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Kerry Wood's 20K Day: Fifteen Years Later

Kerry Wood's 20K Day: Fifteen Years Later

Fifteen years ago, I watched one of the greatest performances in baseball history.  I was just 12 years old.  But I remember it like it was yesterday.

I came home from school sick with the flu and was trying to sleep off the symptoms.  Lying in bed, my mom knocked on my bedroom door and I opened my eyes.

After asking me how I was feeling, she flipped on the small television on my dresser to the Cubs game.

“You need to watch this,” she said.

There are certain indelible moments in every sports fan’s life that we remember forever.  We remember the emotions we felt—the jubilation or the heartache—and for some of us, the sometimes silly, ancillary details of how and where we viewed it.

For me, May 6, 1998 is one of those days I'll never forget.  And it’s thanks to Kerry Wood.

Watching through the old, hand-me-down white and gray television—so old you had to rest then antenna at a 45 degree angle to pick up clear signal—I watched him dominate hitters in ways I still haven’t seen again.

It is the greatest game I’ve ever seen pitched, and I’m not sure I’ll ever see another performance match or surpass it.

Lying under my blue comforter, with my head resting on a large blue pillow with the Cubs logo emblazoned on the front, I watched fastballs blaze to both corners of the plate, popping the center of catcher Sandy Martinez’s glove.  I watched curveballs explode out of Wood’s hand, viciously diving and dropping into the strike zone.

Accomplished hitters like Derek Bell, Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou waved helplessly at pitches they knew they had no chance to hit.

Once the Cubs scored their first run, a Henry Rodriguez sacrifice fly scoring Mark Grace in the bottom of the second inning, you knew the game was over.

Wood struck out the first five batters he faced that day.  He fanned eight of the final nine.

I remember reading Jane Leavy’s Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, where she tells stories of the legendary Dodgers pitcher’s 1965 perfect game against the Cubs.  She notes that many hitters went to the plate that night knowing they had no chance of reaching base—Koufax was too good.

Despite Wood allowing a hit to Ricky Gutierrez, one that didn’t leave the infield—and one that many fans believe should have been ruled an error on third baseman Kevin Orie—Wood’s extraordinary performance 33 years later surely reminded those who saw Koufax’s perfecto September 9, 1965 what it’s like to watch a pitcher truly dominate.

It truly was a game for the ages.

Twenty strikeouts, no walks, one hit.

Kerry Wood’s career never took off the way we all hoped it would from there.  Sure, he was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1998, and made two all-star teams, but he never stayed healthy enough to realize his potential.

As both a starter and a reliever, he was never elite.  He posted just an 86-75 record in 14 big league seasons, despite racking up a whopping 1582 strikeouts in 1380 innings pitched.  He never won more than 14 games in a year, and always struggled with his control.

A litany of injuries and sixteen trips to the disabled list kept him from becoming one of the key pieces of the Cubs franchise for years to come.

Still, that cold, damp afternoon fifteen years ago made “Kid K” one of the most beloved players in Cubs history.

Most save their virtuoso performance for the finale of their show.  Kerry Wood gave his just five games into his major league career.

That final, devastating hook that fanned Derek Bell, followed by a fist pump, a sigh and a roar from the crowd.

It still feels like yesterday.

Filed under: Cubs, Cubs Nostalgia

Tags: Cubs, Kerry Wood

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  • As you noted ... he eventually blew out his arm.

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    Was 7 that day and even I remember that game,one of maybe 3 things I remember from that age. My Dad was watching it and halfway through he said "This is going to end up being one of the best pitched games of all-time, Wood is untouchable"

    Here we are, I'm now 22 tomorrow and nothing has changed. Still one of, if not the greatest performance by a pitcher in the history of the game. His gem lit a fire inside me, I was a Cubs fan from that day forward.

  • I was waiting tables and starting my graduate classes back then and had the day off. I really contemplated going to this game but my friends were all working 9-5 jobs by then -- so I decided to watch it on TV instead.

    I probably would have gotten cheap seats and a terrible view -- but so would have been worth it to be there. Atmosphere must have been electric.

