My favorite part of the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is that it offers a chance to remember not just the great players, but some of the good ones, too. As we begin our daily player-by-player breakdown of the 33 names on the Hall of Fame ballot -- which will take us all the way to election day on Jan. 24 -- let's go back to May 6, 1998, and a 20-year-old kid making his fifth Major League start.
Kerry Wood was a fascinating prospect, one of the more intriguing in baseball history. He was the latest in a compelling line of hard-throwing Texas pitching phenoms. Actually, to be precise, there are two compelling lines of hard-throwing Texas pitching phenoms.
There's the Nolan Ryan-Roger Clemens-Josh Beckett-Clayton Kershaw line.
There's also the David Clyde-Jackie Davidson-Colt Griffin line.
The first Texas line obviously includes some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. The second includes some of baseball's biggest disappointments. Clyde was absurdly gifted and he skipped the Minor Leagues entirely, to somewhat disastrous effect. Griffin was the first high school pitcher to be clocked at 100 mph. He never made it above Double-A.
Wood showed the qualities of both lines. He was, like the rest, a high school phenom. In his senior year at Grand Prairie in the Dallas suburbs, he went 14-0 and struck out 152 in 81 innings, and his mother clipped every newspaper story along the way. The Cubs chose him fourth overall in the 1995 Draft and considered him a centerpiece of their latest rebuilding project.
Three days after the Draft, Wood threw 144 pitches in the first game of a high school tournament doubleheader. He promptly came back to start the second game and threw 29 pitches before he was pulled. It did not seem an auspicious beginning.
Wood showed in the Minor Leagues both the promise and concerns that would mark his baseball life. In 1997, for instance, between Double-A and Triple-A, he struck out 186 batters in 151 2/3 innings and gave up just 93 hits, a mere four of them home runs. Unfortunately, he also walked 131, hit 16 batters and threw 18 wild pitches. He was a real-life Nuke LaLoosh.
He was similarly erratic during his first four big league starts. Few could hit him -- really -- and he struck out a lot of people, but he walked 12 in 18 innings and hit a couple of guys. Consider his battles with F.P. Santangelo in his first big league start, during which he walked Santangelo during his first two at-bats, then plunked him the third time around, perhaps to save time.
On April 24 against the Dodgers, he melted down in the second inning.
A review of that frame:
• Todd Zeile led off with a single.
• Wood hit Raul Mondesi with a pitch.
• Wood balked, moving runners to second and third.
• Todd Hollandsworth hit a groundout to short that scored a run.
• Wood struck out Matt Luke for the second out
• Wood walked Jose Vizcaino.
• Wood walked pitcher Ismail Valdez to load the bases.
• Wood walked Eric Young to score a run.
• Wood walked Roger Cedeno to score a run.
• Mike Piazza hit a grand slam.
This was the Ballad of Kerry Wood at that moment in time. He had the potential to be a Hall of Famer. He had the potential to wash out of the big leagues and become a cautionary tale. Then came that fifth start. Just one outing removed from the disastrous second inning, a pretty persuasive argument could be made that on May 6, 1998, Wood pitched the most dominant nine-inning game in history.
Consider the moment: It was an afternoon game at Wrigley Field with a sparse crowd -- fewer than 16,000 people. The Astros were in town with two future Hall of Famers (Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell), and touting a fantastic team that would win 102 games and lead the National League in runs.
Wood could not get himself comfortable during warmups and even into the first inning. He later said he didn't feel like he had command of any of his pitches. But he was throwing so hard -- 100-plus miles per hour -- that he didn't have to hit spots. He struck out Biggio, Derek Bell and Bagwell to start off the game. He then struck out Jack Howell and Moises Alou to start the second inning.
Dave Clark was the first Astros player to put a ball in play -- he lifted a fly ball to center that was caught to end the second inning. As the game went along, Wood's confidence and control locked in.
Ricky Gutierrez led off the third inning with an infield single that stood for Houston's lone hit of the game. Gutierrez reached third on a sacrifice bunt and a Wood balk, but was stranded there after Biggio hit a routine groundout.
Wood fanned two in the fourth inning and the side in the fifth, had a lull in the sixth (struck out one but also hit Biggio with a pitch), then struck out the side in the seventh and the eighth. Wrigley Field was buzzing as Wood closed in on the National League record for strikeouts; he had 18 going into the ninth inning. In that ninth, he struck out Bill Spiers, allowed a ground ball to Biggio, and then struck out Bell to end the game. That added up to nine innings, one hit, 20 strikeouts, no walks and a pitching performance for the ages.
"You might never see another game like that for the rest of your life," Cubs teammate Mark Grace gushed after the game, and he was right.
And at that moment, fairly or unfairly, the expectations for Wood were set. He was only 20 years old and had already flown closer to the sun than most pitchers ever dream. The Hall of Fame speech was being prepared. The record books were being cleared out to make room.
It didn't work out that way.
Wood really had a fine career. He was the fastest pitcher in history to 1,000 strikeouts. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, made a couple of All-Star teams, led the NL in strikeouts one year, pitched effectively as a starter and a closer, threw in five different postseasons and so on. He was better than the majority, perhaps the second-best player taken that high in the Draft in the past 25 years behind only Washington's Ryan Zimmerman (Wood and Alex Fernandez had similar careers as far as value goes).
But it is hard to look at Wood's career and not think about what might have been, how different this Hall of Fame ballot essay could have looked.
What happened? Injuries, mostly. Wood began feeling soreness in his throwing elbow toward the end of his wonderful rookie season, and by Spring Training of 1999 he needed Tommy John.
The rest of his career was a dizzying ride of highs and lows: a lot of strikeouts and a lot of walks, plus several grand moments, disappointing endings, playoff successes, playoff misses and injuries galore. The Cubs -- particularly manager Dusty Baker -- took a lot of blame for not better protecting Wood's arm, but it's dubious to say the career could have gone any differently. Wood was a high-effort pitcher with a blazing fastball and erratic control.
Pitchers like that just don't tend to last very long, with the once-in-a-lifetime exception of Ryan.
Most innings pitched while averaging nine strikeouts and four walks per nine innings:
- Nolan Ryan, 5,386
- Kerry Wood, 1,380
- Oliver Perez, 1,367
- Rich Harden, 928
- Fernando Rodney, 821
Wood retired at 34 years old. In his last appearance for the Cubs he came in to face one batter, Dayan Viciedo of the White Sox. Wood struck him out on three pitches. The strikeout was a fitting way for his career to end, but it's not exactly right. In truth it would also have been fitting if he walked Viciedo or hit him with a pitch. Wood's career contained multitudes.