The church bells chimed, welcoming Kerry Wood to the majors on Sunday.
Well, all right, not really. But it wasn't lost on many Cubs fans that Wood--heralded as a messiah of a pitching prospect--had arrived on Easter. The Cubs were already 8-2 and off to one of their best starts in years when they called him up a week ago. The patchwork team of veterans put together by general manager Ed Lynch seemed genuinely competitive even without a true pitching ace, and the addition of Wood--a bona fide phenom with a fastball in the high 90s and a snapping curve--to the rotation seemed to bode well for their chances. As Anaheim Angels manager Terry Collins said during spring training when it was announced Wood would begin the season at class AAA Iowa, if the Cubs had five starters better than him they had to be considered the odds-on favorite to win this year's World Series.
Of course, mere talent wasn't the only consideration in sending Wood to the minors. The Cubs wanted to shield him from the season-opening media hype, which is why, when they made the decision to bring him up after only one (admittedly impressive) start at Iowa, they did so in Montreal, a drowsy baseball city more devoted to the National Hockey League Canadiens. Besides, the Expos are a notoriously free-swinging club, the best possible opponent for a young pitcher whose greatest struggles as a professional have been with himself and his control. And there were economic concerns. By depriving Wood of a few days of major-league service at the beginning of the season, the Cubs virtually assured themselves of getting an extra budget-priced season out of Wood's early career before he is eligible for arbitration.
But is he ready? The Cubs' radio analyst, Ron Santo, has compared him to Sandy Koufax, and TV analyst Steve Stone said Sunday he has "the best arm I've ever seen come out of the Cubs' organization." Yet that latter remark, a cynic might suggest, is damning with faint praise. What other top pitching talents have the Cubs ever produced? Mediocrities like Bill Bonham and Ray Burris have been enough to elicit high hopes on the north side over the years, and if Hall of Famer Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown--the ace of the Cubs' last championship team, in 1908--were still alive, he could count the top-flight pitchers to reach the majors with the Cubs over the last 40 years on three fingers: Ken Holtzman, Bruce Sutter, and Greg Maddux. None had the stuff Wood has, but Holtzman was a complete pitcher, Sutter had the trick pitch--the split-finger fastball--and Maddux made up in his head for what he lacked in his arm. Stone went on to compare Wood to Dwight Gooden when he first arrived in the majors, but to judge from one start, Wood at 20 isn't the finished product Gooden seemed at 19.
In 1985 I paid a scalper $15 for a behind-the-plate seat at Wrigley Field during Gooden's 24-4 sophomore season (what a bargain that was in hindsight), and the game is still one of my treasured baseball memories. He was mixing a brutal high fastball with a sharp-breaking curve and the occasional change-up, and to get the Cubs hitters begging for mercy he also threw a cut fastball that made him nearly unhittable. That cut fastball is probably what led to his arm trouble later on, but at the time he was just about the perfect pitcher--awesomely talented, but also composed and in control.
Wood, to judge from Sunday's debut, is still a work in progress. He has a lively fastball and a lovely curve, and he showed signs of developing the change-up that will make him a tough pitcher even on days when he doesn't have his best stuff. He seemed composed, an impressive quality in a hulking youth (6-foot-5 and 225 pounds) who would have been battling acne not that long ago. But control was another issue. He was lucky--if by calculation on the Cubs' part--to be making his big-league debut against the Expos, who are to plate discipline as Quebec singer Celine Dion is to understatement. Montreal shortstop Mark Grudzielanek, one of the poorer excuses for a leadoff man in the majors, fished for an outside breaking ball on a full count to give Wood his first big-league strikeout. Then F.P. Santangelo, a headier player, walked. Wood fanned the talented Vladimir Guerrero on a beautiful curve before giving up a single to Brad Fullmer. He then got Rondell White to end the first inning on a 3-2 curve grounded to short. Wood blew the bottom of the Montreal batting order away on 11 pitches in the second inning but walked pitcher Dustin Hermanson on four pitches to open the third--a cardinal sin. Yet Grudzielanek swung at the very next pitch, a low, outside breaking pitch that wasn't close to being a strike. He eventually flew to center. Wood went 3-0 to Santangelo, then got back to a full count before walking him. Guerrero singled to center, but Hermanson showed his inexperience on the base paths by staggering through the third-base coach's stop sign and was thrown out at home. It looked as if Wood would get out of it. Fullmer, however, poked a fastball on the outside corner into the left-center gap to score both base runners. Wood got White again but the damage was done. He was down 2-0.
