Commentary

Kerry Wood doesn't dwell on 'what-ifs'

Yankees' newest reliever has been ravaged by injuries, but looks forward -- not back

Updated: August 5, 2010, 12:03 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

It was just his second day at Yankee Stadium, just his third day on the job overall with his new team, and Kerry Wood was hustling to grab his Yankees cap from his locker and pull on a game jersey and join the other players who were hurrying out to the field for the Yankees' 2010 team picture -- yet another little milestone that reminded Wood this late-career stroke of luck really is happening to him, all right.

"My head's spinning," Wood said after the Cleveland Indians told him he'd been traded to the Yankees on Saturday.

When Wood broke into the big leagues in 1998 by striking out 20 batters at age 20 in just his fifth start for the Cubs, all he heard was he was on the fast track to the Hall of Fame. Twelve injury-filled seasons later, Wood's career epitaph looks more modest. He's 33 now, and has to content himself with being one of baseball's ultimate survivors. He's become the sort of guy you pull for just because fate has always seemed to treat him so wrong.

[+] EnlargeKerry Wood
Daniel Lippitt/AFP/Getty ImagesIn 1998, Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros in just his fifth major league start.

The conundrum surrounding Wood's career has always been frustratingly simple and poignantly unyielding: Wood seems born to throw a baseball. Yet he can't stay healthy no matter what he does.

Imagine if the career of legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz had been short-circuited because he dislocated a couple of fingers when he tried playing even the simplest concerto. How would Picasso be remembered if he hurt his elbow right after painting his first masterpiece? What if Pavarotti never knew if singing his next opera was going to snap one of his vocal cords?

Wood is a baseball version of that. "I was supposed to be the next Nolan Ryan, the next Roger Clemens," Wood says with a wistful smile. Then he hurt his elbow and had Tommy John surgery his second season with the Cubs. In 2006, he had shoulder surgery but a muscle tear in his back went undiagnosed for a very long time and he barely pitched in 22 months.

All told, he's been on the disabled list 14 times in his career. He's seen his job description whittled down from starter to reliever. There were many times he could've quit, but something always stopped him. His wife. His physical therapists. His love of baseball or, most recently, the thought of his young son, who was born in 2006, "never getting to see that I did any of this."

Wood says the closest he came to quitting was in the spring of 2007 as he sat in a physical rehab facility in Phoenix, looking at a phone.

"I was literally 30 minutes away from calling [Cubs GM] Jim Hendry to tell him I was going to retire, come up to Chicago to pick up my stuff and say goodbye to my teammates," Wood says. "Then, just because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering, I said to my therapist, 'Let's go try this one more time.'

"By that point I had missed those 22 months. And I had been through it all. Days when I'd come home and feel like I can go back in two weeks. Days when I'd come home and think I'd never throw a ball again. Days when I could throw the ball 120 feet on a perfect line and other days when I couldn't even buckle my seat belt or throw a ball 10 feet without pain."

So this was it. Only there weren't 35,000 people at Wrigley Field watching Wood this time. Just Wood and his trainer, Brett Fischer, alone in a back alley behind Fischer's training facility, both of them knowing this schoolboy's game of catch might be where Wood's career ended.

[+] EnlargeKerry Wood
AP Photo/Kathy WillensKerry Wood will battle for the Bombers' setup job -- if he can stay healthy.

"And when I threw the ball that day, for whatever reason, all of a sudden I didn't have any pain," Wood says. "And when I came back the next day and threw, the next day felt better than the last."

The retirement phone call was never made.

Fischer later told the Chicago Sun-Times he'd never seen a client's shoulder turn around that fast. To this day, neither he nor Wood is still quite sure why it did, either, beyond the obvious fact that Wood had put in so much hard work.

Wood was on his way back. He contributed to Chicago's 2007 playoff run. He rejoined the Cubs for the 2008 season on a hometown discount contract and recorded 34 saves in 39 chances and made the All-Star Game. But Hendry took Wood to dinner a month after the season ended, and told him the Cubs didn't plan on re-signing him.

When Wood and his agent offered to sign a one-year deal at a discount, Hendry said maybe it was just best if they all moved on.

It was as if the whole arrangement -- Wood's unlucky career and the Cubs' famously star-crossed history, and the hope that Wood's latest success had sparked and the fear it wouldn't last -- was just too freighted to drag everyone through again.

"It's bittersweet," Wood said then. "I wanted to end my career here."

So that's how Wood moved on to Cleveland for the 2009 season. When interleague play took him back to Wrigley for the first time, Chicago fans stood and gave him a standing ovation. If anyone appreciates suffering and perseverance, the pain of never knowing what could have been, it's Cubs fans, right?

Even today, Wood regularly hits 95 mph on the radar gun, which is terrific for most pitchers but a comedown from the electric days when he was clocked at 100 mph as a rookie. His past stay on the DL -- this time for a blister on his pitching hand -- just ended on July 29. By trading for Wood to shore up their bullpen, despite his 6.30 ERA in just 23 games with the Indians, the Yankees are clearly hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.

"He still has a power arm," Yankees manager Joe Girardi says.

Wood still has his dream of winning a World Series, too.

Though plenty of people dwell on the Steve Bartman nightmare in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS with the Cubs just five outs from the World Series, Wood says he still thinks about his ineffective start in Game 7. Had he won, maybe history would be different.

Maybe Bartman could show his face around Chicago now rather than be a pariah for reaching over the railing to take away what appeared to be a sure foul fly out for Cubs outfielder Moises Alou. Maybe the Yankees would've faced the Cubs instead of the eventual champion Marlins and -- who knows? -- maybe the Cubs' 100-year title drought could've ended.

But Wood doesn't seem to dwell on "what ifs," if he asks them at all. He seems to have a remarkable lack of bitterness about his career. He's quick with a joke, smiles and sighs now and then at some memories, absolves all his former managers from the charges they overused him, and confronts every question head on. It's easy to see why he's been so well-liked everywhere he's been.

Reaching to get his glove now out of his Yankees locker, Wood says in the end everything that's happened to him "just is what it is. … It's all part of baseball."

Still being part of baseball seems to be enough.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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