Wood relives 20 K game at Museum

Written by: Bill Francis

Kerry Wood, who burst upon the national baseball scene 20 years ago with a pitching performance for the ages, was in Cooperstown in 2018 in his role as dad.

“My son’s playing in a local baseball tournament, so we came out a couple days early,” said Wood, who was accompanied on this June 15 visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum from their Chicago-area home by his wife Sarah, 12-year-old son Justin, and daughters Katie and Charlie. “This is their first trip visiting the Hall of Fame and it’s been great.

“We’ve been able to show these guys a little bit of the history of the game and why it’s so important to a lot of people and how far back it goes and the history of it,” he added. “Obviously, I could go through this place for days and still be awed, but for them to be able to see how far back this game goes and what it means to a lot of people, it was pretty cool.”

These days, Wood and his wife run a not-for-profit where fourth through eighth graders in Chicago are mentored.

The Texas-born hurler with the golden right arm retired after the 2012 season having played 14 injury-plagued big league seasons, a dozen of which came with the Chicago Cubs. While he compiled a record of 86-75 as starter the first half of his career before his injuries limited him to relief work, it was his ability to strike out batters that gained him fame.

Arguably his most dominating mound performance, and considered by some one of the great pitching performances of all time, came on May 6, 1998, when the 20-year-old, in only his fifth big league start, tied a big league single-game record with 20 strikeouts in a 2-0 shutout of the Astros at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

In the 122-pitch effort, Wood faced only 29 batters, giving up only a scratch single to Ricky Gutierrez in the third inning and hitting Craig Biggio with a pitch in the sixth while walking no one. He and Hall of Famer Bob Feller are the only two pitchers to strikeout their ages in a game (Feller did it twice).

While at the Hall of Fame, Wood was able to share his impressive past with his family when they were all able to see the jersey and cap he wore on that momentous day two decades ago.

“It’s crazy to think they’ve got a jersey and a hat from that 20-strikeout game. And that my stuff is in amongst the other great pieces that are in this building,” Wood said. “I’m just flattered and humbled and honored to even be here in any way.

“And it was great for the kids because they weren’t born yet, obviously, and I hadn’t met my wife yet. So for them to see why everybody makes a big deal about dad in the one game they talk about was cool.”

Wood’s own memories, though, are still fresh.

“It was my fifth start and I’m 20 years old. It’s crazy thinking about it,” Wood said. “But going through this 20th anniversary, you just look back on it and you’re like, ‘Wow. I didn’t even realize I only had 18 innings in the big leagues at the time.’

“It’s funny because I forget about it every year, but it’s always nice talking about it. But looking at it as being 20 years ago makes me feel really old (this is when daughter Charlie adds, sincerely, “You’re not old.”). On to the next stage.”

The only other time Wood had been to Cooperstown was in 2008 when his Cubs were scheduled to face the Padres in what turned out to be the final Hall of Fame Game, an exhibition that was cancelled due to rain.

Despite early success, such as winning the 1998 National League Rookie of the Year Award and leading the majors with 266 strikeouts in 2003, and ending with a career strikeout per nine innings of 10.3174, which ranks fifth on the all-time list, Wood says he doesn’t contemplate what might have been if not for the injuries.

“You can’t do that. There’s a thousand other players with their own ‘what ifs?’” he said. “I had a 14-year career at the highest level the game has to offer and had a blast doing it. I came back from injuries where I was told I wasn’t going to be able to do it, and was able to prove people wrong.

“I had a career that may not have ended the way everyone expected it to. I was only able to start for half of it, but I was able to make myself relevant anyway. I couldn’t go out and throw 120 pitches anymore, but I could go out and throw 50. I always said as a starter, ‘Man, I’d love to come in and just close and throw as hard as I could for an inning or two.’ I got a chance to do that and made that All-Star team and enjoyed my role in the pen.”

As a child, Wood did admit that he always had a special affection toward a fellow Texas fireballer who has a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

“Nolan Ryan was my hero growing up. He was my idol. I tried to emulate the leg kick and everything else. He was my guy,” Wood said. “I actually got a chance to watch his last no-hitter (on May 1, 1991, in Arlington, Texas). I got tickets at the grocery store of all places and talked my dad into getting home from work and taking me. We crossed paths a few times during my career. Just a tremendous guy.”

According to Wood, his son pitches as well as plays first and third. “The one thing I didn’t want him to do is pitch and that’s what he likes to do. But he can move the ball – I could never do it. He’s got a good change-up already.”

Bill Francis is the Senior Research and Writing Specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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