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Injuries kept Wood from reaching greatness

From September of his rookie season 14 years ago, when he first felt the pain of the strain of his devastating slider, it was never fair for Kerry Wood.

We had watched that cold May 6 afternoon game when he struck out 20 Astros and didn't walk one, and thought aloud that we were watching the next Roger Clemens or Nolan Ryan. But by September, then the next spring, when Wood underwent Tommy John surgery, we all waited for the recapturing of the Hall of Fame talent and dreams while he always knew from that point on there was a train, either way, leaving every day.

So, when the 34-year-old Wood decided this week that it simply wasn't worth it to try to get loose to get an out or three, his farewell was one batter in a May game. It would have been nice had he closed out a Cubs victory, but injuries aren't fair. They aren't the fiction of a John R. Tunis children's book, they are the painful reality of long tosses and towel tosses and hours of stretching and light weights and cortisone shots.

The career we thought was going to end in Cooperstown ended at Wrigley Field, a 95-mph fastball followed by a devastating hook that struck out White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo, the 1,582nd and final punchout of Wood's baseball days. He walked off with the second-best strikeout-per-nine-inning rate (10.3) in history, and he walked off with the admiration of his teammates, the affection of the great Cubs fans and the loving hugs of his son.

But he also walked off knowing it coulda/shoulda been more, but for fate. Wood never won 15 games in a season, because he had 15 stints on the disabled list.

Go back to 2003. Wood was 26, Mark Prior pitched at 22, and turned 23 on Sept. 7. The Cubs were seemingly headed to the World Series and the end of their star-crossed streak, which dates back to 1908. They beat the Braves in the National League Division Series. They were up, 3-1, on the Marlins in the NL Championship Series.

And while we all know what happened, and how Miguel Cabrera, Josh Beckett and the Marlins ended up beating the Yankees in the World Series, the future of the Cubs was built upon two franchise right-handers. Wood threw 211 innings, won 14 games and struck out 266. Prior won 18 games with a 2.43 ERA, pitched 211 1/3 innings and struck out 245.

Today, Prior is in Ft. Myers, Fla., trying a comeback with the Red Sox in extended spring. Today, Wood and Prior have 128 combined wins, one fewer than Randy Wolf, a dozen behind Jeff Suppan.

After 2003, Wood started 36 games. Oh, he tried relieving and one year had 34 saves, but it was never the same. After '03, Prior won 18 more games, lost 17, and hasn't been in the big leagues since '06.

It makes us appreciate Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander and Matt Cain all the more, for their durability, and importantly, their health. We are conditioned to see that Felix Hernandez's velocity has dropped 3-5 mph in five years and wonder, or think, of what that 2003 Beckett might have been like had he stayed healthy.

It's true for pitchers, it's true for position players -- when Matt Kemp went down with a hamstring pull last week, the three longest consecutive-games streaks belonged to Kemp, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto, all rich men who always want to play, three great players who care, who endure pain, players of character who have been healthy.

It's true for teams. In Spring Training, the Padres thought they had 13 pitchers who could start for them this season. This weekend they are down to No. 13 -- Suppan -- and have already used 41 players. The Rangers have used just 25.

The AL East has become the DL East, with 43 players who combine to earn $146M currently on the disabled list, led by Boston, with 12 disabled players making $78 million, and no possible way to make up for the loss of their best player, Jacoby Ellsbury, and what he brings to the top of the order and the middle-outfield defense.

"The teams that stay healthiest are usually the teams that compete," says Indians general manager Chris Antonetti. He has seen what happened to what should have been a Hall of Fame career for Grady Sizemore. We have watched the decimation of the Royals' pitching and the rash of injuries to the Washington Nationals.

At least Wood could walk away to a standing ovation, with his dignity and accentuated positives. Prior is fighting the heat and the bugs of a complex a mile east of I-75, hoping this leads to Salem, Va., and then maybe Portland, Maine, and a chance to start another big league game and once again experience the thrill of walking from the mound to the dugout to a standing ovation.

We remember what we thought Wood was going to be on May 6, 1998. We remember what we thought Prior was going to be when he arrived at Wrigley four years later.

They tried. And tried. And tried. But throwing a baseball can be unfair, which is why Wolf has won more games than Wood and Prior, combined.

Mark Prior, Kerry Wood