Kerry Lee Wood was born on June 16, 1977, in Irving, Texas, to Terry and Garry Wood. Thanks in part to his father, baseball was in the infant's blood from the moment he entered the world. Garry was a talented player, a lefthanded-hitting shortstop with speed and pop. But his first priority after high school was supporting his family, so his career took a back seat. His passion for the game remained, however, and he passed it along to Kerry and his brother, Donny.
Kerry's family was solidly middle class. His father worked for a check-printing company 12 hours a day, and his mom was employed by an insurance agency. Kerry learned his values from his parents, and they helped catapult him into the baseball spotlight.
Close knit and athletic,
the Woods were bound to one another by baseball. Garry made a promise
when his sons were born that he would never turn them down if they asked
to play catch or take batting practice. As a consequence, he was was a
very busy man away from the office. Kerry and Donny spent their free time
almost exclusively on a baseball diamond. Garry often coached his sons,
while Terry kept score at their games. When they weren't playing, Donny
and Kerry hung around their dad's softball team.
Kerry put on a glove for the first time after his fourth birthday. He was hooked immediately. The youngster dreamed of making it to the majors. Like all boys growing up in Texas, he embraced Nolan Ryan as one of his baseball heroes. Garry fed his son’s hunger for the sport by buying him a book on pitching written by the legendary strikeout artist.
In Little League, Kerry toed the rubber and played shortstop. Garry schooled his son in the fundamentals of fielding and hitting, but pitching was not one of his areas of expertise. While Kerry showed promise on the mound, he was still raw and undisciplined. His father taught his son to throw a curveball, but the youngster was nowhere close to mastering the pitch.
It wasn't until high school that people began to notice that Kerry had the potential to be a standout. As a 5-foot-9 freshman at MacArthur High School, he started at shortstop. When he heard that the junior varsity coach was looking for pitchers, he volunteered. But an injury cut his season short. After two months of rehab, he began a throwing program. Come his sophomore year, his velocity had increased significantly.
So had the teenager’s size. When Kerry showed up for spring practice in 1993, he was a full six inches taller. Now more serious about pitching, he modeled his motion and demeanor on the mound after Ryan and Roger Clemens.
opportunity to shine in front of pro scouts came in the spring of 1994,
only they weren’t there to watch him. MacArthur was scheduled to
play Martin High School, which was led by another Texas phenom, Ben Grieve.
A senior with a booming bat, Grieve was unquestionably the Lonestar State’s
On the hill for the showdown, Kerry was pumped up and throwing heat. He struck out Grieve in his first at-bat, and didn’t get hurt by him in his next plate appearance, either. The next time up, Grieve was fooled completely on a 2-2 curve. So was the umpire. Kerry tried to finish off Grieve with another bender, but this time he was ready, clobbering it for a long home run. Kerry and Grieve jawed at each other as he circled the bases.
Despite the blast, Kerry turned plenty of heads that day. He reached the high 80s on the radar gun, and impressed those in attendance with his competitiveness and gritty determination. A pro career seemed like a certainty as Kerry headed into his senior year of high school.
ON THE RISE
That season was spent
at South Grand Prairie High School in Grand Prairie. The school’s newest transfer
had matured physically, and his understanding of pitching had grown, too.
Kerry's coach at Grand Prairie, Mike McGilvray, compared him to Todd Van
Poppel, another Texas product and the first-round pick of the Oakland
A’s in the 1990 draft.
The question before
Kerry was whether he should go straight to the majors or develop his skills
in college. Lance Brown, the baseball coach at nearby Texas Christian
University, had a verbal commitment from the 17-year-old, but he had been
down this road before. A year earlier, Grieve had signed a letter of intent
with TCU, and then opted for the big leagues when the A’s drafted
him in the first round. Brown braced for a similar fate with Kerry.
