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.