Kerry Wood on Stephen Strasburg: 'It's going to be more intense for him'
There is probably no one on the planet who understands precisely the mania Stephen Strasburg is experiencing right now. A few men have an approximate idea, and one of them will be sitting in the opposing bullpen this weekend at Progressive Field.
On April 12,1998, the Chicago Cubs called up 20-year-old Kerry Wood from Class AAA Iowa. Cubs fans were excited; Wood was the fourth overall pick in 1995 and, in less than three years, had moved from high school through the Cubs system. In his first start, Wood lasted 4 1/3 innings and lost. In his third start, Wood allowed seven earned runs and lost.
In his fifth start, Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit, no-walk shutout that still stands as perhaps the greatest game ever pitched. His fastball scraped triple digits, his curveball violated physics and everyone wanted to know more. Wood, with Manager Jim Riggleman in the dugout, became a phenomenon.
"I didn't really have the whole hype until my fifth start, when I struck out the 20," Wood, now Cleveland's closer, recalled today. "Then it got a little out of control. We kind of had to control the media. After a couple weeks, it died down a little bit. We set up a schedule - the day before [a start] was kind of a day off."
The hype surrounding Strasburg seemingly escalates by the day. The Cleveland Indians have already sold more than 8,000 tickets to Sunday's Strasburg start, and one vendor in the park was selling only Strasburg jerseys. Riggleman said the attention was "definitely" good for the sport.
"I think players feed off those crowds, feed off the excitement," Riggleman said. "Quite often, you get a better brand of baseball. It shouldn't be that way, but it is."
Riggleman said he noticed a similar effect for road games in 1998, when he managed Wood and the Cubs. Wood handled a severe media crunch as a rookie, but, 12 years later in a new media age, he knows the spotlight will burn brighter on Strasburg.
"It's going to be more intense, probably, for him," Wood said. "There's more media outlets now out there than when I came up. There's more Internet access and all that stuff. So I think he's going to get more of it. From what I hear, he seems to be pretty levelheaded, a good kid. He should be able to handle it, go out there and do his job."
Wood has no plans to meet Strasburg, but would talk to him if Strasburg wanted. "I'm not a real big guy in going over there," Wood said. "If he had a question, I'd answer it."
In 1998, Wood became a sidelight to Sammy Sosa's chase with Mark McGwire for Roger Maris's single-season home run record. Still, Wood felt overwhelmed at times on days he did not pitch.
"For me, the toughest part was the off-field stuff," Wood said. "He's got four above-average pitches. He's confident out on the field. I was the same way. I wasn't big into the off-the-field stuff. That's our comfort zone, is out there on the field, on the mound. I just wanted to come to work and compete as hard as I could."
Wood had little to say on Strasburg as a pitcher. ("I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to him," Wood said. "I saw some of the highlights.") But he pointed out something universal for any pitcher, especially one with as much scrutiny as Strasburg faces.
"Probably the toughest part is the first time you have a bad one," Wood said. "He hasn't dealt with adversity, hasn't really struggled out in the field yet. It might be two years. It might be three or four years. It might be his next start. Who knows? When it does happen, he's going to have to bounce back after that first one."
June 11, 2010; 6:33 PM ET
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