Originally created 05/17/98

Cubs' Wood goes for next record



Even the most famous player on the planet is talking about The Phenom.

"I've heard, just like a lot of people in the city, about his talents and what he's done, his record-setting two games," Michael Jordan was saying.

"I think it's great for the Cubs. Everybody's been waiting and waiting and waiting for them to be successful and I think everybody's about to see a promising situation. Kerry's going to be a part of it."

Hard to believe, but right in the middle of the NBA playoffs and the Bulls' run toward another title, Kerry Wood became the biggest name in Chicago.

As if the 20-year-old Texan wants any part of it. He's turned down appearances with Letterman and Leno, and isn't interested in any of the endorsement offers that are pouring in.

"I don't like being on the front page of the paper," Wood said. "I don't like being on TV. I'd rather be forgotten about."

Not a chance, kid.

Certainly not after he zoomed past every great strikeout pitcher in history except Roger Clemens, using his 100 mph fastball and Wiffle-ball curve to fan 20 against Houston in only his fifth major league start.

Surely not after he set a big league record by striking out 33 in consecutive games, though he added, "I didn't even know they had a record like that."

And if he fans 15 more today at Cincinnati, the youngest player in the majors will have the record for most strikeouts in three straight games.

Going into the game against the Reds, Wood is 4-2 with 58 strikeouts in 34 1-3 innings, and his opponents' batting average of .175 is the best in the NL.

So three years after leaving high school, the rookie who grew up idolizing Nolan Ryan -- cherishing his autograph, copying his motion and wearing his No. 34 -- is already in the Hall of Fame.

The cap Wood wore that gray day at Wrigley Field when he struck out 20 is on display at Cooperstown, along with an autographed ball. He saved the ball from his 20th strikeout, however, to give his mom on Mother's Day.

He was excited, sure. His way of celebrating? A dinner at Bennigan's and a visit to reliever Terry Adams' apartment to play on the Internet. This is a regular kid -- he likes to go home to fish, and is looking forward to his girlfriend finishing school in Arizona so she can visit this summer.

Of course, his teammates were not about to treat him any differently. A few days after Wood's record-tying outing, they played an old trick on the new guy. They stole all his clothes and made him wear a red plaid jacket, green plaid pants and blue-and-butterscotch shoes on a four-hour flight from Philadelphia to Arizona.

And Wood, eager to soak up the whole major league experience, loved every minute of the fun.

"Until they make me sit in the bathroom on a bus, I don't realize I'm a rook," he said.

Fans are beginning to realize he's special. In his last start, he got a standing ovation at Arizona after striking out 13 Diamondbacks in seven innings.

At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, and still one month shy of his 21st birthday, Wood might someday be the savior for a franchise that has not reached the World Series since 1945. Scout Bill Capps predicted greatness in a 1995 report, written shortly before he signed Wood as the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

Others see the same thing.

"I saw Bob Feller. I saw Sandy Koufax. I saw Roger Clemens. I saw the great Nolan Ryan. Yes sir, I saw all the great burners," said scout Red Murff, who signed Ryan and saw Wood pitch in high school. "Big ol' Kerry Wood has a chance to be right up there with them. He could pitch himself seven no-hitters, if everything stays right for him."

Clemens, the only other pitcher to strike out 20, called Wood and sent him a congratulatory telegram after his big game.

"I told Rog, `You're going to be happy he'll carry the torch well,' " said agent Alan Hendricks, who represents Clemens and Wood.

Then again, baseball lore is littered with the names of bright talents such as Mark Fidrych, Todd Van Poppel and David Clyde who burned out too soon.

Even Dwight Gooden, who set a rookie record at age 19 with 276 strikeouts in 1984, was looking for a job at 30. Wood, like Gooden in those days, combines high heat with a sharp curve.

"I'd hope they don't overload him," Ryan said. "What you see is pitchers truly mature from about 25 or 26 to 32. That's when they truly come into full bloom."

Cubs general manager Ed Lynch promises the proper handling.

"People need to calm down," he said. "He's six starts into his career. Two weeks ago, they were asking us if we'd brought him up too soon."

All this about a guy who said he was "a short, little shortstop, a scrappy player" until suddenly growing 6 inches between his sophomore and junior years in high school.

That's when Wood, who helped lead his Little League team to the state title, started throwing so hard that his high school catcher -- Danny Fatheree, now in the Houston system -- had to soak his hand in ice after games.

"You'd sit there on the bench and really feel bad for the kids who had to hit against Kerry. It just wasn't fair," said Jon Rustenhaven, then an assistant at Grand Prairie High School and now the head coach.

Two days after being drafted, Wood threw 175 pitches and hit a grand slam in a doubleheader sweep that sent Grand Prairie to the state tournament.

Later that summer, he signed a $1,265,000 bonus and began his rapid rise to the majors. He was 21-11 and struck out 340 in 278 1-3 innings in 55 starts in all levels of the minors, yet never had pitched a complete game or fanned more than 14 until blowing away the Astros.

Wood never gave college much consideration. He missed some games in high school because of grade problems, not that he wasn't smart enough to do better.

"I'd bring home a good report card now and then, but then baseball started and it was nothing but baseball," he said. "If baseball wasn't there for me, things probably would have been different in school.

"I was young and didn't have the will to do anything but baseball. I didn't care about anything but baseball. I knew from the first time I picked up a ball and threw that I was going to take advantage of the chance I was given."