In 1995, after my Triple-A season in Iowa, I was sent to Arizona to the Cubs’ Instructional League. It was a crossroads in my career, as Instructional League was usually reserved for younger rising prospects who were just learning how to be professionals. It was not often for those who were 25 years old and a first round pick, like I was, whose career was in limbo.
It was during this six week program where I first saw Kerry Wood. He was drafted in June of that year and to get ahead of the pro curve, he was assigned to the same camp I was in. It would only take watching him pitch to one batter to know he was special.
Not only was the ball coming out of his hand like a lightning flash, but it sounded differently. Maybe it was the sizzle or the pop of the glove, but it was clear that the hitter had little to no time to decide much of anything let alone determine if it was Wood’s 98 mph fastball or his wrinkle in time bender that was coming.
Like many who make it to the big leagues, he was a top draft pick (1st round, 4th overall). But across the board, professional baseball organizations are full of players who were the best somewhere at some point in their lives. Maybe a legend in their neighborhood, their high school, state, their college division. They also had a moment or a game-changing experience that propelled them to greatness. We were all great players in our own right, all coming from another time and place.
But Wood still stood out amongst the best of the best. It was not the numbers, since he had not amassed many by then, it was the potential, the magnetism of watching him pitch, the way the ball came out of his hand. Later, I also faced Wood when I was with the Phillies, and it was like facing time. A moment when doing something great against him would immortalize you or it could work the other way, you would be in the photo marking what he would do against you that could mark a great moment in baseball history. Every time he touched the ball, there was this expectation. Rightfully so.
I am sure that was a lot of pressure on him, battling injuries, fighting with command of his arsenal of “too good” stuff. But he carried it well, especially at such a young age.
Once you get settled into the major leagues, your eyes keep looking up. Your goals get bigger as you learn that the obsession is about the ring. Winning a championship. A World Series. But we all know that this will only be the ending for a select few. Your next best hope is that you may be able to look back and realize that you had created something indelible. Something so good, it is permanent.
Twenty years ago on this day, Wood did just that at the ripe old age of 20. A complete game, one-hit wonder, with no walks, and 20 strikeouts. Everything that came out of his hand, mocked physics, and danced with the gods. I was playing with the Phillies at the time, and even then, the buzz around the league was obvious. What were we watching? Hard to tell because no one could explain the kind of domination he unleashed, the metrics could not quantify it. Even the English language did not have the right words. It was before its time. Language and math needed to catch up.
At the time, I was in my third major league season. Still not fully secure, but on my way. Wood came into that game with a 5.89 ERA. 18.1 IP, 15 H 12 BB 25 Ks. Most likely trying to figure out where his future would go. Unsure if his lifetime of being the king of the hill could run into the uncharted ego-checking terrain in the big leagues. The same thought that all of us have at one time or another when the game was no longer automatic like it had been for the vast majority of our past. Welcome to rookie year.
Yet this game would stand alone. It didn’t matter his ERA going into the game. It did not matter what hitters hit against him before. No shifting, no pitch framing statistics. It transcended our analytic world and let artistry in.
There are moments when sport becomes art, when it becomes clear that what a player physically can do is as enchanting as beautiful music or the rising of the sun over Malibu Beach. That day, Kerry Wood was an artist, and he did not make macaroni art with Elmer’s Glue, but he painted one of baseball’s greatest masterpieces. His moment became our moment, the game’s moment. And with the clean lines of his performance, it will forever hang with the best our game has ever offered. A timeless artifact of baseball history.
No matter how many times you watch it.