Following in the footsteps of a long line of Texan fireballers, Kerry Wood took the National League by storm in his rookie season with the Chicago Cubs. After starting the season in Triple-A, Wood turned in a Rookie-of-the-Year performance, finishing the year 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA. His 233 strikeouts (in just over 166 innings) placed third in the National League behind Philadelphia’s Curt Schilling and San Diego’s Kevin Brown, although his ratio of 12.58 strikeouts per nine innings pitched was by far the best in the league.
But Wood’s most impressive feat came on May 6, 1998. Wearing Nolan Ryan‘s number 34, Wood matched fellow Texan Roger Clemens‘ 1987 feat by striking out 20 Houston Astros in a complete-game, 2-0 victory — less than a month before his 21st birthday.
A native of Irving, Texas, Wood was born on June 16, 1977. His dad taught him how to throw a fastball at an early age. Later, he taught his son a curve, using the same grip as Nolan Ryan. “I thought Ryan was the best pitcher I’d ever seen,” his father later recalled. “So we tried to emulate him.” In 1991, Wood and his father would witness Nolan’s seventh no-hitter together at Arlington Stadium.
By the time he had graduated high school, Kerry ‘s heater was consistently hitting 95 mph on the radar gun; as a senior, Wood posted a perfect 12-0 record and a 0.77 ERA. He was the Cubs’ first selection (fourth overall) in the June 1995 draft, right behind such notables such as Darin Erstad and Jose Cruz Jr. Days later, he pitched a seven-inning complete game for his high school team — and added two more innings in the nightcap of the doubleheader. “I haven’t seen a guy throw like this in 10 years.” Cubs scouting director Al Goldis — who had scouted Dwight Gooden as an amateur — raved after the draft. “If Gooden was in this draft, I would have taken Wood ahead of him.”
By the spring of 1998, Wood appeared ready for the majors. Despite control problems, he had fanned 329 batters in 273.1 innings in two minor-league seasons. In spring training, he had proved he could blow major-league hitters away as well. Making his first appearance against Milwaukee in late February, he particularly irked Brewers first baseman John Jaha by striking him out with a 95-mph fastball. Jaha looked at catcher Scott Servais, and muttered, “It’s too early for that stuff.” Servais replied, “Get used to it.”
Despite flashes of brilliance, Cubs management appeared hesitant to promote their prime prospect — still only twenty years old — to the big leagues. Appeals by Servais and first baseman Mark Grace went unheeded as manager Jim Riggleman decided to keep Wood in Triple-A for more seasoning. Angel skipper Terry Collins had already seen the young fireballer toy with his own hitters; he facetiously remarked that if the Cubs indeed had five starting pitchers better than Wood, they were shoo-ins for a World Championship.
It soon became obvious that few of the Cubs’ starters were championship caliber. When reliever Bob Patterson went down with a strained calf muscle, Terry Mulholland was moved to the bullpen and Wood was summoned from Triple-A. He had made just one minor-league start.
Wood made his major-league debut on April 12 in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Despite some flashes of brilliance — he struck out the leadoff hitter, Mark Grudzielanek, and six others — Wood lost the game 4-1. After battling inconsistency in his three next starts, some Cubs fans wondered if the youngster had indeed been rushed into action.
But when Wood’s dominant 100 mph fastballs and sharp curves left twenty Houston batters mesmerized on May 6, it was obvious the young Texan had reached the majors to stay. “He reminded me of the first time I saw Ryan,” Astros manager Larry Dierker said following the game. “By the time the ball left his hand it was in the mitt. Only that time, Ryan was wild. This kid wasn’t wild.” Wood later maintained that he’d thought he’d struck out only fourteen or fifteen batters until announcer Steve Stone mentioned the record in a post-game interview.
The rest of his rookie campaign was filled with impressive outings. Despite being handled with great care by the Cubs’ coaching staff, Wood lasted through six innings in most of his starts and opposing batters hit just .196 against him — the best mark in the National League. But Wood’s durability was called into question in the early days of September. On August 31, he had hit his second big-league home run; the following day, he complained of soreness in his pitching arm. Diagnosed with strained ligaments in his elbow, he was told to take some time off. The Cubs were in the midst of a heated wild-card race with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, but Riggleman played it safe and refused to start Wood for the remainder of the season.
Even without their top gun, the Cubs overtook the Mets and defeated the Giants in a one-game playoff for the final playoff spot. The Cubs dropped the first two games of the NLDS to the Atlanta Braves; one loss away from elimination, Wood was pronounced fit to start Game Three but was warned to stay away from his curveball. Heeding his doctors’ advice, he dueled for five innings with four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux, whom he had beaten earlier in the season. Wood was taken out with the Cubs behind 1-0; the Braves eventually won the game 6-2.
After the season, Wood became the fourth Cub to win the National League‘s Rookie of the Year Award. The Cubs’ previous winners were Billy Williams (1961), Ken Hubbs (1962) and Jerome Walton (1989).
However, Wood’s career was sidetracked the following March when he blew out his arm in his first exhibition appearance of the spring. Diagnosed with a torn ligament, Wood underwent reconstructive “Tommy John” surgery on the elbow and missed the entire 1999 season. Even worse, the young hurler had learned that February that he had a dime-sized hole in his heart — a fact he kept secret from everyone in baseball except for his close friend Terry Adams.