One of the fondest memories I have as a child is sharing my love of baseball with my father. Impossibly devoted Cubs fans, my parents subscribed (and probably still do) to the Vine Line, and I remember well the manner in which my dad presented each new issue to me. It was a gift to be cherished, consumed, and admired — a little extra baseball to breathe in. Baseball and the Cubs were omnipresent for me growing up, and I relished that environment.
I vaguely remember, in 1995, my father handing me the newest issue of the ‘Vine Line’. It was after the draft, and he was excited about the Cubs’ first round draft pick. That pick, of course, was Kerry Wood. I was 10 years old, and that brief magazine profile coupled with my father’s excitement created in me an instant obsession. He was to be my next favorite player, a certainty I embraced with childhood alacrity.
Fast forward to 1998. It was early May, and Wood had already made four starts — none of which I’d been able to watch. Knowing that Kerry would be starting May 6, a classic 1:20 CST start time against the Astros, I resolved not to miss a pitch. I grew up in West Michigan, so even with a 2:20 local start time I wouldn’t be home until after the game had started.
Deciding this to be an unacceptable reality, I did what any kid would do — I made it through lunch before faking a sickness. I was in eighth grade, almost 13, and a devoted student. My teacher believed me without question, and after a call to my mother a neighbor and family friend agreed to pick me up and drop me off at home.
The setting was ideal. None of my four siblings were home and both of my parents were still at work. I had the house to myself, my own little space to finally see Kerry pitch. And goodness if I didn’t pick the perfect day to play hooky from school.
We all know what happened next. A 20 strikeout masterpiece, a one hit, one free pass affair. The highest game score (105) in the history of MLB for a nine inning performance. All against the lineup of an eventual 102 win Astros team, one that led the league in OBP that season, complete with two Hall of Famers in Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
The stats paint the picture. What they can’t express is the wonderment with which we witnessed this performance. A breaking ball, affectionately referred to as a slurve, made a powerful lineup look helpless. Knees buckled, arms swatting desperately through the air in attempt to hit a pitch that was all-but-impossible to touch. Kerry wasn’t simply owning the moment; it was as if he channeled the pitching gods and they were performing through him.
As Historic as it Gets
Over time games can be fabled, exaggerated in ways that sound impossible. In the moment, people may be trapped by what they just witnessed, claiming a moment as historic without allowing for the passage of time to dictate its worth. In the case of Kerry Wood, May 6, 1998 lives on as a performance worthy of legend, so dominant that both the immediate admiration and the fondness developed over 20 years still fail to fully grasp the beauty of that moment.
It’s almost comical when considering the first pitch of that game. Far from a harbinger of what was to come, Kerry unloaded a fastball sans any control with Biggio flashing a bunt like a high school leadoff hitter. Sandy Martinez whiffed as he tried to catch it, and the ball smoked home plate umpire Jerry Meals in the mask.
“First pitch. I’ll never forget it,” Meals said. “How could I? As an umpire you hardly ever get drilled right in the mask with the first pitch of the game. But Kerry threw a fastball up, the catcher didn’t get a glove on it. And there it was. Spun my mask around. It wakes you right up.”
After that first pitch, however, Wood was practically untouchable. Striking out the first five batters he faced, he simply mowed down batter after batter, with the look and confidence that what he was doing was supposed to be happening. Watching history unfold is normally a tense moment, fans hoping against hope while suspended in tension. But with Kerry, on that day, the strikeouts were expected, the conclusion already known. Tension didn’t exist; the ride could simply be enjoyed.
Childhood memories often escape me. This moment, however, will never escape, my 12-year-old emotions and fondness for Kerry perfectly preserved.
Kerry will Always be a Cub
Kerry’s career was plagued by injury — a talent so obvious that never received a career’s worth of moments. He gave the Cubs May 6, 1998, to be sure. He also gave the Cubs his all year in and year out, and the city of Chicago his heart and dedication — the epitome of what a legendary Cub truly is. Wood may have never helped bring home that elusive championship so many Cubs wished to have been a part of, but his status among Cubs’ history still ranks among the most iconic.
He’s beloved not because he’s a Hall of Fame player or because he’s the greatest pitcher to ever don Cubbie blue. He’s beloved for the passion he displayed, the optimism he gave us all, the admiration he had for the team’s history, and his relationship with Cubs legends (most notably Ron Santo). Wood exemplified what this fan base thinks of its greatest players; it’s only fitting that this day, 20 years ago, is his to own.
Art is timeless. That’s why its purest forms resonate throughout generations. Wood may not have had a timeless career, but he had a timeless start. May 6, 1998 is etched into Cubs’ lore — persisting beyond, even, a 108-year curse. It’s the greatest achievement, however brief, a Cub has ever accomplished. Kerry will forever be a timeless Cub.
Follow Austin Bloomberg on Twitter — Featured Photo Credit: Stephen Green (Vine Line)