He was correct. The Cubs tabbed Kerry with as the fourth pick overall in 1995, behind Darin Erstad (California Angels), Ben Davis (San Diego Padres) and Jose Cruz Jr. (Seattle Mariners). But all was not right at Wrigley. Two days before the draft, Kerry threw 175 pitches in a doubleheader with Grand Prairie’s playoff hopes on the line. The Chicago brass was in an uproar.
Kerry, Garry and coach McGilvray all defended the workload, explaining that this wasn’t the first time the youngster had logged that many innings in a single day. The Cubs, however, weren’t satisfied until they did their own battery of tests on Kerry. Convinced that the 17-year-old was healthy, they handed him a $1.2 million signing bonus.
Kerry eventually joined Fort Meyers of the Florida State League and then Williamsport of the NY-Penn League. In three games, he displayed an overpowering fastball and unhittable breaking stuff, not to mention a total lack of control.
The following spring, Kerry prepared for training camp withthe Cubs in Mesa, Arizona. With his fastball and slider already of big-league caliber, the plan was to teach him a changeup to round out his repertoire. Over the winter, Kerry moved to the Phoenix area, where he got a head start on his workouts. Away from his parents, he also began a tradition of calling his mom before every game he was scheduled to pitch (which he still does today).
The Cubs assigned Kerry to Daytona, their new FSL affiliate. At 18, he was the circuit’s youngest player. And though he sat out a month with a tender elbow, Kerry flourished in his first full professional campaign. Voted the the league’s No. 1 prospect, he went 10-2 with 136 strikeouts and a 2.91 ERA. Kerry topped all Cubs minor leaguers in K’s, and also helped himself out with six home runs.
Kerry opened the 1997 season with Class AA Orlando, where he went 6-7 in 19 starts. Command was his only real weakness. When Kerry pitched in the strike zone, no one could touch him. In 94 innings, he gave up just 58 hits and fanned 106 batters. But he also walked 79, which was the main reason for his 4.50 ERA.
Still, the Cubs had seen enough to promote him to their Triple-A Iowa club in the Pacific Coast League. There he continued his wild ways. But the upside was that Kerry was throwing regularly in the mid-90s. Whether he had his control or not, he was untouchable. Unwilling to expose Kerry to the expansion draft, Chicago let him ride out the campaign in the PCL. With Cubs fans desperate to see the fireballing 20-year-old, it was only a matter of time before Kerry took the hill in Wrigley.
Going into the 1998 campaign, the Cubs were at a crossroads. After two respectable seasons in ’95 and ’96, they limped home at 68-94 in 1997. Manager Jim Riggleman, in the last year of his contract, had butted heads with Sammy Sosa, and the pitching staff was full of question marks. Kevin Tapani was coming off finger surgery, Mark Clark and Steve Trachsel were trying to prove themselves as reliable starters, and rookie Jeremi Gonzalez was being counted on to log major innings.
Early in the season,
veteran set-up man Bob Patterson strained a calf muscle and was placed
on the disabled list. Looking for a spark, the Cubs called up Kerry. He
appeared nervous in his first few starts, but began to get comfortable
in an 8-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Harnessing his electric stuff
for the first time, he fanned nine batters in seven innings.
Less than a week later, on May 6, Kerry put it all together on a gray day in Chicago. Facing the Houston Astros, he began the contest with a fastball that flew over catcher Sandy Martinez's head. Then he settled into a groove. When Derek Bell whiffed to end the game, Kerry had a 2-0 win and a record-tying 20 strikeouts,equaling the mark of Roger Clemens and becoming the only other pitcher besides Bob Feller to reach his age in K’s. (Feller fanned 17 as a 17-year-old in 1936.) Afterwards, Clemens called Kerry and sent a telegram to congratulate him.
The tidal wave of attention that crashed down on Kerry in the aftermath of this performance was almost too much for him to handle. The toast of the Windy City, he signed a hat and baseball that were sent to Cooperstown, the media wouldn't leave him alone, and fans wanted to see more history whenever he took the mound. Not surprisingly, the pressure caused him to overthrow at times.
