Start to finish, Strode was in Wood's corner
Cubs 'pen coach worked with pitcher in early days in Minors
HOUSTON -- In 1997, Kerry Wood was in his second pro season, pitching for the Cubs' Double-A Orlando team, when he nearly walked away from the game.
Lester Strode remembers. He was the Cubs' Minor League pitching coordinator at that time, and last Friday, he was the one who got Wood ready for the final appearance of his career.
Wood was the fourth player selected overall in 1995, when the Cubs took him with their first pick of the Draft. There were high expectations for the hard-throwing Texan. But in '97, Wood had control problems, and was walking more hitters than he'd like.
"He set high standards for himself, and it just wasn't going well for him," said Strode, now the Cubs' bullpen coach. "He'd really never struggled before and everything had been pretty easy for him. He was having some mechanical issues and it wasn't going his way, and he got frustrated and pretty much was going to throw the towel in."
Wood called David Wilder, then the Cubs' farm director, and said he was going home. But Wilder talked the right-hander out of it, telling him that dealing with adversity was part of the process.
"It turned out to be very positive, not only for himself but also for the organization," Strode said. "We told him, 'We don't want to put that kind of pressure on you and we don't mean to put that kind of pressure on you, and it's OK to struggle.'"
Young Minor Leaguers would benefit from that advice.
Wood was eventually promoted in 1997 to Triple-A, where he struck out 80 and walked 52 in 57 2/3 innings over 10 starts. He would make one more Minor League start in '98 before he was promoted to the big league team, and in his fifth start that season, Wood made history with his 20-strikeout game against the Astros. Wood will tell you the highlight of that game for him was that he didn't walk anyone.
Strode was on the road at one of the Cubs' Minor League teams when Wood was making history.
"To me, it was like I was right there at Wrigley when he was doing it," Strode said. "It was that way with any of the young kids who you work with in the Minor Leagues and they get the opportunity to go up to the Major League level. You want to see them do so well and get off on the right track."
This is Strode's 24th season in the Cubs' organization, and his sixth at the Major League level. He had been with Wood longer than anyone on the team, other than clubhouse manager Tom Hellmann.
"The thought of me seeing him drafted as a pitcher and to be here still when he decided to retire, I'm not sure many coaches can say that's happened to them," Strode said. "It's special to see a guy like Kerry Wood start and finish his career. It's a wonderful thing."
Last Friday, word leaked that Wood, 34, was retiring after 14 seasons. He wanted one more appearance.
"I figured it would be sometime down the road," Strode said. "I had no idea it would happen at that time."
It was business as usual when Strode got the call to get Wood ready for the eighth against the White Sox.
"When he warmed up for the last time, it still hadn't dawned on me," Strode said. "Then he turned around like he normally gives me the ball and he did, but he threw his hand out there [to shake]. It caught me off-guard. I had my [chart] and my [pitch] counter in my hands, and I've got no way to shake his hand, and I'm fumbling and my mind is going wacko on me. I shook his hand and he goes out there, and I thought, 'This is it.'"
Wood's first pitch to Dayan Viciedo was a 96-mph fastball. He finished him off with a curve.
"I watched him, and I'm like, 'Are you sure you want to retire?'" Strode said. "Those three pitches were like the old Kerry Wood that I saw in the past, and I saw him in the way that I saw him at the beginning of his career."
When Wood made his Major League debut April 12, 1998, against the Expos, he struck out the first batter he faced, Mark Grudzielanek, for his first big league K. The right-hander ended his career with a strikeout, fanning Viciedo on three pitches for No. 1,582.
"It was a perfect day for him," Strode said.
Wood had thrown 26 pitches to prep for his final strikeout. Strode tucked the ball he used in his pocket. After the game, Strode gave the ball, the counter, and his chart to Wood as souvenirs.
"I said, 'Here's your last warmup session,'" Strode said.
Now when Strode goes to the Cubs' bullpen, something is missing. It's actually someone.
"I look down and look at that chair and I don't see him," Strode said. "I'm happy for him because he had a great career, and he's a great person, but like I told him, 'I know you love this game, and you'll always be a part of this game in some capacity, but you've got three wonderful kids and now you're going to have the opportunity to be a dad 24/7. You're going to cherish those moments just as much as you cherish the moments on the field.' I dearly miss the guy."
Strode not only was part of Wood's baseball life in helping him get to the big leagues, but also for the endless side sessions and simulated games that were part of the right-hander's rehab. Wood had elbow and shoulder surgery, was out because of blisters and tendinitis and knee injuries. Strode joked that his job was to carry Wood's suitcase. The truth is, Strode was there to get Wood back into the game.
When he retired, Wood was on the Cubs' active roster.
"I think that's one of the reasons he made the decision then," Strode said. "He's a competitor, and anybody who competes like Kerry Wood, you want to finish it right there on the field, not off the field or because of an injury."
The Cubs aren't leaving a space in the 'pen for Wood.
"I don't think Kerry would want us to leave an empty chair," Strode said. "One of the things he said was, 'OK, guys, I'm stepping down and getting out of the way for some of you young kids so you can have the career I had.' He wants someone to fill that chair and not leave it empty."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.