his curveball was deceptive like Chicago politics and he handled his business with no need for recognition just as Chicago sits silently between the obnoxiously loud cities of New York and Los Angeles.

It’s not often a soft-spoken Texan can become a symbol for the city of broad shoulders, but Kerry Wood was and always will be Chicago.

After all, if shunning the White Sox doesn’t make you part of Chicago, nothing will.