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By Joel Reese photo by the chicago cubs | Photo: by t. Harrison Hillman | Styling by Theresa DeMaria |Grooming by Amy Geister | Shot on location at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel | February 14, 2018
As Chicago’s baseball fans mark the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s stunning 20-strikeout game at Wrigley Field, the retired pitcher and his wife continue to build an even more lasting legacy of helping the city’s students.
It was a gray, drizzly, nothing of a day at Wrigley Field. The date was May 6, 1998, and baby-faced rookie Kerry Wood was scheduled to take the mound for the fourth-place Chicago Cubs. Suffice to say he was not looking forward to it.
“I was really dragging,” Wood says. “It was cold. Overcast. I don’t think I threw one strike while I was warming up. I flipped the ball to the pitching coach at the end of my warmup and said, ‘Well, it can only go up from here.’”Sure enough, Wood’s first offering of the game—a laser-like fastball—sailed past the catcher’s mitt and glanced off umpire Jerry Meals’ mask. Seemed like a bad omen.
Yet what followed that errant pitch was one of the most magnificent—and we don’t use that word lightly—games a major league pitcher has ever thrown.
Wood, just 20 years old and pitching in only his fifth major league game, made the Houston Astros look foolish all afternoon. They flailed at curveballs that laughed at gravity, looking like drunks swatting at a moth with a fishing pole. They whiffed on fastballs that rocketed past them at 100 miles per hour.
On one pitch, catcher Brad Ausmus swung at a ball that bounced 5 feet in front of the plate. On the next pitch, he stared helplessly at a wicked curveball that buckled perfectly across the plate for strike three. And this was no band of scrubs: The 1998 Astros won 102 games, and four Houston batters ended the season with batting averages above .300.
“He threw me one pitch that I thought was going to hit me in the face. Next thing I knew, it was crossing the plate, knee-high on the outside corner,” Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell said. “How are you supposed to hit that?”
THE PERFORMANCE was so indelible that many will find it hard to believe it’s time to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Bill James—one of the pre-eminent baseball writers of all time—quantifies it the most dominant game ever pitched. Wood struck out the side in the first, fifth, seventh and eighth innings—and guess how many balls made it out of the infield?
By the end of the game, with rain pouring down, Wood—who went on to win National League Rookie of the Year in 1998—had tied the major league record of 20 strikeouts in a game. So how did he celebrate that historic night?
“I went to Bennigan’s on Michigan Avenue, had a root beer and a guiltless chicken platter, and watched the highlights with [fellow Cubs pitcher] Terry Adams,” he says with a laugh. “There were about six people in the whole place.”
Wood went on to pitch in the major leagues for 14 years, but the stress he put on his body led to a procession of injuries, including a torn labrum, a torn rotator cuff, a torn ulnar collateral ligament and recurring tendinitis. In retrospect, it didn’t help that his managers often let him throw north of 125 pitches in a game. In 2003, Dusty Baker kept him in to throw 141 pitches in a May tilt against St. Louis.
Wood doesn’t blame anyone for his maladies: “I’m not going to point a finger at somebody else when I know that maybe I could’ve worked harder or prepared better,” he says.
As he reflects back on that one rainy day in Chicago, Wood is thoughtful about the game and how it affected his career. “It put me on the map and gave me the confidence to feel like I belong here,” he says. “As a 20-year-old kid coming into the big leagues, that’s your biggest question: ‘Am I ready for this?’ And that game proved I was.”
Plus, he adds with a smile, “I can get a dinner reservation whenever I want.”
THE EARLY SUCCESS, and his very solid career, set Wood up for an unusually fulfilling and worthwhile second chapter. He and his wife, Sarah, and their three kids have settled into the Chicago area and are here for the long haul. He works with the Cubs as a special assistant in baseball operations and pursues real estate development. But his profile is probably highest now as president of the Wood Family Foundation. Wood and his wife began the foundation in 2011, and it has raised more than $5 million for children in underserved Chicagoland communities and schools, including Lawndale Community Academy.
“When I finished my career here, we knew that it was time to launch a foundation and do something bigger,” he says, noting the program began teaching baseball and quickly evolved into something more. “By the end of the second year, we started seeing my older kids mentoring some of the younger kids—just showing them the way a little bit better.”
The foundation and its work is clearly important to Wood—before our interview, he chatted with several students from the school with an easy, relaxed rapport. He congratulated seventh-grader Damarcus Thompson, who was getting ready to travel to Washington, D.C., to give a speech to the American School Counselor Association. Wood and his family are a model of what a post-pro life can look like.
And for those who know him, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Wherever he went, Wood knew returning to Chicago was a no-brainer. Even when his career took him to other cities, he always planned on coming back.
“The city has been so good to me for so long,” he says. “It’s always just felt like home to me here.”
The Wood Family Foundation’s annual Storybook Gala will be held Sept. 21. Tickets $500, Morgan Manufacturing, 401 N. Morgan St.