Default heroby Chris Jaffe
May 21, 2012
It was a fond farewell to longtime Cub pitcher Kerry Wood.
Wood's decision to retire was a huge story here in the Chicagoland area, with many Cubs fans expressing a genuine outpouring of sadness to hear that the longtime fan favorite had decided to hang them up. As one of those Cub fans, the affection shown to Wood seemed perfectly appropriate.
He’s been a star with the team for a long time, been on many of their best squads, and is personally responsible for some of the most memorable moments in the last 15 years of Cubs-dom. The love shown Wood makes sense, right?
Well, yeah there’s some sense to it, but as the weekend went on, someone (well, my dad to be precise, if you must know) pointed out that it seemed a bit odd.
Wood is a nice guy and had some great seasons, but ultimately he didn’t have a great career. He had great talent, but he essentially turned into something of a what-if. While he had a nice career, he’s still something of a what-might-have-been. It’s a little like the Brewers making a big deal of Cal Eldred’s retirement.
Let’s look it up for a bit. Wood ended his career with 86 wins and 75 losses. Eldred was 86-74, but he’ll never go down as an all-time Brewer fan favorite. Wood’s most similar pitchers are Bobby Bolin, Kelvim Escobar, and Moe Drabowsky. None of them are among their franchise’s most popular players. Chicago’s love for Wood is out of line with his performance. He never even won 15 games in a season.
How to be (and not be) a fan favorite
True, but fan favorites don’t have to be perfectly dictated by what the stats say. A player isn’t just an athlete but also a person. And on that front, Wood did well. He was genuinely regarded as a good guy. Though Texas born and bred, he moved to Chicago to live year-round. He’s involved in charities in the region. That helps.
Yes, being a nice guy is a factor, but it’s not the only factor. Another key reason behind Wood's popularity comes from not who he is, but who he isn’t.
If there’s one thing the Cubs lead the league in during the 21st century, it’s publicly announcing there’s a player on their team they absolutely, positively, without a doubt must trade immediately. They did this time and time again with Sammy Sosa, Milton Bradley, Michael Barrett, and Carlos Zambrano. I have no intent to defend any of those guys for their actions, but the overall trend isn’t very flattering for the organization.
Riddle me this: in the Kerry Wood Era (1998-2012), who was the most valuable Cub on the field? Folks, if you think it was Wood, you just aren’t thinking hard enough.
No, it’s Sosa, and there’s no way of getting around it. Twice he topped the league in homers. In two other years, he paced the NL in RBIs. He had four consecutive 50-home run seasons, made the All-Star team seven times, and won an MVP. He’s the all-time Cub leader in home runs, passing up Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks.
Not only that, but for much of his days in Chicago, Sosa was easily the most popular Cub. Wood may have been a sensation in his 20-strikeout season in 1998, but that was the year of the home run, and Sosa joined Mark McGwire in pursuit of Roger Maris’ record. Fans loved it, and Sosa knew how to play to the fans.
In his prime, there was no question who was the most popular Cub. Sosa's was the most popular jersey, Sosa got the loudest cheer, and Sosa was the biggest draw. There’s a reason why Cub attendance spiked by a half-million in ’98 and then stayed there, and it wasn’t because Wood pitched every fifth day when healthy.
Yet, that swiftly came to an end, and by the time Sosa left time, he was not very popular. His performance deteriorated in the field and at the plate. The backlash against home-run hitters began as talk of PEDs became more prominent. Sosa was found to have cork in his bat, which doesn’t actually help anyone hit for power, but is cheating.
Also, there were always people who had problems with the way Sosa acted. Some spelled Sammy “Sam-ME” because they felt his entire routine was about receiving people’s adoration rather than actually being adorable. When Sosa walked out on the team on the last day of the 2004 season, the stage was set to throw Sosa under the bus. The team traded him to Baltimore in the offseason, and by and large, Cubs nation heartily approved.
So Sosa, the best player from the last 15 years—and a longtime fan favorite—would never have a special place in the hearts of Cub fans as his career wound down.
But let’s ask another question. Okay, so Wood wasn’t the most valuable man on the field for the Cubs in the last 15 years. Was he the most valuable pitcher in that span?
