Kerry Wood's career, just like a Shakespearan play, had five acts, but its classification as a comedy or a tragedy isn't so neatly discernible.
The Cubs righthander -- all 6-foot-5 of hard-throwing Texan toughness and scar tissue -- fittingly struck out the lone batter of his final big league appearance Friday before retiring after a 14-year big league career, that spanned a variety of stages, from pitching phenom to Tommy John patient to reinvented dominant starter to down-on-his-luck D.L. regular to All-Star reliever.
There are two paths to leaving a positive -- and lasting -- legacy. The first is, as Pirates manager and former next-big-thing player Clint Hurdle once explained, "to be very good for a long time." The second is imagination-capturing, game-changing brilliance, which Wood demonstrated early, if not often.
In reviewing the
Wood struck out the Astros' 3-4-5 hitters all nine times they batted that day. He struck out the side four times, in all: once on three strikeouts looking, once on three strikeouts swinging and twice mixing and matching. Eleven of his strikeouts came swinging and nine looking. Twelve were on fastballs, eight on breaking balls.
In the first inning, the TV commentators, who had only seen him throw 18 1/3 innings in the big leagues, interjected with an understated "boy, he looks good," before following up with, "It's not fair to compare this kid to Nolan [Ryan], but just in terms of his stuff ..."
That thought went unfinished (at least in the highlight reel), and so too did Wood's career trajectory on his way toward joining Ryan, his fellow Texan, in the annals of power-pitching greatness.
When in the fifth inning of Wood's 20-strikeout game the broadcasters began hyping Rookie of the Year talk (an award he did, in fact, win), they also included a fateful mention of Wood's "nice, easy delivery."
During that stretch he was joined in the rotation by Mark Prior, the man with whom he'll forever be linked for their mutually tantalizing promise and unfortunate injury-riddled careers.
No regular season was better for those two pitchers than 2003. SI's Midseason Baseball Report that year featured the Cubs' co-aces
While Prior won 18 games with a 2.43 ERA and third-place Cy Young finish, Wood, who never received a Cy Young vote in his career, led the major leagues in strikeouts that season, with 266, and fewest hits per nine innings, 6.5.
In the accompanying cover story SI writer Daniel Habib explained that the elbow surgery robbed Wood of his dramatic breaking ball but, with study, "Wood was transformed from an unrefined hard thrower with supernatural stuff to a craftsman." Unfortunately for him, that season was the second and last time he reached 200 innings in a season. After that year's crushing NLCS Game 6 loss -- usually referred to as the Bartman Game -- Wood started Game 7, giving up seven runs and losing.
Amidst the seemingly endless rehab, the indefinite timetables and the never-ending workouts, Wood kept persevering. He came close, however, nearly ending his career just before his 30th birthday, as was re-told by
He became the Cubs' closer in 2008, making his second career All-Star Game, and then he filled that closing role for the Indians in 2009 and early '10, saving 62 games in those 2 1/2 years before a midseason trade to the Yankees. In New York he became baseball's best set-up man for two months, allowing just two earned runs in 26 innings for a 0.69 ERA.
Wood's loyalty to the Cubs has always been admirable, not blaming the team for his injuries despite high pitch counts, and returning again and again to the North Side. After 2007 he had multi-year offers elsewhere but took a one-year contract to stay a Cub. Before the 2011 and '12 seasons he again took discounted one-year deals to return to Chicago. His tenure there was always fitting, a partnership of pitcher and franchise who kept falling just short of their best.
His rate of 10.3 strikeouts-per-nine-innings was first among all active players with at least 1,000 innings pitched and ranks second alltime, behind only Johnson. The other eye-popping number is his 16 career trips to the disabled list, where he spent more than 800 days.
But to dwell only on the tragic "what if" of Wood's career is to miss the point. Wood's legacy is admittedly complicated -- a testament to temporal greatness; a warning to young pitchers -- but the themes of perseverance and reinvention should prevail.