Fortunately for Kerry, Sosa caught fire and enjoyed a campaign for the ages. Battling for the single-season homer run mark, he traded long balls in a thrilling duel that St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire ultimately won with 70 dingers. Still, with Sosa slamming 66 homers and driving in 158 runs, Kerry was no longer the center of the media focus in the Chicago clubhouse.
Learning the league with each start, he finished the ’98 season at 13-6 in 26 games, with 233 strikeouts and a 3.40 ERA. Setting a new record of 12.58 strikeouts per nine innings and holding batters to a league-best .196 average, he was honored as the NL Rookie of the Year.
The Cubs rode their two horses into the post-season, taking a one-game playoff against the San Francisco Giants to claim the NL Wild Card. But that was the end of the magic, as the Atlanta Braves beat Chicago in the Division Series. Kerry started one game and pitched well, going five innings and surrendering only one run.
In the spring of 1999, the strain of the prior campaign finally caught up to Kerry. In August of ’98, he had sprained his right elbow, but worked through the pain over the season's final weeks. In his first outing of spring training, however, he tore a ligament in his right arm. Kerry was done for the year.
In May he underwent “Tommy John” surgery, and then embarked on the long road to full health. Kerry began playing catch in mid-July, but wasn't expected back on the mound until November. While rehabbing, he occasionally watched a tape of his 20-strikeout game.
As the 2000 campaign opened, Kerry was a month ahead of schedule in his recovery, but still seemed far from returning to the majors. He began the year with Daytona, logging two starts in the Florida State League. When Kerry looked sharper than expected, the Cubs moved him up to Iowa to pitch against stiffer competition. There Kerry sparkled again, and in May he rejoined the Cubs.
Kerry looked strong in his first start, against the Astros, allowing only three hits and one earned run through six innings. But he got hammered by the Pittsburgh Pirates in his next outing. A lack of control was his major problem.
Critics were quick
to knock the Cubs for pushing Kerry too hard—ironically the same
charge the club had levelled at Kerry’s high school coach. Their
case was bolstered when he missed a month with tendonitis in his right
shoulder. That injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Able to
strengthen his elbow during his time on the DL, Kerry ended the season
on a strong note. At 8-7 with a 3.36 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 137 innings,
he salvaged a winning season from potential disaster. The Cubs couldn’t
say the same, going 65-97 and finishing last in the Central Division.
MAKING HIS MARK
The off-season brought a lot of changes to Chicago. The Cubs let Mark Grace walk away as a free agent to Arizona, and acquired Julian Taverez, Ron Coomer, Jason Bere, Matt Stairs, Jeff Fassero, Joe Borowski and Todd Hundley. The additions, however, produced only minimal improvements. Despite another prolific campaign from Sosa, the team missed the playoffs again.
Chaos in the clubhouse was the theme through much of the season. Manager, Don Baylor ruffled a few feathers, including those of pitching coach Oscar Acosta, who was forced to resign over a personality clash with the skipper. In addition, several players criticized Baylor's fitness guru, Mack Newton, who claimed more credit than most thought he was due.
Against this backdrop, Kerry put together a solid season. He twirled a gem early in the year, blanking the Milwaukee Brewers 1-0 in May. The effort produced one of his 12 victories in 2001, against only six losses. Kerry logged a career-high 174 1/3 innings, and was more efficient along the way. He gave up just 127 hits, increased his strikeout to walk ratio to better than 2:1, and lowered his ERA to 3.36.
Kerry was finally showing the ability to pitch, not just throw. When the Cubs drafted highly touted righty Mark Prior in the ’01 draft, fans at Wrigley suddenly had visions of baseball’s most dominant starting rotation. Management agreed, and loaded up before the 2002 season. The major acquisition was Moises Alou, but also in the fold were shortstop Alex Gonzalez and pitchers Antonio Alfonseca and Matt Clement. Chicago also extended Kerry’s contract for a year at more than $3.6 million.
