I’d like to think that somewhere down in the southern part of this country, a young fireballer named Kerry Wood was having a similar experience. Maybe in an Astros or a Rangers jersey or, if his coach didn’t spring for fancy uniforms like ours did, an Ace Hardware jersey. I hope that some of Kerry’s best memories of summers past were riding in the back of his coach’s pickup truck making up ridiculous rap songs with his twelve teammates. That he, too, experienced that nervous flutter in his stomach every time he stepped to bat. That it got worse when he faced an 0-2 count. That he thought having a sign indicator was a stroke of genius, and that having an anti-indicator that erased all previous signs BLEW HIS MIND.
I hope somewhere in Texas, Kerry was perched on his own stove-hot aluminum bench, laughing with his teammates as he tried to hock a gob of spit so that it perfectly bisected the diamond formed by the links of the chain fence in front of him. In his junior high years, I imagine Kerry thought he was the pinnacle of cool when he graduated from Big League Chew to sunflower seeds. And, oh, how impressive it must have been when he was able to spit those tiny shells through those same chain link diamonds.
Did Kerry leave his eyeblack on just a little bit longer to impress the girls who swung by the field after spending the day at the pool? Did he refuse to let his mom wash his uniform as long as his hitting streak kept up? Did he hold up a similar big orange Gatorade jug as his teammates lined up for drinks in between games of a Saturday doubleheader? Did he talk his parents into getting him contacts instead of glasses because glasses fog up in the summer and it’s harder to see a baserunner out of the corner of your eye when you’re wearing glasses? I hope so.
I grew up watching larger-than-life adults on WGN and at Wrigley Field playing baseball. I could never imagine that I would someday be the same age as those guys who got paid to play a kids’ game. And then, Kerry Wood came along. At twenty, while I was preparing for a dreaded organic chemistry final, Kerry Wood was preparing for the dreaded Houston Astros lineup. About mid-way through the game, one of my dorm mates demanded I put down the books and watch Kerry’s mastery of the Astros. Wood fared better against Bagwell and Biggio than I did against carbon and hydrogen, but I didn’t regret my choice to watch Kid K become legend.
As I watched Kerry toy with one of the best lineups in baseball, I tried, foolishly, to imagine facing him. Our old rival, and probably the best pitcher I faced growing up, was Thurman Hendrix. He was practically unhittable. He was bigger, stronger, and a hell of a lot more intimidating than any of the other kids on the field. I remember getting drilled in the ankle by him and thinking I would never walk again. He played a little professional ball, even. But he was no Kerry Wood.
Watching Kerry try to will the Cubs past the Braves during the 1998 NLDS was like watching one of my old Riverside Yankee teammates do it. But his baby face belied his decades-old arm, and 1998 was not meant to be. I thought there was a lot of pressure on me to finish school, get a diploma, get a job. I was expected to be average. A normal guy in a tie. Kerry Wood was expected to be a legend. A savior in pinstripes.
In 2003, I was back in law school. Because Cubs playoff tickets at Wrigley Field were near-impossible to get, I found two complete strangers who were heading down to Atlanta to attend Game Two of the NLDS. We bought tickets, divvied up driving duties, and decided to make a road trip of it. We left right after classes on Tuesday, September 30, and stopped in Indianapolis along the way. We had to watch Kerry Wood pitch Game One. Everyone, of course, remembers Wood’s home run in the 2003 NLCS. But fewer make mention of the go-ahead, game-winning, 2-run double Wood hit in Game One of the NLDS. In Little League, there were no free outs in the lineup. Our best pitchers were often our best hitters. Kerry was both that night, finishing 2-4 with a double, 2 RBIs, and, on the other side of the ball, 11 strikeouts. I could practically feel the heat from the aluminum radiating through my polyester uniform pants as I watched him be the best athlete on the field.
Like all of yours, my heart went out to Kerry in 2003, when the kid who loved the game had to become the man who accepted defeat. Fifteen years prior, a double scoop of Gold Medal Ribbon and Pink Bubblegum in a sugar cone might have staved off Kerry’s tears. Not that night. He wept like the thousands of Cubs fans around the world were weeping. Like a kid might weep. And we loved him for it.
Kerry Wood will always be Kid K. The kid who never outgrew his love of the game, and who, despite the unstoppable march of my own years, never let me forget mine. Thanks for the memories, Kerry.