CHICAGO – Kerry Wood started his career with sizzle and ended it with style.
The 14-plus years in between were uneven to say the least, but such is life.
Wood, 34, said goodbye to the game he loved Friday on a gorgeous afternoon at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ reliever struck out Sox left fielder Dayan Viciedo on three pitches, tipped his hat to a grateful crowd on his way off of the field, and embraced his young son in front of the dugout for a hug that looked as if it felt better than any of Wood’s 86 wins, 63 saves or 1,582 career strikeouts.
Wood stepped out for a final curtain call as the organist played Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
“It was just time,” Wood said.
Maybe Wood’s perfect ending was the baseball gods’ way of making up for so many spoiled seasons.
In many ways, Wood will be remembered for what he didn’t do rather than what he did.
He didn’t win a Cy Young Award. He didn’t become a Hall of Famer. He didn’t win a World Series.
In almost every case, it would be unfair to judge a player by those standards. But everything about Wood was different.
The way he rocked and fired. The way his fastballs popped. The way his curveballs snapped.
Wood was a Texas fireballer cast in the mold of Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. The Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in 1995 out of Grand Prairie High School, which is located in a Dallas suburb just south of what is now called the Tom Landry Freeway.
Before his 21st birthday, Wood was in the big leagues.
In only his fifth start, Wood matched a major league record with 20 strikeouts in a game against the Houston Astros. He blew threw a talented lineup that included Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell and Moises Alou while giving up a solitary single to Ricky Gutierrez.
Then-Astros manager Larry Dierker marveled at the rookie.
“He reminded me of the first time I saw [Nolan] Ryan,” Dierker told reporters after the game. “By the time the ball left his hand, it seemed like it was in the catcher’s mitt.”
Kids across the country were transfixed. “Kid K” was their generation’s answer to the “Ryan Express.”
Philip Humber grew up watching Wood’s starts on TV as a teenager in East Texas.
“I loved to watch him pitch,” Humber said. “The stuff that came out of his hand was unbelievable. You just knew any time he was starting a game that something special could happen.”
All of that firepower had another effect. It wrecked Wood’s arm.
Wood, a veteran of far too many shoulder and elbow injuries, might go down as one of the game’s greatest pitchers to never win 15 games in a season or 100 games in a career. He spent his final few seasons as a middle reliever after one impressive season as the Cubs’ closer, and by the start of this season it was clear his best stuff was long gone.
These days, The Next Big Thing is Washington Nationals righthander Stephen Strasburg.
Maybe he’ll blossom into a Hall of Fame pitcher. Maybe he’ll win 86 games. Who knows?
Sox manager Robin Ventura mentioned Strasburg’s name when reflecting on Wood’s career.
“Before him, it was Kerry Wood,” Ventura said. “When he came up, he was as good as there ever was.”
Injuries robbed Wood of achieving greatness on the mound, but not off of the field.
Wood has been one of the city’s most charitable athletes. He and his wife, Sarah, established the Wood Family Foundation in 2011 and have helped to raise millions of dollars for Children’s Memorial Hospital, Project 3000, the Organic School Project and other causes.
Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said that was what he admired most about Wood.
“All the stuff he's done on the field and for team,” Dempster said, “it pales in comparison to what he does off the field and what kind of human being he is.”
Wood never will get that plaque in Cooperstown, but given his passion for helping others, maybe his feel-good ending is just the beginning.
• Tom Musick covers Chicago sports for the Northwest Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.