Of course, I can if I try. There were the 1984 Cubs and the 1989 Cubs. There was a rail thin Sammy Sosa patrolling centerfield and Greg Maddux leaving Wrigley for the greener pastures of Turner Field. And then, for a long time there’s nothing much to remember. Until May 6, 1998.
That, as everyone knows, was the infamous 20-strikeout game that, more than anything, defined Kerry’s career. It was also the game that set him on the path of becoming the physical embodiment of the Cubs. Hope after hope after hope, year after year after year, followed by heart-wrenching devastation when he fell short of his goal. After a while, with post-season baseball so far out of reach, we just wanted to see him stay healthy. But that goal too often seemed as unattainable as winning the NL pennant. Season after season, we watched him try to come back. And fail.
And then came 2003. By then, we had accepted that Kerry Wood wasn’t the second-coming of Nolan Ryan. He was no longer the fire-balling teenager we’d to whom we’d entrusted all our hopes and dreams. He was older, wiser, and had seemed irretrievably broken only a season before. Yet that season we watched him grow from a chubby-faced phenom with peach-fuzz and acne to a veteran starter who stormed Atlanta with single-minded determination to force his team into the World Series. And he almost did.
2003 didn’t end the way any of us wanted, and, despite harboring a flickering hope that the post-season would serve as a springboard to a new beginning for Kerry, neither did his career. Perhaps that was what so many of us loved in Kerry. In him, we saw ourselves: life as grown up doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. But no matter how many times Kerry got knocked down, he always go back up. And it encouraged the rest of us to do the same.
That’s why it was so jarring to hear Kerry say that he could not longer keep getting back up. That he could no longer “Keep answering the bell.” He had been knocked down too many times, he was emotionally and physically tired, he said. He knew he had far greater limitations than he’d ever had in his career, and he felt he was doing his teammates more harm than good being out there.
And so Kerry Wood, the fire-balling pitcher, passed out of our lives. And with him, a part of our youth. Those of us close in age to Kerry have begun to notice that we don’t bounce back quite as easily as we used to. We have nagging aches and pains that sometimes keep our bodies from doing what we want them to do. Whether it’s on the ball field or in the office, we’re no longer the fire-balling up-and-comers with their entire careers ahead of them. Perhaps seeing Kerry admit that to the world forces the rest of us to admit it to ourselves.
But even in leaving, Kerry managed to be the example for his generation one last time. He left on his own terms, before the indignity of being forced out of the game. He talked about all the things he was looking forward to, rather than regrets about what could have been. He laughed, rather than cried. He spoke of how grateful he was for what he had achieved, instead of bitterness for what had gotten away from him. In what had to be one of the most difficult days of his life, he focused on his family, his teammates, and, with his head held high and his son in his arms, he walked out of the game.