  • Definitely one of those "where were you" moments in the life of any Cubs fan. I was in High School and had came home to my Mom sitting forward on the edge of the couch, she just said "you need to watch this." I made it home just in time to see the final 2 outs. I can't believe that was 15 years ago.

  • It is the event that ruined his career. He fell in love with the K and it blew out his arm, with a lot of help from Dusty.

  • In reply to BLOOMIE1937:

    He threw 182 pitches in a high school game. That one game or what followed didn't cause his injury.

  • In reply to BLOOMIE1937:

    Ive always said Kerrys arm problems most likely stemmed from throwing breaking balls as a teenager. Look at guys who had long MLB careers. Nolan Ryan never threw a curve until his 2nd year with the Angels. Tom Seaver didnt throw a slider until his 3rd year with the Mets. Same with Jim Kaat and Jerry Koosman, who both pitched 20+ big league seasons. Take one small example today-Dylan Bundy has been shut down by the Orioles for 6 weeks, and basically told not to throw breaking balls for the remainder of the season. And remember when Kerry came back in 2000-Cubs told him not to throw his slider at all in 2000. Must be a reason as to why.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    My friend from the Dallas area used to follow him while they both were in high school, he said Wood's Dad was his coach & used to start him in back to back games of double headers.

  • Has anyone else noticed that when a pitcher throws a no-hitter, that it is often followed by several starts in which that pitcher struggles? Fortunately Kerry gave up that infield single and was ROY.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Didn't he strikeout 13 in the next start too?

    I went to a game later where he also struck out 13. My friend and I had to wind up helping the people around us because they ran out of people to hold up their "K" signs.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    So it is good that his 20ks wasn't a no- bitter. I have no idea if stats support that my impression.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    And he didnt win a game after the AS break. 13-4 at the break, lost his first start to Minnesota (Brad Radke beat us something like 8-0) and then didnt pitch again until game 3 of the NLDS. Missed the 99 season with the same injury, which basically haunted him his enitre career.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    Exactly, 20ks and no-hitters only count as one W. Overextending is not a good idea, buy I don't know if that was the case here.

  • Yeah I think he may have struck out 15 against Reds just after. Really thought he was our Ryan or Clemens.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    Ryan was a great pitcher, Clemens a juicer.

  • I remember reading an interview Ryan did with SI just after he retired. The one thing that completely stood out to me is that Nolan said that right after the season, he didnt even pick up a baseball for a minimum of 30 days, just completely and totally rested his arm. He apparently tried passing on the same advice to Alex Ogando and Neftali Perez. Perez hasnt been back ever since the Strangers converted him into a starter. They should try listening to maybe baseballs most durable pitcher for a power arm. This isnt Jamie Moyer and his 80mph "fastball" were talking about.

  • Nice story, thanks for sharing, I can relate since I was also of similar age (14)... I remember coming home from school to watch the last few innings of the game.

  • I was a junior in high school at the time. I remember turning on the radio on the way home from school that day and hearing that Wood had already broken the Cubs' single-game K record, and my eyes just got real big lol. I got home and watched the last two innings in amazement. Still remember it like it was yesterday. Absolutely electric stuff.

  • Please stop post your age when you comment. You're making me feel older than I am.

    Yes it was a great performance. I remember that game. I didn't have class and watched the entire game before heading off to work. I also had season tickets that year, night and weekend games only package, so I didn't attend the game.

  • *posting

  • I was working, but watched some it on 12in Tv in an 8 by 12 cell at the Westren Illinois Correctional center. I wasn't an inmate, but a Reality Therapist trying to explain the benefits of a working lifestyle over Welfare and taking other peoples money. As it turned out the inmates were the Reality Therapists, but Kid K is still special.

  • I watched the same game. Kerrys breaking ball that day was untouchable. Sad to say, I also think that throwing those nasty breaking pitches at such a young age likely contributed to his arm problems long-term.

  • ESPN has Bill James' best pitched games ratings which they've kept track of since 1993.

    Kerry Wood's 20K game is the highest scored game during the past 20 years according to James by a fairly wide margin.

    http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/topperformers/_/year/1998/type/pitching

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