I went to what turned out to be a hotly contested rivalry game between the White Sox and the Cubs, and a retirement party broke out.
The game, a 3-2 Sox victory Friday in the first of a three-game set this weekend at Wrigley Field, was overshadowed by Kerry Wood's final appearance. Wood had already informed the Cubs brass that he wanted to retire, that his body no longer was able to recover quickly enough to make him an effective reliever on a day-to-day basis, but that he didn't want to go out on his last appearance, which ended with him disgustedly tossing his hat and glove into the stands behind the Cubs' dugout. So manager Dale Sveum decided to "give him his day in the sun, so to speak," even though as it turned out Sveum wasn't there for it, as he had been ejected for arguing an umpire's call when the moment came in the eighth inning.
With word circulating that Wood was likely to make one last appearance and then retire, he came on to face Dayan Viciedo, who had replaced Paul Konerko after he'd been beaned in the third inning. Wood fanned Viciedo on a wicked breaking ball and then was removed.
In one of those unscripted but seemingly predestined meme moments that make baseball what it is, Wood was met and hugged in front of the Cubs' dugout by his young son, who had previously joined him on the field and on a brief pilgrimage to the center-field scoreboard during batting practice.
"It was about him today," Wood said afterward.
"It breaks your heart," Bart Giamatti once wrote. "It is designed to break your heart."
And so was Wood's career. For all the triumphs, starting with his record-tying 20-strikeout game as a rookie in 1998, it was mostly tragedy. Due to repeating arm injuries, he never got to 100 wins, and he barely got halfway to 3,000 strikeouts. Yet he was beloved like only a handful of Cubs greats, in part because, like Ron Santo, his life and career were so tinged with the tragic element. Unlike a lot of immensely talented young players who arrive and then depart with a sense of entitlement that is never fazed (see Mark Prior), Wood had an eloquent dignity about him and a giving nature that fans recognized. He admitted, quite plainly, after he lost Game 7 in the infamous 2003 National League Championship Series, that he had "choked," which made him in some ways the most Cubby of modern-day Cubs, which is part of why he's so dearly beloved.
Friday's game, however, had its own drama as well. Konerko homered off a Jeff Samardzija fastball in the first inning to put the Sox right up, 2-0, but then Samardzija beaned him with a split-finger fastball the next time up, and Konerko left with a bruise and cut above the eye. Samardzija and Sveum both insisted it was a splitter that just "got away" on him, and the ball's erratic path and placement clearly baffled Konerko. Yet Samardzija had already brushed back Alexei Ramirez earlier, and that it came after a Konerko homer was also an indictment. Sox starter Phil Humber had the chance to retaliate with Samardzija next inning, but instead he held off until the Cubs' cleanup hitter, Konerko counterpart Bryan LaHair, came up in the fourth. Humber threw a fastball behind LaHair—a real purpose pitch—and while it missed the message was delivered.
The mood between the teams was fraternal at first, but there seemed to be ruffled feelings on both sides afterward. The series ain't over.
The Cubs rallied to tie the game, in part on a Samardzija hit through a drawn-in infield in the seventh, but then his erratic splitter sort of flattened out. He placed it well for a while, but when he left one out over the plate for Gordon Beckham in the eighth, Beckham mashed it into the left-field bleachers to give the Sox the lead and, an inning later, the win.
You live by the splitter, you die by the splitter. And now Kerry Wood has split as well, going out in one of the most emotional moments in the annals of Wrigley Field, and that's saying something.