Kerry entered the campaign eager to shed nicknames like “Special K” and “Kid K.” Taking advice from veterans Tapani and Jon Lieber, he fully embraced a new pitching philosophy. Boasting better control over his changeup and breaking stuff, Kerry focused on taking the Cubs late into games and giving them a chance to win every one of his starts.
Unfortunately, Chicago couldn’t muster many W’s in ’02. A brutal start to the season put the Cubs behind the eight ball, and they never recovered. The team ended 28 games under .500, a distant fifth in the Central. Bright spots were the emergence of Prior and Clement, not to mention Kerry’s development into a bona fide workhorse.
He surpassed 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career, and recorded four complete games. In spite of his team’s awful performance, Kerry managed a winning record, at 12-11. Of course, he still could bring the heat when he needed it. In fact, Kerry achieved a rare feat, fanning four batters in one inning.
It happened in September against Milwaukee. To start the fourth against the Brewers, he struck out Bill Hall, who reached safely when Hundley couldn’t handle the third strike. Next Ryan Thompson went down swinging, and then Paul Bako whiffed. But he made it to first when Kerry's pitch went skidding past Hundley. Kerry ended the wacky inning with a K of pitcher Andrew Lorraine. All this happened in a 17-4 win for the Cubs.
After the season, Kerry took some time off to attend to his personal life. In November, he married Sarah Pates. The two had met two years before in Chicago. They settled on Scottsdale as their off-season home.
The Cubs also were
busy, luring Dusty Baker from San Francisco and inking him to a four-year
deal. Chicago bolstered its roster, too. Catcher Damian Miller was acquired
to give the pitching staff a veteran everyday presence behind the plate,
while the additions of Mike Remlinger, Mark Guthrie and Dave Veres strengthened
the bullpen. The batting order benefitted from a deal that brought over
Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros from Los Angeles.
Baker knew, however, that the key to his team’s fortunes was his young rotation, which featured Kerry, Prior, Clement and Carlos Zambrano. If they performed as hoped, the Cubs would challenge for a playoff spot.
Kerry started the campaign for the Cubs on a cold day in New York. He pitched well, and Chicago drubbed the Mets, 15-2. The team also got a big lift from rookie Corey Patterson, who set a major-league record with seven RBI in a season opener.
But within weeks it appeared that the wheels were coming off for the Cubs. First, Sosa was hit in the head by Pittsburgh’s Salamon Torres. Suffering from a sore foot at the time, he wound up on the disabled list for 17 days. Then in June, Kerry collided with first baseman Hee Seop Choi as both were going for an infield pop-up. Choi was knocked unconscious and rushed to the hospital. The low point for Chicago came days later when Sosa was ejected from a game after it was discovered he was using a corked bat.
Injuries, meanwhile, continued to nip at the Cubs. Advancing to second on a ground ball, Prior ran into Marcus Giles of the Braves, and was sidelined for almost a month. Patterson went down as well, tearing the ACL in his left knee.
But the Cubs hung tough. In the thick of the race in Central, the club made several bold moves, trading for Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon. Heading into September, Chicago was fighting Houston tooth and nail for first place in the division.
Kerry was a major factor all season long. With Prior on the DL, he assumed the role of staff ace, and offered valuable leadership to his less experienced rotation-mates. When Prior returned, the Cubs became a handful. Down the stretch, the pair strung together one dominant start after another. In mid-September Kerry notched his 4th complete game of the season, a 13-4 win that secured a three-game sweep of the Mets. Of course, Chicago didn’t make things easy on its fans, needing a sweep of the Pirates on the season’s last day to earn its first trip to the post-season in five years.
Kerry capped off the best year of his career with a record of 14-11 with a 3.20 ERA. He struck out 266 hitters in 211 innings, and hurled two shutouts.
The Cubs faced Atlanta
in the Division Series, and Kerry did it all in Game One. He hit a two-run
double in the sixth inning to break a 1-1 tie, while calmly holding the
Braves to two hits and fanning 11. He also made the highlight reel in
the second inning when he fielded a comebacker of the bat of Vinny Castilla
behind his back, spinning around and throwing to first for the out.
