Recently I was reminded why I love the game of baseball like no other.
Last week marked the voluntary retirement of a 34-year old pitcher who worked his innings out of the bullpen as a middle relief pitcher. Not an especially glamorous role for a pitcher – particularly one who most considered a first ballot entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame only a few short years ago.
The name of Kerry Wood might or might not mean anything to you. But if you witnessed his final outing – fittingly a strike out of a right-handed batter for the cross town rival Chicago White Sox – you couldn’t help be moved by witnessing the deep bond between players and fans as he left the field of play for the final time.
You see baseball, for all its oddities and rituals, treats its players like no one other sport – and it is a mutual feeling between players and fans.
Statistics will tell you Kerry Wood accumulated a mediocre won and loss record of 86 – 75. His lifetime earned run average finished with a respectable 3.67 while pitching for the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and a short stint with the New York Yankees.
Kerry Wood, knowing his career was coming to a close, turned down larger payday offers elsewhere in order to return to his roots in Chicago and finish where he’d started.
In baseball, this is called a ‘hometown discount’ – foregoing more money to finish where you wish to play out your time.
But what the raw statistics won’t tell you is why Kerry Wood is so loved by not only by the fans behind the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field, but baseball fans around the world.
Kerry Wood, quite simply, was the greatest pitcher on the planet for a much too brief time in history.
With an arm like whip, his fastball repeatedly nudged 100 miles per hour as it blurred past batters. His pitches, so laced with hop and fury, he once struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. He also became the fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 strikeouts.
Off the field, he was a gentleman and worked tirelessly for charities raising millions in his beloved Chicago.
But then, like others, injuries rudely interrupted what many thought could be the best pitcher in a generation – or longer.
Repeated injuries led to invasive surgeries and prolonged absences from the mound. His fastball, still clocking over 95 miles per hour the day he retired, found itself too often crossing the plate without the hop and movement needed to keep batters guessing.
As happens in baseball, sometimes a change of scenery is prescribed to jump-start a career. Kerry Wood soon found himself on the road playing with teams looking for a hired gun. But eventually, time and the physical limitations began to eat at the once great pitcher.
They say elephants will march for hundreds of miles to finish life in a place they consider home. Baseball, in yet another oddity, sees this regularly.
On a sunny May afternoon Kerry Wood calmly announced to the Cub fans that his next outing would be his last.
There was no outcry, no finger-pointing. Everyone understood. Even elephants instinctively know when it is time to move on.
With his final pitch from the mound at Wrigley Field, Kerry Wood earned strikeout number 1,582.
With an odd sense in the air, everyone watched at the manager stepped up from the dugout and onto the field.
Teammates slowly walked to the mound as the manager asked for the ball. Kerry Wood, as he’d done for most of his life, obeyed and handed over the ball. As he stepped off the field the fans – a mixture of both Cubs and White Sox fans – stood in unison to emotionally applaud a man of the likes they knew they might never see again in their lifetime.
But the salute was not limited to the stands as player for the cross-town rivals also stepped forward to applaud as Kerry Woods made his final step across the white chalk line.
And then, as if to remind us all about what is important in life, Kerry Wood’s young son burst up onto the field and ran into the emotional embrace of his father’s arms.
One day the retirement of Kerry Wood will be nothing but a footnote in baseball history. But for those of us who understand what we witnessed on the day of his retirement, we will always remember why we love this game like no other.
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