Hope. Promise. Rookie of the Year. Legend. All-Star. Clubhouse leader. Community mainstay. Hero. Fan Favorite. An Answer to prayer.
Kerry Wood was described as all of the above during what will be remembered as one of the most storied, yet heartbreaking tenures on Chicago's North Side.
A Texas high school legend, Wood's name was as big as his young body when the Cubs drafted him. The Chicago sports world waited on pins and needles for this kid with the amazing fastball and ungodly breaking balls to come to Wrigley and commence the dawn of an era of Cubs dominance.
And Kid K backed up the hype.
Within weeks of his arrival at the Friendly Confines, in a falling rain against division rival Houston, Kerry Wood threw what has been described by men that have seen decades of baseball as the best pitched game ever. He allowed one hit, while striking out 20. His bust had been ordered for Cooperstown, and his face had been etched on the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere for life.
A couple weeks after his incredible start, I enjoyed the time-honored tradition of taking a Senior Ditch Day from high school. With a handful of close friends, all of whom were called into school sick by parents well aware of our plans, the group made the trip down to Wrigley Field for an afternoon Cubs game and then dinner in the city.
I wore a red Cubs hat that day, and was fortunate to get it signed by three of my favorite Chicago athletes of all time in one afternoon. Wood, Ron Santo and Mark Grace all placed their signatures on that hat. In a collection of memorabilia that includes signatures of Walter Payton, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Mikita, Ernie Banks and the entire 1980 US Hockey Team, that hat stands alone as my favorite piece.
Wood was something special.
But then the elbow problems. Apparently the force Wood was putting on his elbow to throw the breaking pitches that made the best in baseball shake their heads and walk away was too much. Tommy John, here we come.
But Kid K came back. He always did.
When the Second Coming of the Cubs' resurrection arrived in 2002-2003, Mark Prior teamed with Wood to make the Cubs two-headed giant Sports Illustrated coverboys. They were to become the greatest 1-2 tandem since Koufax and Drysdale.
And, again, Kid K backed it up. This time with a newfound "Robin" by his side, Wood dominated during the 2003 season and the Cubs blew through the Atlanta Braves like a hot knife through butter. Wood outhit the middle of the Braves batting order, and the Cubs appeared to be on the cusp of doing the unimaginable. They were within just a handful of outs of the World Series.
(moment of silence...end of commentary on 2003)
And then the injury problems were back again. Wood missed big parts of 2004, 2005, and a lot of 2006. Not until late in the 2007 season, as the Cubs drove for another postseason, did it appear that Wood could come back.
And Kid K came back, as he always did.
Wood buoyed a bullpen down the stretch and led Lou Piniella to make him the closer in 2008. How would the former starter with the checkered past take to his new role? Could he possibly be a closer? As will become his legacy in Chicago, Wood performed well.
Though he missed a few weeks in 2008 with (you guessed it) injury issues, he pitched extremely well. He earned a trip to the All Star game, and, yes, I mean earned. When he was healthy, Wood coupled with Carlos Marmol to give the Cubs a devastating back end of the bullpen that was, arguably, the best in the National League.
After the 2008 season, the Cubs let Wood walk away as a free agent, and he spent two seasons in the American League making a nice, fat paycheck from the Cleveland Indians and, later, the New York Yankees. But after the 2010 season, one that saw Wood as one of the best set-up men in baseball while throwing in the Bronx, he decided to take a substantial paycut to come back to Chicago.
Wood led the National League in strikeouts in 2003, and his career 10.313 strikeouts per nine innings pitched ranks second in baseball history. He was known as a strikeout pitcher on the field from his first pitch as a Cub in 1998 until his last, which will come at some point this weekend against the White Sox. The irony is Wood never struck out with fans.
He may have been born and raised in Texas, but Chicago is his home.
No player since Banks and Santo has represented what is good about the Cubs for as long as he did.
Kerry Wood perfectly embodied all of the hopes, dreams and prayers of Cubs fans for the past 100 years.
And so, with the same heavy heart and swelling eyes I had when Mark Grace left, and when Ryne Sandberg retired (both times), and when Greg Maddux was traded (both times), I wish Wood a fond farewell.
Goodbye, No. 34. Thank you for all that you have meant to the Cubs on, and off, the field.