Siberian Baseball

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Kerry Wood's failing fastball

Kerry Wood is one year and six days older than I am and he may be washed up at 28. I always knew this time would come, but I kind of hoped it wouldn't arrive this quickly.

There are a few basic points to understand about guys who follow sports. First, we all think that given a few more miles per hour on our fastball, a few less ticks on our 40-yard dash time or a bit more size, we could have made an impact in professional sports. We will admit to this in varying degrees on varying days, but it's always there. For instance, I know my sleeve length is roughly the same as Randy Johnson's. With just the simple physics involved from slinging a ball on a like-sized fulcrum, I should be an All-Star. Obviously, that worked out differently than it could have.

Somewhat related to the first point is the assumption that the only real obstacle that we couldn't overcome (with that extra heat, speed or size, of course) would be time. After years of seeing players come and go, quit in their primes and hang onto the dream a season or three too long, we know the rules.

With exceptions of freaks of nature like Julio Franco and others, most players don't last very long past their 40th birthdays. The sports matter here, with football players going first and baseball players going last, but it's inevitable and somewhere we know that. There's just a slight disconnect when it comes to the first of our peers.

Every guy has that first player who was their age, usually when they are 18 or 19. It's funny and surprising and a little strange when you first hear "20-year-old Kerry Wood on the mound for the Cubs today..." and it grabs your attention. It's the dual realization of "I could be out there, now... but I'm not, so what went wrong and is it too late to major in center field?" And from then on you start to live vicariously through them. Sports is great for that.

When Wood struck out 20 as a rookie to tie the record set by Roger Clemens, I was three doors down in my dorm in John and Joe's room, playing Playstation football on the second TV. As Wood kept rolling, we shut the game off and threw it on both televisions, it was that good.

That rainy afternoon against Houston, we tried to keep up with how many batters were left and how many Wood needed. We watched him ring up five, ten, fifteen and kept our fingers crossed that the umps didn't postpone history because of the rain. There is a strange sense of pride in someone your age making a splash like that.

When you're a little kid, you have your sports heroes and then in your teens you broaden your perspective and learn appreciate talent (even if it's not on your team) if you become a blanched fan. Then, without any real conscious reason why, it becomes a bit childish to cheer exclusively for one player. I guess you don't want to be the guy in the stands only cheering for Favre or Urlacher, but maybe it's just avoiding putting all your eggs in one basket. Chris Chelios can get too old and Kevin Garnett can get hurt, but it's not like the San Diego Chargers are going to pull a hamstring or the San Antonio Spurs will lose their roster spot to a younger point guard.

But that first peer is different. He becomes both a milestone and a measuring stick. Wood became the first player I openly cheered for, checked stats on and worried about for the first time in years. I could remember doing all of those things for Ryne Sandberg and was now doing it again. Looking at it now, I guess I knew inherently that for all intents and purposes, when his time runs out, so does yours. When these players (with the arm, speed and size) can't compete anymore, what chance do mortals like ourselves have?

On the other hand, that first big moment is unforgettable. It doesn't need to be Doc Gooden or Clemens or any of the rookie phenoms in any sport, just the first guy your age to start for your team. I still remember picking up the new MLB video game the year Kerry Wood made his first appearance and getting excited about it when I played the demo at Best Buy. Like a little kid, I couldn't wait to get home.

It's being able to say, "There, right there; Our generation is now viable, now we matter, we have a great deal of value to you" after years of being pushed aside. And while you realize it'll be years before your peers take over in business or politics, it's the first hint of being worthwhile in the big picture.

I guess that's why it's been so tough to watch the whole Wood/Mark Prior injury carousel the past three or four seasons. It's not just crushing to watch your team fall apart and lose front line pitchers, it's tough to watch those specific guys get hurt.

Watch those specific guys wash out.

Watch those specific guys cease to be worthwhile in the big sports picture.

So, for me, Wood's injuries are tough to take on a deeper level than just being a fan wondering how my team's starting pitching will hold up this year. In one way, I'm pulling for my own usefulness and youth. This is strange and ridiculous at 27, but then again, Wood was supposed to follow Clemens' footsteps to pitching into his 40s, not Koufax's and shutting things down early.

It's pretty much neck and neck between who or what I'm cheering for more at this point: My team and it's chances this season or Wood and my viability as I enter the prime of my life. Having come this far, it's not like I can just switch over to Chone Figgins and solve the problem.

Even if Wood is shut down for good this season, I realize that life will go on and someone will be called up from AAA to take his place. A new pitcher may even be signed as a free agent who could be older, but it wouldn't be the same. In no small way your peer player's first start is like starting a clock in the background and while you will never meet them or even think about it often, your subconscious will always ask, "What have you done with the same 10 years?" whenever you hear their name.

In the big picture, Wood will probably never be an impact player again. If he did regain his confidence and health and began dominating batters again, most of us wouldn't be able to enjoy a minute of it, wondering when he'd get hurt again and waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop. By the same token, if Wood learned to throw a knuckleball that took the pressure off his arm and he pitched into his 40s, it wouldn't be the same thing. Teenage phenoms with golden arms aren't supposed to ever have a need for tricky slop pitches thrown by middle-aged men.

And that, in a nutshell, is the sad conclusion of what this situation boils down to; Wood will never be that 20-year-old again - full of unlimited promise and untold potential - and neither will we.

(Associated Press / Nam Y. Huh)


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