The PA announcer asked fans to direct their attention to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch, but it had to be one of the most widely ignored such ceremonies in baseball history. All eyes were directed toward the pitcher’s mound all right, but it was the mound in the Cubs’ bull pen, where Kerry Wood was warming up. After missing all of last season recovering from so-called Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow, Wood was returning to action. Two years earlier he’d struck out 20 batters in one game against the Houston Astros to set a National League record, led the Cubs’ charge to the wild-card playoff spot, and won the rookie of the year award–while turning just 21 during the season. Every game he pitched that season had an air of electricity about it, like the atmosphere at a Bulls game during the Michael Jordan era. During the Cubs’ abysmal 1999 season, after Wood blew out his elbow in spring training, the prospect of his return was one of the few sources of hope for the future, but it was hope mixed with trepidation. Tommy John surgery, named after the former White Sox pitcher who first went through it in the 70s, has been refined in the years since, but it still produces notoriously uneven results. Some pitchers come back after a year throwing harder than ever; others require an additional year to regain their arm strength; still others never return to form, for reasons that can be mental as well as physical. Now here was Wood a week ago last Tuesday, back on a major-league mound almost exactly on schedule, 13 months after surgery, fresh from throwing in the 95-mile-an-hour range in minor-league rehabilitation starts and once again facing the Astros. Outside the park the scene was manic; on a cloudless evening, the wind wafting in from the lake, excited fans made their way to the first night game of the season. Inside, their excitement turned nervous. Cheering erupted as Wood emerged from the Cubs dugout and walked down the left-field line to the bull pen about a half hour before game time, but the crowd abruptly quieted–even in the rowdy left-field bleachers–when Wood removed his jacket and prepared to warm up. It was as if the fans didn’t want to pump him up and risk his blowing out his arm again before he even got into a game.
It’s strange to see such a tender response to a major-league baseball player, especially one as big and young as Wood, who is six-foot-five, 230 pounds, and not yet 23. The Cubs, playing in Wrigley Field, have always been known for their thumpers and not for their pitchers, who must struggle to survive when the wind blows out. In fact, Cubs fans don’t really seem to know how to respond to Wood. Fans have produced K signs to celebrate his strikeouts, as well as the unsubtle T-shirt slogan “We got Wood,” but Wood’s persona represents an opposite attitude. He is matter-of-fact in interviews, in the manner of old-school athletic greats, and he remains in the old school by refusing to acknowledge fan response of any sort. During the rollicking 1998 campaign he homered in a game but refused to make a curtain call afterward, leaving it to Sammy Sosa to step from the dugout and accept the applause.
As he began warming up, playing long toss with bull pen catcher Benny Cadahia, Wood insisted in every mannerism that there was nothing wrong with him physically. As Cadahia stepped back with each catch and throw, Wood first popped his mitt at close range, then fired the ball into deep left center without even the suggestion of an arc. He took the mound just as the ceremonial first pitch was being announced, and began firing fastballs to Cadahia. Catcher Jeff Reed looked on with a smile stuck on his face, like a driver sizing up a high-performance sports car, eager to get behind the wheel. Finally Wood snapped off that hissing snake of a curveball he brought to Wrigley Field two years ago, and sitting nearby, in a place where I could not only see it but hear it, I felt he was really back.
The people sitting around me watched in a weird sort of respectful, solicitous silence. (It helped that ushers were limiting the people in the area to ticket holders for those seats.) Late in Wood’s warm-up session–when he began to press his lips together, jut his jaw forward, and really let loose–he popped the catcher’s glove, and a kid behind me said to his friends, “Holy geez! You shoulda just seen that. That was mad wicked.” It wasn’t until he finished up, put his jacket back on, and began walking toward the dugout that the fans cut loose a little with a chorus of “Go Kerry!” and “Kerry, go get ’em!” He walked on, head down, without a smile.
The excitement built in the few minutes before the Cubs took the field. The huge crowd, which would be announced as 38,121, was relatively prompt for a night game, and when Wood let loose with an opening fastball, barely nicked and fouled straight back to the screen by Craig Biggio, the fans responded with hoots of appreciation. Biggio grounded meekly to second, and Roger Cedeno followed with an awkward roller to deep short that Ricky Gutierrez couldn’t handle; it was questionably ruled a hit, and not until the fifth inning would another hit take the onus off the official scorer for ruining a no-hitter. Wood got the dangerous Jeff Bagwell on a fly to left, walked Ken Caminiti, then got Daryle Ward on a fly to center. As bat struck ball, each of those pop outs sounded like a golf ball whapped by a rolled-up newspaper. The crowd roared as Wood came off the mound, but he ambled to the dugout head down, like a boy trudging through a downpour.