Again Wood beat up on the bottom of the order in the fourth; he was going good inning, bad inning. In the fifth he seemed to correct the trend by striking out Hermanson and Grudzielanek right away and getting two quick strikes on Santangelo. Then he bounced a curve into the dirt behind him. It kicked up at an angle like a cricket toss and clipped Santangelo's back leg, sending him to first base on the lamest hit by pitch ever. That was the beginning of the end. Guerrero slapped a curve into left field for a single, putting Wood over the arbitrary 100-pitch maximum set by manager Jim Riggleman. Ben VanRyn came in to face Fullmer, who pounded a deep fly ball to right that Sammy Sosa should have caught to end the inning. He mistimed his jump, the ball bounced off his glove for a gift double, and both runners scored. For the day, Wood gave up four hits and four walks to go with his seven strikeouts and was charged with four runs in four and two-thirds innings. The Expos went on to win 4-1.
One erratic debut doesn't alter Wood's long-range prospects, which are impressive. He generates his 98-mile-an-hour fastball with a deceptively easy delivery--a simple rock-and-fire motion with a bent-leg, pointed-toe kick--though the height of that kick seems to vary from pitch to pitch, and he had trouble getting the right snap on his curve when pitching from the stretch. Wood is going to be very good; more important, in the short term, is that all concerned say his mere presence gives the team a lift. He's the sort of prospect who brings a charge to the field and to the stands, and his teammates know that with the club's most precious resource on board the expectations are to win and win now. I think they have a chance this season, though the Houston Astros have a lot of ability even with the loss of ace Darryl Kile, who signed with the Colorado Rockies over the winter. Wood, however, may have a tough transition, and it's important for a fan not to expect too much too soon. Unlike Gooden, he arrives in the majors with more stuff than command over it, and pitchers of that ilk are notoriously slow to develop. Examples are Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Kile, a pitcher Wood resembles both physically and tactically. (Wood has a better fastball, and a curve that looks to be every bit as good as Kile's.) In any case, Wood is the sort of player who generates a stir, and that almost always is good for a team.
"Almost" is the key word where the White Sox and Wilfredo Cordero are concerned. He too is the sort of player who creates a stir, although not of the sort that usually helps a team. The White Sox said they were working hard this year to put together a younger, more likable team, but then they went out and signed Cordero, a confessed wife beater. That undid a lot of the team's promotional work of the off-season.
But it's unfair to blame Cordero for the continued ennui on the south side. I took the train down for opening day a week ago Monday, arriving shortly after the game was to begin, and as I stepped out of the 35th Street CTA station all I could see were empty blue seats in the upper deck of the new Comiskey Park. "We'll just have to spread out," said one big beefy guy to another as they walked past me. "Everybody take a row." Not even that would have done it, however. The Sox drew a measly 25,358 for the game, the smallest opening-day crowd in over 20 years--fewer than the new Chicago Fire soccer team drew for its home debut, fewer than even the Expos drew for their home opener. And Montreal is frequently mentioned as a franchise that may be on the move to another city.
The next day's papers were full of headlines on the low attendance. Which was too bad, because the game itself moved along as if it had been scripted by a writer in Sox promotions. De facto "ace" Jaime Navarro gave up four quick runs, putting the naysayers (myself included) in full-throated derision mode, but then the bull pen held and the Sox scrambled back. Mike Cameron scored from second on a deep sacrifice fly by Albert Belle to put the Sox on the board in the first inning. Ray Durham tripled in a run and Cameron singled him home in the fifth to pull the Sox within one. Magglio Ordonez homered to tie the game in the sixth, then singled in the winner with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth. Matt Karchner worked the ninth for his first save of the season.
Immediately after the game there were actually players talking to the media in the Sox locker room, and the manager's office was packed to overflowing as reporters tried to size up new manager Jerry Manuel. He was soft-spoken, intelligent, and forthright, and the players seemed to be taking their cue from him. Robin Ventura, wearing only a towel, was seen standing in the middle of the locker room chatting with a couple of scribes. Both Cameron and the moonfaced Ordonez answered questions with an almost bashful demeanor as they dealt with crowds around their lockers. Even the notoriously ill-tempered Navarro was holding forth. Back in the manager's office I noticed three books on Manuel's desk: Official Baseball Rules, Essential Gandhi, and C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. The last two, with their covers bent back, had obviously seen heavy use. The Sox, in a single day, had won me back over. Many other fans will probably still be struggling with their feelings for the Sox when Cordero finally arrives in town from his minor-league rehab assignment--on Mother's Day, no doubt.