Baker handed Kerry the ball again in Game Five, and he delivered another gem. The Braves couldn’t touch the big righty, who posted his second win of the series, 5-1.
Next up for the Cubs were the Florida Marlins in the N.L. Championship Series. That’s where Kerry ran out of gas. The Marlins battered him in both of his starts, including Game Seven, which Chicago dropped 9-6. That the Cubs were even playing the decider was a monumental disappointment at Wrigley. In Game Six, Chicago was in total command with Prior on the mound until an over-eager fan named Steve Bartman and an error at short by Gonzalez altered the course of history. Florida charged back for a dramatic victory, closed out the series two nights later, and then surged by the New York Yankees in the World Series. Kerry and his teammates were left to dwell on what might have been.
The Cubs entered the 2004 campaign still suffering from that hangover. Again the team had a new look. Derrek Lee replaced Choi at first, Michael Barrett took over behind the plate, and a familiar face, Greg Maddux, returned to his old stomping grounds. In the bullpen, free agent LaTroy Hawkins emerged as the closer.
The Cardinals, however,
jumped out to a huge lead in the Central, leaving the Cubs in a struggle
for the Wild Card. Injuries to Prior and Sosa dealt the team two serious
blows, but with Ramirez and Lee providing power at the corners, Chicago
hung around. Alou also sparkled, while Patterson settled into his own.
On the mound, Zambrano matured into a very effective starter, and Maddux
found his rhythm after the All-Star break.
Another injury that devastated the Cubs hit Kerry. Sidelined in mid-May with a triceps strain, he labored to get back to the action. Kerry was activated in July, and looked fabulous in his first two starts. August was an up-and-down month for him, but he opened September with a dominant performance against the Montreal Expos. Though Kerry didn't get the W in the 2-1 extra-inning victory, he struck out 11 and allowed just five hits over eight shutout innings.
With the season winding down, the buzzword in Chicago remained pitching. Kerry led the Cubs to a 5- 4 victory in Cincinnati against the Reds, but this would be his only win of the month. The team couldn't buy a clutch hit, Hawkins blew a bunch of save opportunities, and the starting staff was inconsistent.
Kerry was part of the problem. While his numbers were impressive enough—42 strikeouts in 42 innings and a 3.52 ERA—he earned just one win in his last six outings. One of his biggest starts came against the Mets at Shea. Wild in the bottom of the first, Kerry surrendered three early runs. When the Cubs couldn't touch Al Leiter, they dropped a crucial game and fell in the Wild Card standings. The surging Astros wound up passing them for the fourth and final postseason spot.
Kerry finished the season at 8-9 in 22 starts, with 144 strikeouts and a 3.72 ERA. Decent numbers, but hardly those befitting a pitcher with his stuff. With the Cubs' collapse down the stretch, they again found themselves licking their wounds. For Kerry, that's a feeling he's become all too accustomed to.
All you need to know about Kerry is that he throws hard. Not only is his fastball consistently clocked in the mid-90s, but it has a heavy, boring action to it. His slider goes faster than many pitchers’ fastballs. His curve—which has a tight rotation—breaks down hard, too. His changeup is an excellent out-pitch when he's on.
Kerry works deep into most games, and throws a lot of pitches. As the mileage on his arm clicks past 1,000 major-league innings, he enters that stage of his career where his body will continue to support his style (a la fellow Texan Roger Clemens) or begin to work against it.
While he works with a surprinsg economy of effort, Kerry sometimes falls into an old habit of throwing across his body. This has contributed to some of his history of injury problems. So has Kerry's other habit: He pumps the ball to the plate as hard as he can every time he takes the mound.
Whether Kerry continues to top 95 on the radar gun or has to take his foot off the gas a bit, he figures to continue getting guys out. He is not just a pitcher. He’s a baseball player. He hits well and fields well, and has already mastered many of the game’s nuances, from bunting to picking guys off.
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