Cubs bid farewell to Kid K

By Rich Mayor

Every sports fan has that one athlete, much like a first love, that will always mean the world to them. You learned from them, you watched them make mistakes, and most of all, you grew with them. But when your special connection has finally run its course, the separation can be an extremely difficult thing. I would know – I’m going through it right now.

Chicago Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry declined to offer Kerry Wood salary arbitration Monday night, officially signaling that the Cubs will not retain him. While many of the Cubbie faithful will mourn the day we turned the page on Kid K, this is an especially somber topic for yours truly.

I remember being 9 years old and reading hype stories about 20-year-old Kerry in the Chicago Sun-Times in early April of 1998, when he was lighting up the minor leagues.

After deciding his talent was enough to match his hype, Cubs brass promoted the baby-faced, wispy-bearded kid to the majors. He made his fifth start in a Cub uniform at Wrigley Field against the Houston Astros on May 6, one day after my mom’s birthday.It was a dreary and rainy 1:20 p.m. start in Chicago, but something magical rose from the depressing conditions.

I made it a point to be in front of a television for every start of his I could, but the fifth grade got in the way on this particular day.

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    From school I went to basketball practice, and around 3:30 p.m. somebody came busting through the doors yelling:

    “Kerry Wood just struck out 20 guys!”

    I immediately darted off the court, with an eerie swiftness I was never able to show in grade-school basketball, to a TV in the lobby of the gym.

    It showed highlights of his performance, featuring fastballs routinely hitting 100 mph and a slurve that broke so much you got the feeling Kid K was aiming behind the batter.

    The game was over, but my fan love could only grow.

    Other fans don’t understand what we went through with Kerry. The fifth-overall pick in 1995 is built (6-foot-5 and country-strong) like the Texas whiffmasters of yore.

    He showed legendary potential in his first campaign, winning 13 games and striking out 233 batters on the way to claiming 1998 Rookie of the Year honors in the National League. That season, with the help of then-NL MVP Sammy Sosa, he led the Cubs to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Expectations grew.

    But after 1998, the injury bug locked onto Kerry like a deadbolt. He visited the disabled list 12 times during his 10 years with the Cubs, most notably missing all of his sophomore campaign after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

    Despite the setbacks, he is the fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 strikeouts in MLB history, both in appearances (134) and innings pitched (853).

    He took the mound for Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS, a series that epitomized the gut-wrenching norm for Cubs fans.

    The following season he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, next to a headline that read “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.”

    That cover is framed and hanging on the wall of my room at home. Love that SI curse.

    Yet after 10 years, Hendry is allowing Kerry to walk, citing financial reasons for a team whose payroll was upwards of $118 million last year.

    “It’s bittersweet. Obviously (Chicago) is my first choice. I wanted to stay here … But that’s part of baseball right now,” Kerry told Rick Gano of the AP in a conference call last Friday.

    Kerry has been a part of our lives for 10 years, a symbol of hope for Cubs fans everywhere. We accepted and loved him despite his faults, rollercoaster health and bouts of wildness because we knew that every time he took the mound something great could happen.

    I knew, and I still know – this person is special. And who knows, maybe our paths will cross again someday. But for now?

    It’s time to let go.

    Rich Mayor is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected].