Keep Chucking, Wood: A Pitcher on the Comeback Trail

On May 18, 2012, Kerry Wood took the mound at Wrigley Field. He shook hands with players and coaches before leaving the dugout, and shook more hands on the mound after striking out Dayan Viciedo of the cross-town White Sox in a three-pitch at-bat. It was a midseason game, but the 34-year-old pitcher knew it would be his final appearance. The starter-turned-reliever had an 8.64 ERA through ten appearances, and he was walking so many batters that he could’ve asked Dontrelle Willis for help with control. His could still pop the catcher’s mitt with his 95-mile-per-hour fastball, but the mental toll of injuries had claimed the best of the 1998 Rookie of the Year. They hated to admit it, but fans, coaches, and Wood himself all understood that it was time.

The old cliche says that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and about a year after Kerry Wood traded in his glove for whiskey, cigarettes, and Omaha steaks, his heart found some more fondness for baseball. There was still so much he hadn’t achieved. Injury-shortened seasons on underperforming teams meant that he had never surpassed 14 wins in a season, even though his propensity for racking up strikeouts made him one of the MLB’s most feared pitchers. He saw the likes of Darren Oliver and Mariano Rivera having some of their best seasons even as they hit their forties, and asked himself why he couldn’t do the same. When he answered that question with “no reason, dummy,” he decided to pick up the phone and make some calls.

Wood couldn’t tell anyone else about the comeback without hearing them burst into laughter. They’d seen it go wrong too many times before. Roger Clemens, Brett Favre, and Michael Jordan had all tried to shuffle back onto their respective field or court with their Life Alert necklaces on, and all of those comebacks ended in embarrassment. In order to make it work, Wood had to put in the extra effort that those before him hadn’t bothered to suffer through. He put down the Jack Daniel’s and dropped 30 pounds with a strict running regimen. More importantly, perhaps, he was humble enough to recognize that he couldn’t do everything on his own. By New Year’s Day of this year, Wood had his own pitching coach, a nutritionist who started him on a strict fish-based diet, and even a Buddhist spiritual advisor.

Wood’s coach wasted no time letting him know that, if he was really serious about a comeback, the old way of doing things wasn’t going to get him anywhere.  Wood was tasked with learning a knuckleball, the fluttery pitch that has allowed so many hurlers to delay their AARP memberships. Day after day, Wood practiced the new grip, along with a new, more relaxed delivery. The ball went everywhere. It sailed over heads, collided with chain-link backstops, and, on one unfortunate occasion, caught the spiritual advisor squarely in the temple. After a month, the knuckleball experiment appeared to be a lost cause.

But Wood wouldn’t give up. He decided to accelerate his arm more quickly, and straightened out his index finger as far as it could go. The result was an 90-mile-per-hour breaking pitch unlike anything Wood or his team had ever seen. Sometimes, it was a sinker that rose. Other times, it was a curveball that seemed to slide. Whatever it was, it nipped the outside corner every time, and it was awesome. Kerry christened it the Woodchuck, because it made hitters sling their bats away in fury (and also because it was a pun). Now, after months of tireless refinement, he and the Woodchuck are ready to make waves in the MLB once again.

The only problem is that the MLB doesn’t seem ready for Wood’s breakers to crash on its proverbial shores. Spring Training came and went without a single scout casting more than a furtive glance Wood’s way. They told him he was too old or too fragile. Kerry bent the ears of some old friends with the Cubs, but they told him Travis Wood was already on the roster, and that would make things just too confusing. That was what they said, but the reality remains that Kerry and the Woodchuck are simply too good. Scouts and managers took cover in the dugouts, scared of what the new pitch might do to the league. It would give hitters Restless Leg Syndrome, and render all other pitchers obsolete. An Aroldis Chapman heater would look like a beach ball in comparison.

Ever the innovator, Wood took to social media to find himself a job. He posted ads on Craiglist, Angie’s List, and the lesser-known Paul Bako’s List, a site especially for unemployed baseball players and coaches. He even posted a YouTube video of the Woodchuck in action, which, although not as popular as Woodchuck Eats Ice Cream Cone, prompted hundreds of commenters to say “dude this is so fake obvious photo shop your gay.” As friend requests to Joe Girardi, Mike Matheny, and Mike Redmond went unanswered, he realized that the MLB was blackballing him, and that a lot of catchers go on to become managers.

Fortunately, one team was willing to make an offer, albeit one that would require Kerry Wood to climb the entire baseball ladder only after digging his way out of the sport’s subterranean pits. This April, the 36-year-old pitcher will be suiting up for the Muncie Fighting Swans, the defending champions of the Independent Base Ball League (IB BL). In signing a $30 per day contract with the team, Wood will be far removed from the perks of big-league life. Teams share a single batting helmet, managers take turns umpiring, and fans must bring their own folding chairs to the field. But when they do, they’ll be seeing the not-regulation-size ball blazing across the plate, cackling at hitters as it goes by. Because that ball will emerge from the hand of Kerry Wood, and for a few glorious moments of its life, it will experience the joy of being a Woodchuck. Let’s say a Buddhist prayer that the Woodchuck will be running around in MLB stadiums very soon.