Again, the answer is an easy “no.” It’s Zambrano, and there’s no dispute that Big Z did more on the mound for the Cubs than Kid K. Zambrano had over 100 more starts, threw 50 percent more innings, won 45 more games (versus just 13 more losses) than Wood. He also fanned more batters (though Wood creams Zambrano in strikeout rate. Zambrano even out-homered Wood.
But Zambrano left Chicago under a far bigger cloud that Sosa. Always emotionally volatile, Zambrano increasingly alienated many on the team and in the stands. He would lose his composure on the mound and give up a big inning. He attacked his catcher once, sending him to the hospital for stitches. He once left the stadium mid-game, saying he was retiring. By the end of his tenure, reports were that both management in the clubhouse and players in the dugout were sick of Zambrano, and most fans agreed.
So Wood is at best only the third-best Cub of the Kerry Wood era, but the guys ahead became fan anti-favorites. It was not preordained that this would be the case. Under most circumstances, if there’s a better hitter or pitcher around, they’ll win the praise over all others.
If Sosa maintained his reputation with the fans or if Zambrano could control himself better, then Wood would’ve been overshadowed. While still popular, just being the second- or third-most renowned Cub of his era would dampen the praise for him upon his retirement.
(There is a contrast that cuts against this. Ron Santo was the fourth of the four Cubs Hall of Famers from the 1960s, behind Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins, but Santo ended his life the most widely beloved. That’s because he came back to announce the Cubs for 20 years, making him a more popular figure than when he played. Besides, the fourth Hall of Famer is still a Hall of Fame career).
In the last 15 years, there’s really no one else to potentially overshadow Wood beside Sosa and Zambrano. Mark Prior had the talent, but he fizzled out much quicker than Wood did. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez both arguably helped the team, but both felt more like rented players rather than ones that came up with the Cubs a la Wood. Besides, fans frequently were annoyed that Ramirez would appear to dog it at times (though I always wondered how much of that was caused by his chronic leg problems that put him on the DL virtually every season).
Wood might be a what-if on the field, but Sosa and Zambrano turned into what-ifs in the battle for lasting fan appreciation. Those that overshadowed Wood on the field in recent years would not overshadow Wood in fan’s hearts. The third-best Cub of the era became the most popular.
The postseason and Kerry Wood
It’s actually been a pretty good era for the Cubs. Sure, they had a losing record during his tenure, but that hardly precludes the period from being one of the best recent stretches in Cub history.
The Cubs went to the playoffs four times from 1998 onward and narrowly missed a fifth time. They essentially did it with three different clubs, too. There was the unlikely wild card team in 1998. Then came the 2003-04 squad based on strong starting pitching. Then the Cubs posted back-to-back division titles with a 2007-08 squad with impressive offensive firepower. Only one player was on all of those teams: Kerry Wood.
He played on four Cub postseason teams. The last person to do that was Stan Hack, who has been dead for 30 years. By and large, Wood did really well in those postseason series, too. With the exception of one game, he posted a 2.32 ERA in seven appearances, fanning a batter an inning. He’s largely responsible for the Cubs topping the Braves in the 2003 NLDS, the franchise’s only postseason series success since the days of Tinker, Evers, and Teddy Roosevelt.
Yes, but about that one bad postseason appearance ... man alive did it ever come at a bad time. Wood was the starting pitcher for the Cubs in Game Seven of the NLCS. The Cubs had just lost Games Five and Six (the latter in spectacular fashion, including its infamous Steve Bartman moment), but if Wood guided the Cubs to victory, it wouldn’t matter, as the team would have its first pennant.
Wood didn’t have it, and so the team didn’t get it. He was wild in the first inning, allowing three runs to the first four batters he faced. He settled down for a bit—and even helped his own cause with a home run. But it wasn’t to be, as Wood lost his control again in the fifth inning of the Cubs loss.
Personally, the loss was upsetting, but Wood’s performance wasn’t too surprising. When Wood’s "A" game was going, he was unstoppable, but when it was off, he didn’t have much of a "B" game. Wood had 32 starts in 2003, and the Cubs went 18-14 in them (this includes no-decisions for Wood personally). In the triumphs, Wood posted a 1.44 ERA. In the losses, his ERA was 6.08. When he was on, he was a young Dwight Gooden, but when he was off he was Royals-era Jose Lima. In Game Seven, he was off.
Despite the loss in Game Seven, I’ve heard several Cubs fans refer fondly to his performance in that game. The homer is one of the biggest memories in the minds of many fans. Besides, it’s the Cubs. It ain’t like there are that many pennants to celebrate. Also, if you’re looking for goats in the 2003 NLCS, you have your pick of many others, including Alex Gonzalez for his dumb error in Game Six.
The course of a career
Another key factor helping Wood is the arc of his career. At several stages, timing really helped Wood out.
First, he was a homegrown Cubs product, and that always help. More than that, he was great right away, with his outstanding 20-punchout game coming early in his career. Such a performance would be beloved by any fan base, but it had a special resonance among Cub fans.
A great young pitcher coming up with the Cubs? Yeah, we’d seen that one before, just a decade earlier when Greg Maddux emerged as a star. Then the Cubs let him get away just in time for his historic prime. Now there’s a new Grand Young Thing. This might undo what had been done with Maddux. And sure enough, Wood beat Maddux in a duel later in 1998. And the 1998 team made a surprising and successful run for the postseason. People were head over heels for Wood.
Then the arm problems began. It’s a funny thing, when Wood had the first DL stint, no one knew there would be 15 more coming up. There was always hope that he would develop as hoped for.
(Quick tangent: More than any other one pitcher, Wood's career helped cause the rise of pitch count discussions. During 1998 when he pitched, there wasn't nearly as much talk of pitch counts as there now is. He threw far more games over 120 pitches than any big young pitcher would do now. Baseball Prospectus debuted their Pitcher Abuse Points stat in midseason, and Wood appeared as one of the most abused. Then he went down. By May 2000, when St. Louis had then-phenom Rick Ankiel throw 120 pitches once, it made the news. Something happened around that time, and Wood was that something. The rise of pitch counts was a trend that was coming and would've happened without Wood, but he was still the tipping point.)
Anyhow, in 2003 it seemed Wood just might be healthy and ready to live up to his promise. It was his second straight year in the rotation all season without an injury. He topped the league in strikeouts and took the team as close to the World Series as it had been since 1945.
But then things all came crashing down, and Wood’s arm began a new round of troubles in 2004. But by then the focus had shifted. The need to replace Maddux wasn’t as pressing because Maddux returned that year. When the 2004 team fell short, Wood wasn’t the one people felt upset at. That 2004 squad was a very frustrating one to watch not only because they didn’t win, but also because they complained so much as the year went on. That’s the team that feuded with broadcaster Steve Stone, driving him away from the team. People blamed Baker and Sosa and others, but not Wood. He was one of the guys you could like on that team.
After that season, hopes that Wood would ever develop into any sort of super-stud went away, but it happened in such a way that people retained their affection for Wood. The love did diminish when his performance dropped, though.
However, it returned when Wood did. After stints with Cleveland and the Yankees, Wood unexpectedly came back to Chicago in 2011. His return, especially the way it happened, reignited the dormant-but-never-dead feelings people had for Wood.
After a great stretch run with the Yankees in 2010, Wood had a chance to cash in for a (final?) big payday. The Cubs didn’t have money available to offer a competitive salary, and it looked like Wood would land elsewhere, including possibly with the South Side White Sox.
Wood had other plans. He attended the funeral for longtime Cub announcer Ron Santo and told the Cub brass that he was willing to come back to Chicago even if it meant a smaller payday. And so it came to be. Not only was he a popular player fondly remembered from several good teams, but now he was coming back despite finances. He chose to be a Cub just for the sake of being a Cub. And then he had a good (though certainly not great) season in 2011.
He was terrible in 2012, but rather than put himself and the fans through a horrible and frustrating season, Wood hung it up before the boos got too loud. And that just ensured more cheers. He wasn't the greatest player in recent Cub history, but he was the most popular one from the post-1989 playoff teams.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference.com provided the numbers.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.