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Kerry Wood, The Cubs, And The Importance Of Hope

This week in 1999, Kerry Wood felt a twinge in his elbow. It was the beginning of a long and unsatisfying road for him and the Cubs, but there's a lesson in it.
Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

There's always one piece missing, and sometimes many more than one. Since the Blessed Year of Our Three Finger Brown, 1908, the Chicago Cubs have enjoyed the work of five Cy Young Award winners, six Rookie of the Year recipients, and 10 MVPs. Among the medaled 21 are nine players who went on to receive a plaque in Cooperstown. You can throw in four Managers of the Year if you want to have the complete set.


And as the song from "Damned Yankees" goes, what have the Cubs got to show for that? They've got heart. And no championships.

One of those collecting some autumn hardware was 1998 Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood, who as a 21-year-old struck out 233 batters in only 166.2 innings, led the National League in fewest hits per nine and most strikeouts per nine. This week, in 1999, he was lost for the entire season due to Tommy John surgery, and would not reappear in the majors until May 2 of 2000. Wood would eventually return to his old form for a few years, but the former fourth-overall draft pick lived most of his baseball life perpetually day-to-day, and was often on the disabled list; his final half-dozen seasons in the majors were spent in the bullpen. His career, while successful by many measures, is still accounted mostly in might-have-beens.

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On May 6, 1998, in only the fifth start of his major league career, Wood threw a complete-game one-hitter against the Houston Astros, walking none and striking out 20. That is worth repeating: 20. Wood still had his good days after arm surgery—he even had another one-hitter in him—but the possibility of more games like that one, or of a career resembling that of fellow Texas right-handers Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens, turned out to be gone forever.

Maybe it had never been a possibility in the first place: In the 1996 Minor League Scouting Notebook, John Sickels observed that high school pitchers are often overworked to the point of abuse, and that the newly drafted Wood had thrown 200 pitches in a doubleheader after he was selected by the Cubs but before he had signed. One hopes Major League teams now keep combination scouts/ninja assassins to take care of high school coaches who do this sort of thing to their draftees, but this was two decades ago, and contemporary best practices were…well, you heard what Goose Gossage said. Anyway, the next year Sickels questioned Wood's mechanics and noted he had already had elbow problems. Wood had the rare stuff of a Ryan or a Clemens, but their durability as much as their stuff was made them special. Wood didn't share that even rarer quality.


If Wood never got where he once appeared to be headed, neither did the Cubs. They played in the postseason three times during Wood's stay with them but only once advanced beyond the division series round. This year is supposed to be different. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projects the Cubs to have the second-best record in the National League at 94-68. Fangraphs is even more bullish, projecting them to go 97-65.

Both of these forecasts are reasonable—in fact, might even be considered conservative—given that last year the Cubs went 97-65 in baseball's toughest division, then were stopped by the Mets just one step short of the World Series. An already deep roster loaded with young hitting talent such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell got deeper in the offseason with the additions of second baseman/human everything bagel Ben Zobrist and right fielder/Ozzie Smith-of-the-Outfield Jason Heyward, while a pitching staff that already boasted the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Jake Arrieta got deeper with the addition of veteran starter John Lackey, whose defection from the St. Louis Cardinals, like Heyward's, had the bonus benefit of weakening a division rival.

All of which is to say that things look pretty solid for 2016, especially if there are no major injuries to the starting rotation. The alternatives to Arrieta, Lackey, Jon Lester, and co. would seem to involve pulling one of four defrocked starters/long men out of the bullpen or trying out pitching prospects who would seem to have limited ceilings; the pile of position players developed under Epstein-Hoyer has not been equaled on the pitching side, or at least not yet.


The issue of pitching depth is important, because last year the Cubs had one of the best pitching staffs in team history. By WAR (Fangraphs version) it was the fourth-best pitching staff the club ever had, but it's a fudge-factor fraction off from being tied for second. The Ferguson Jenkins-led 1970 squad was first, and while that team is proof that sometimes a staff can hang around at a high level—the Cubs did from 1969 to 1973, after all—you'd be wiser to bet against it. Only so many pitchers post a sub-2.00 ERA in consecutive seasons, and as great as Arrieta has been as a Cub he might not do it again; since 2000, only Clayton Kershaw has repeated at that level. Arrieta was so good last season that he could add a whole run to his ERA and still be well above average, but that would erode the club's margin of error. Lackey had the second-best season of his career at 36 and he might not do that again. And so on it goes, up and down the roster. Entropy is no fun.

This, on the other hand, is extremely fun. — Photo by Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

As such, as exciting as the Cubs might be, it's possible to imagine their championship bid derailed by injuries to the pitching staff or just the attrition and regression built into the game. For that matter, the multi-tiered playoff system could get in the way, just as it did last year; the Cubs' great misfortune is that they failed to rack up another big win before 1969, when baseball split into divisions and started adding extra barriers to the World Series. If the Cubs do fall short, it will disappoint a great many people in the same way that Kerry Wood's 86-75 career record and solitary strikeout title disappoints; not-great-enough can sting as much as plain old not-great. But maybe that's the wrong way to look at this.


A championship is a momentary event, and good feelings only last so long before you start jonesing for the next one. Unlike other life events that have an afterglow, it's not even something that happens to you. It happens to the imagined community you share with your fellow fans and the mercenary strangers who have temporarily donned team drag. That's why it always comes back to needing, in the end—a major event in your life that doesn't fundamentally change your nature leaves you with a memory, but nothing else that wasn't yours before. And life goes on.

One of the lesser-known Randy Newman songs, "New Orleans Wins the War," describes a Big Easy that wasn't quite sure that the Second World War was over, or even if that was the war it had been worried about:

In 1948 my Daddy came to the city
Told the people that they'd won the war
Maybe they'd heard it, maybe not
Probably they'd heard it and just forgot
'Cause they built him a platform there in Jackson Square
And the people came to hear him from everywhere
They started to party and they partied some more
'Cause New Orleans had won the war
(We knew we'd do it, we done whipped the Yankees!)

This looks silly on the surface, but the point is that externalities recede; whatever happens, catharsis or frustration, win or lose, there's always a day after the last game of the World Series, it has a name, and it's called The Rest of Your Life.

That's why the best part of last season, and perhaps of this one, is the hope that Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Joe Maddon, and these players have brought to a team that went so long without. Their fans would surely disagree, and for reasonable reasons; so would those who followed the Red Sox between 1918 and 2004, or the White Sox from 1919 to 2005. But the journey may be more lastingly pleasurable than the destination, and maybe there's no need to be so results-oriented about it. This is a hell of a team. It doesn't necessarily end in a parade, but a successful process can be as worthy and as enjoyable as a trophy-winning seven games. It also lasts longer. Art good enough to hang on a museum wall doesn't get better or worse because of the prizes it won, or lack thereof.

Having interacted with many baseball fans over the years—hell, being one—I am certain that every Cubs fan still reading at this point, perhaps every fan period, has had the same reaction: "It doesn't matter if my team wins or not? Fuck you." Fair enough; this is not the right endpoint for everyone. But I know that any philosophy that looks at Kerry Wood as a disappointment because he was merely better than 99 percent of pitchers who ever lived and not an actual god is a flawed one. Similarly, even if the Cubs' wilderness years span another century, it shouldn't detract from the feeling we have now, on the verge of the 2016 season, when the team is so loaded with promise and exciting players that the thought of just seeing them get to try is sustaining. It seems almost greedy to ask for anything more.