Kerry Wood: Portrait of Cubness

Kerry Wood isn't the greatest pitcher ever to take the mound at Wrigley Field. Well, for one day (just over two hours, really) he was. But now that his career is over, it's impossible to look at his final statistical tally and consider him a truly great pitcher. He sure did give us reason to hope he would be . . . I guess I'm a bit surprised he never earned the nickname Kerry Would. Or Kerry Woulda. Kerry Coulda? You get the poorly thought-out picture.

Wood had the stuff of greatness. A supersonic fastball. A heat-seaking slider. A curve that did as much damage to opposing hitters' knees as it did to his elbow. But his trip to Cooperstown was derailed by . . . Cubness. So many possibilities, so many dreams, so many imaginary victory parades postponed indefinitely by Dr. James Andrews and the Florida Marlins. It looked like Kerry Wood could be one of the all-time greats. It looked like he could lead the Cubs to the World Series. But it never happened. Because he was a Cub.

No, really, Kerry Wood spent his entire career essentially defining Cubness. Before Wood debuted in 1998, it had been an excruciatingly long drought since the previous postseason appearance. The Dark Ages of Cubdom between 1989 and 1998 brought nary a whiff of champagne to the dank Wrigley Field clubhouse. It was a really bad time to be a Cubs fan. As Yogi Berra used to say, "They sucked ass."

So when Kerry Wood fanned 20 in front of 15,000+ fans (including yours truly, as my good fortune would have it), it was pretty difficult not to hope with confidence that something special would happen very shortly . . . or, you know, in my lifetime. He had officially assumed the role as the embodiment of Cubs fans' hopes. Sure, Sammy played a big part in that too, but not nearly as long as Kerry did. Not for his entire career. For as long as Kerry Wood threw major league baseballs, he was the litmus test of how the Cubs were. He was the portrait of our hopes, our wishes, and the ruptured tendons of our now deferred dreams.

In 1998, he got us believing again. Then heartbreak. And then the shock of seeing an entire season sink before it began. In 1999, the Chicago Cubs and their fans suffered season-ending surgery. Oh, and Sammy kept hitting homers. But the Cubs suffered through a .414 winning percentage. And thus began a crazy relationship between the success of Kerry Wood and that of his team. I'm not implying causation with this correlation (although obviously there's some; it really helps the Cubs when their pitchers perform well). I'm just saying, as Kerry went, so went the Cubs, and so went the hearts of the fans.

Wood's best ERA+ seasons were 2008 (141), 2007 (140), 2003 (136), 1998 (129), 2001 (124), and 2004 (119). The Cubs had a winning record in every one of those years. The only other winning season the Cubs have had since 1998 was 2009, the year of Milton. Sure, Wood's 2007 consisted of 22 relief appearances, but his return at the end of that season just felt right.

Again, I'm not saying Kerry Wood was the sole or even primary reason for the Cubs' success in any of the years they did well. It's just an observation: when Kerry was going well, the Cubs were going well. And vice versa. Pretty much always.

That relationship was more emotional than statistical. For as unreliable as our feelings toward a player's performance may be, with Kerry they were somehow always pretty indicative of the state of Cubness. When he was healthy and reliable (or somewhat close to either), it felt good to be a Cubs fan. When we felt the rush of joy from watching him hit a swinging Fernando Vina with a slider, or post high-90s numbers to the radar gun, or . . . throw strikes and stuff, it always seemed to coincide with the Cubs actually being somewhat good. When he hit the DL? Yeah. Cubs fans' joy-o-meters fell as precipitously as the Cubs did down the standings.

Or so it felt. Our feelings might be liars, but with Kerry Wood, it was always nearly impossible to keep my emotions out of the picture. I don't think I'm alone. Kerry came up with the Cubs. We saw his career take shape. And he was a likeable player. He was consistently the guy to give the postgame interviews, win or lose. When we were pissed, when we were elated, it was Kerry in front of the microphones and cameras helping us cope or celebrate. And he seemed to like us, too.

So now that he's retiring, it's yet another sign that the Ricketts regime is the dawn of something new. We hope it will be something good. But I don't know that Theo and the Superfriends will ever bring along a player who more consistently embodies the pathos of the team and its fans quite like Kerry did. The Kerry years weren't the easiest to be a Cubs fan, but we sure did have some fun.

Thanks for the memories, Kerry. And sorry we never did come up with a decent nickname for you.

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