The Astros’ mercurial starter, Jose Lima, tried to feed off the crowd’s energy. He had been alternately yelling at teammates and singing along with pop songs on the PA system during batting practice, and now he slung the ball toward home plate with his distinctive little gesture of throwing his chin back in the middle of the delivery. He gave up a couple of hits, but got out of the first unscathed. Wood prompted Richard Hidalgo to hit another pop fly to lead off the second, but then fell behind Mitch Meluskey with two balls. Meluskey, a good-hitting young catcher facing Wood for the first time, dialed himself up for the inevitable fastball–but didn’t dial high enough. He was swinging when the ball popped into Joe Girardi’s mitt, and he looked at the upper deck down the left-field line and said, “Motherfuck!” (I had found a seat a few rows back between the Cubs dugout and the screen behind the plate, and if that’s not what Meluskey said it matches the sentiment.) Wood blew another fastball by him, then got him on a weak grounder to first. After another walk, he got Lima looking for his first comeback strikeout.
That’s where Lima, perhaps deflated after psyching himself up so much, just lost it. Henry Rodriguez and Willie Greene opened the Cubs second with back-to-back doubles, and Damon Buford dumped a sacrifice bunt in front of the pitcher’s mound. When Bagwell couldn’t find the bag on the throw to first, the Cubs had two on, no outs, and a run already in. Girardi scored Greene from third on a slow roller to short, and Wood came up with Buford on second. He swung at Lima’s first pitch and hit a high, arcing shot to left field that dropped a few rows deep into the bleachers. At that point, any pretense of concerned reserve on the part of the crowd was ditched like an old bandage. As he rounded the bases, people yelled and hooted and hollered as they do only in the presence of greatness, and as Wood stepped back down into the dugout they yelled for a curtain call for the only defensible reason–to extend that on-field presence. Wood would have none of it. The crowd would have to calm itself down. Gods, even young gods, don’t answer curtain calls either.
There were reports that Wood tried to alter his delivery after his elbow blew out, so that he would use his body more and not throw so much across it. Yet his motion looked much the same as before, with a simple high kick that he now brings straight down before striding toward home plate, the better to keep his body behind his arm. But simple and direct as that motion is, he seemed to lose his rhythm a bit in the second and third innings and occasionally strained to throw strikes. Truth be told, he had more explosive stuff in the bull pen; he seemed to be trying to rein himself in on the mound. He walked Cedeno in the third, but again got out of the inning on three fly balls. In the fourth he seemed to settle in, and the result was an effortless three-up, three-down. He gave up a hit and a walk in the fifth, and had runners at second and third with two out and Bagwell up, but then he made his best pitch of the night–a beautiful full-count curve that froze Bagwell as it slashed across the outside corner at the knees for strike three. In the sixth, Ward finally dropped the bat on a fastball and hit the ball the way it’s supposed to be hit, with a crack; it went flying out to right field for a homer. But Wood calmly finished the inning and left the game without fanfare. He had thrown 97 pitches in six innings, giving up a run on but three hits, with four walks and four strikeouts. The Cubs by then had padded their lead to 10-1, and would go on to win 11-1 to give Wood his first victory since August 1998. One person was missing as the Cubs celebrated on the field afterward: Wood, who was already having his arm treated in the clubhouse.
One game does not a comeback make, of course. Wood pitched again on Sunday, but from his warm-up pitches in the pen his mechanics seemed in a muddle–a natural result of taking a year off. Pitching coach Oscar Acosta did all the tinkering he could, including a visit to the mound in the first inning, but Wood was destined to struggle on this day. The opponents, the Pittsburgh Pirates, no doubt knew that Wood had relied on his fastball against the Astros, throwing just four curves and three sliders. Kevin Young hit a first-pitch fastball for a two-out, three-run homer in the first, and Brian Giles, a hitter with a ferocious swing who absolutely does not get cheated at the plate, hit a first-pitch fastball for a two-out, three-run homer in the seventh. Those were the bookends of a seven-run, six-and-two-thirds-inning outing. Again Wood trudged to the dugout when his day was done, same as he had five days before. This time fewer fans behind the Cubs dugout gave him an ovation, but they cheered with equal emotion. It wasn’t a curtain call, just a show of appreciation for making a 12-21 team tied for last place at least worth watching again.