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Filling The Void: 20 K Day on the North Side

On May 6th, 1998 a 20 year old flamethrower took the mound at Wrigley Field. He etched his name in the record books in only his 5th MLB start.

Wood 34 by Lisa Borodkin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Filling The Void: 20 K Day on the North Side

Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

It’s a weird time in which we’re living. We’re all sitting in quarantine wondering how to pass the time. How many times can we clean our kitchens or watch Space Jam. Does thumb-twiddling count as exercise?. In New York, we’ve been saluting those who are fighting this virus on the front lines every night at 7PM. Here at The Turf, we’re immensely thankful for all essential workers and everything they’re doing. Their efforts are keeping us all as safe as possible. In return, the best we can think to do is revisit sports history and find ways to keep you all entertained. We have to fill that void somehow, right?

It’s been 22 years since a 20 year old kid from Texas took the mound at Wrigley Field. He would face the division rival Houston Astros (yes, they were in the National League back then). By the end of this afternoon, he’d have forever etched his name in the history books. It was only his 5th start in the Majors!

Today: Houston Astros vs. Chicago Cubs – May 6, 1998

Over the first 4 starts of his career, Kerry Wood had delivered much of what might’ve been expected of him. He entered with a 2-2 record and a 5.89 ERA. His 18 1/3 innings had yielded 15 hits and 12 walks, as well as 25 strikeouts. Coming up through the minors, there was no denying Wood’s raw talent. His “stuff” was undeniable – but his command was still being refined. After his first pitch blew by the catcher and knocked umpire Jerry Meals square in the mask, you’d certainly be justified if you thought the Cubs might be in for a long afternoon. After all, he was a rookie about to face one of the most potent lineups in the league. That lineup happened to include two future Hall of Famers in their prime.

But You’d Be Wrong

In 2019, the average length of a 9 inning MLB game was 3 hours and 5 minutes, setting a new record. Wood’s record-tying outing was done and dusted in 2 hours and 19 minutes. After that adrenaline-laced first fastball, Wood promptly struck out the side, including Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell (those two HOFers I mentioned earlier). He’d go on to strike out the side in 4 separate innings over the course of the game (1st, 5th, 7th, and 8th). He also fanned two each in the 2nd, 4th, and 9th.

A Team Effort…and then some

As any baseball fan can tell you, whenever something magical, historic, or noteworthy such as this happens, there are usually a few “helping hands” throughout the course of the game. These are things that, on their own, seem innocuous or insignificant. However, when looking back in totality you realize just how much of an impact they had in shaping the narrative that comes with the accomplishment. There are certainly a handful of things that could’ve led to very different results for Wood on this day as well:

  • The Weather: It was a typical early May day in the Windy City. Even before the game started, there was talk about whether the rain would hold off. Indeed, during the middle innings, there was a period where it was falling pretty steadily. Despite that – there was never a rain delay (which could have led to Wood being pulled).
  • The Umpire: Home Plate Umpire Jerry Meals was greeted rudely by the first pitch of the game. Throughout the 9 innings, his strike zone was, at numerous times, referred to as “generous”. To be fair – he was consistent for both teams throughout.
  • His Opponents: There was one play that caught my eye as I watched this game. In the 8th inning, the Astros had a chance to turn an inning-ending double play, but third baseman Jack Howell took his time starting the play. As a result, the 2nd run of the game scored, giving Cubs manager Jim Riggleman a bit more room to keep Wood in the game.
  • His Catcher: Perhaps an unsung hero was catcher Sandy Martinez. Charged with calling the game for a promising rookie who was still working on his command, Martinez handled Wood expertly throughout (see Wood’s comments in the post-game interview).

An Arm for the Ages

The movement on his off-speed pitches, combined with the sheer velocity of his fastball, was a marvel to behold. When all was said and done, Kerry Wood’s final line was as follows: 9IP, 1H, 0 ER, 20K, 0BB. He threw 122 pitches, 84 of which were strikes. Oh – and before the debate starts again, Wood agrees – that 1 hit was indeed a hit. To this day, Wood is one of only 4 pitchers to ever strike out 20 batters in 9 innings. That list – Roger Clemens – twice, Randy Johnson, and Max Scherzer. Wood finished the 1998 season with a 13-6 record and 3.40 ERA. Unfortunately, he lost the entire 1999 season to injury, undergoing Tommy John surgery that May. Upon his return, he began to redefine himself as more of a “pitcher” – learning to expand beyond his well-established fastball. His 2003 season saw him achieve career bests in strikeouts (266), wins (14) and ERA (3.20).

What Might Have Been

The injury bug would continue to plague him throughout the remainder of his career. He continually battled a myriad of injuries that prevented him from maintaining long term success. Eventually, he would move to the bullpen before being cut loose in 2008. After stints with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees, Wood returned to the Cubs where he would finish his playing career. He recorded the final out of his career against Dayán Viciedo of the Chicago White Sox on May 18, 2012. Yes – he struck him out.

Joe is an actor who grew up eating, living and breathing sports. He spent many an afternoon on the soccer or baseball field in his youth (and even gave several other sports a shot) before a series of events put him on the path to pursuing a performing career. Subsequently, he's worked almost every other type of job you could imagine while trying to support that endeavor. Whenever he's not working any of those jobs, he can often be found watching, playing or discussing sports in some way. Most of that banter revolves around the Mets, Giants, Rangers or Manchester United. His short term goal is to fully convert his fiance into a rabid sports fan, not someone who leaves the room whenever he turns a game on.

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