Every generation has a where-were-you moment for horrible real-life stuff. It was the Kennedy assassination for my parents' generation. There's no need to catalog the rest of them because this is a baseball piece. It's about baseball. Reminding you that baseball is comparatively unimportant to everything else probably isn't the best way to start it off.
But baseball has where-were-you moments, too. You might remember a bar at which you watched a certain game, and of course you remember the special games you've attended. But there are also the times when you picked up on a piece of baseball news that changed everything. This was mine:
I was in a computer lab. This was because it was normal for a college student to go to a computer lab for their internet needs. I read the news story. "Kerry Wood Strikes Out 20." Maybe I made one of those low whistling sounds. Maybe I put on my glasses and got closer to the screen. Maybe I took my glasses off and threw them on the table, rubbing my temples. The exact reaction isn't important, but it all boils down to the same reaction:
I mean, we're all adults here on the Internet, right? Well, tough. That's still what every baseball fan said when they heard that Kerry Wood struck out. Holy shit. Just … what just happened? And because this was still the day of 56k modems, there was no video immediately available. You had to wait for SportsCenter.
And wait. And wait. My cable provider didn't have ESPNews yet. I had to get my sports news from the regular ESPN. And that meant I'd have to wait until 8:00 to watch Kerry Wood. I can't remember if they showed all 20, but it was the story of the day, so they probably had something close to it. And watching it was as beautiful as I could have hoped.
The fastball, the curve, the slider … was that a slider? What was that? Jeff Bagwell, just about the scariest hitter in baseball at the time, looked like he had never seen one o' them fancy drop-balls before.
It's a good thing that baseball .gifs weren't a big thing back then. I would have sat in a dorm room, ingested all kinds of questionable things, and watched that on a loop, over and over and over again. That was a 3-2 count. Bagwell wasn't walking to first, trying to sell the call. He just went straight into the dugout.
And that's the thing -- there weren't fancy .gifs or online videos sent to your phone via space. There were still pictures. And there was television.
So every day for that month, I'd check in with SportsCenter to see if there Kerry Wood did something silly. There was usually a highlight or two. I remember one of those highlights was of him striking out Bret Boone with a slider that started at his face and ended in the dirt -- it's like a good fish story, and the break gets bigger with each retelling. I still think it was the greatest pitch ever thrown in the history of baseball. It knocked the gun out of the hands of two bank robbers and tripped the failsafe switch at a nuclear power plant before it reached the catcher's mitt. It was history's most heroic slider. It saved the world.
You'll read a lot of Wood tributes that have a somber tone.
What could have been! Boy, if only he could have stayed healthy!
And that isn't an unreasonable angle. It would have been an even better story if his career had the longevity of a Roger Clemens. But when Wood came up, he was healthy. And of the thousands and thousands of pitchers who had ever thrown a baseball in front of an audience, he was one of the best, even if for a brief time. If you didn't have a drink when you saw him for the first time, you'd stop what you were doing, go the sink, wash a glass, get some water, and take a sip just so you could do a spit take.
Kerry Wood didn't need longevity to be a success. He didn't need to be a Hall of Famer. He was the best pitcher in the world for a day. There will be Hall of Famers from his time who had better careers, of course. Better career stats, fewer scars on their elbows. But when it comes to the baseball players who shaped my affection and appreciation for baseball, Kerry Wood is an inner-circle player. That game was that surprising, that amazing, that good.