This Saturday (May 6) is the anniversary date of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game.
I initially wrote this piece last year – and I know I couldn’t top it. I still get goose bumps when I think about that game, and I hope you sense my level of enthusiasm as I try to recreate the excitement for you.
I often get asked if I miss working in baseball.
The honest answer is “sometimes yes, most of the time no.” I miss it a little more now that I’m writing stories about the game – but I’m enjoy this little writing career way more than the baseball grind.
But I do admit to missing “the rush.”
I don’t often pat myself on the back or give myself credit, but if I was allowed to give a 10-second elevator pitch about my time in the Cubs’ Media Relations department, I would tell you with the utmost of confidence that I was good at proactively being ready when game “events” occurred.
For example, if a Cub hit a grand slam, I had the information ready for a press box announcement before the ball landed. Or if a player hit a 16th-inning home run, I was out of my seat and announcing to tell everyone within earshot that it was the latest homer in Cubs history – while the ball was still in flight.
There was nothing like the adrenaline rush of scrambling from TV booths to radio booths to telling the Cubs beat writers to press box microphones to let everyone know about a “first time it happened” moment or a “last time it happened” occurrence. The Cubs had been around 110 years before I got there; whenever something unusual happened, we weren’t exactly talking small sample size.
One of the greatest “rush” days I’ll ever experience took place 18 years ago today – May 6, 1998 – as this is the anniversary of Kerry Wood’a 20-strikeout game. If only I wore a mental Fitbit, my brain probably walked 100,000 steps that Wednesday afternoon.
Woody’s pitching performance was the most dominating I’ll ever see. Period. Think about it … He was a 20-year-old kid in just his fifth major league start – and he struck out 20 of the 29 batters he faced. Hard to believe, but just two starts back, he didn’t make it through the second inning in Los Angeles – and you couldn’t help but wonder if he was ready for all of this.
And on this day against the Houston Astros, he was a boy among men. This wasn’t a September Triple-A roster – and even if it had been, that wouldn’t negate the fact that he struck out 20 of 29. The Astros’ lineup that day featured Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell – and also included Moises Alou, Derek Bell and Ricky Gutierrez.
I certainly can’t say that I knew May 6 would be a record-setting day, but when Woody struck out the side in the top of the 1st inning and Houston’s Shane Reynolds followed with strikeout-strikeout-strikeout in the bottom half of the frame, you knew this might not be a typical ballgame.
After striking out the side in the 4th inning, Kerry had eight strikeouts. I could do the math; he was on an 18-strikeout pace. Most of the time, when you do math like that, the pitcher’s final pitching line only goes up by one or two. But Woody tossed that theory through the window by fanning all three batters in the 5th.
At that point, my daily scribble sheet was starting to see some pretty good scribblings.
I was slowly filling in the information I had access to via my own Cubs records collection and two major league record books I had in my press box cabinet. One-by-one, the numbers were written on paper … 12 … 13 … 14 … and up to 19. I had No. 20 staring me in the face in the Official Major League Baseball Record Book.
6th inning … one strikeout … now at 12.
7th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 13, 14, 15. The last one tied Cubs nine-inning and rookie marks.
Whole sentences, written out neat enough for my boss – Sharon Pannozzo – to read on the in-house public address system.
8th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 16, 17, 18.
By now, I was in constant contact with the famed Elias Sports Bureau – where they were just as much one step ahead in anticipation of Woody’s next strikeout.
No. 16 set the Cubs’ nine-inning record. No. 17 tied the major league rookie record and the Cubs’ overall record – done in a 15-inning outing. No. 18 established records for both.
Partial sentences, in hieroglyphic scribble, just legible enough for Sharon to hand me the mic and tell me to read it.
And then came the 9th inning …
Pinch-hitter Bill Spiers went down swinging for a seventh straight Kerry Wood strikeout – equalling another Cubs record. But who cared about that? It was strikeout No. 19 – tying a National League record accomplished only four previous times in 122 seasons.
Future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was then cursed at after putting the ball in play and grounding out for the second out of the inning.
And up to the plate came Derek Bell, and all I could do was try not to hyperventilate. Woody quickly got to two strikes, and his curveball was dancing. Bell had no chance, going down swinging for strikeout No. 20 – tying a mark only reached before by Boston’s Roger Clemens.
I vividly recall running down to the field after the game to assist with the live postgame interviews – and Woody was visibly trembling. I had no idea if he had truly processed what had happened.
But more than anything, I’ll never forget the in-game rush of researching and tracking down and providing information as his strikeout total grew and grew.
On days like today, I do miss that rush.