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The Greatest Game Ever Played: An Oral History Of Kerry Wood's 20 Strikeouts

With little time remaining on the May 6th clock, I present one of my favorite things I've ever done. A complete oral history of Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout game. 

This might be the 3rd or 4th blog on the subject today and honestly guys I don't give a fuck. Push me to my limits and I'll come back with 20 straight Kerry Wood blogs in honor of each strikeout. I've got the passion and more importantly the time so don't tempt me. 

Instead, I want to share a healthy dose of context about why this game means so much and the remarkable circumstances in which it occurred. 

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The year is 1998 and the Cubs don't completely suck. At 16-15, the club is on pace for it's 4th winning season since 1972. Slightly less than 12% of Cubs' seasons finish above .500 since The Godfather is released. For all intents and purposes being a Cubs fan means you watch shitty baseball, but at least there's hope in early May of 1998. At 16-15 this could be one of those 12% years, and this rookie Kerry Wood looks pretty damn good.

Top 1: Biggio, Bell and Bagwell go down on strikes to start the game. Derek Bell looks nervous. Bagwell might have been out the night before laying pipe. What a start for the youngster.

I get home from school just in time to watch the last two innings. My brothers and I are freaking out, even the White Sox fan. My parents are coming home from work early with rain across Chicago cancelling little leagues alike. WGN announces an evening replay of the game so my dad picks up an XL thin crust from Palermos with a dozen baked clams and a couple two-liters. A split house of Cubs and White Sox fans proceeds to have one of the best family nights in our collective history. We sit around the kitchen table and yell at the TV like it's all happening in real time. In hindsight, the internet would have rendered this a much different experience. 

Top 2: Woody starts with back-to-back strikeouts against Jack Howell and Moises Alou on 8 pitches. Dave Clark follows with a lazy flyout to center on a 1-0 count to end the inning. The fat faced rookie fireballer is starting to feel dangerous. 

The Cubs made Kerry Wood the 4th overall pick in the 1995 amateur draft out of a Dallas-area high school. He was already considered the top power arm in the draft, but what scouts loved most is that he couldn't grow a beard. He had love handles and a sensitive side. The potential upswing if he grows into the man they think he can become, combined with the already existing raw talent is a bonafide dream come true for baseball executives. 

Top 3: Woody takes the mount with a 1-0 lead. The Astros register their first and only hit of the game, an infield single off the glove of Kevin Orie that most think should have been ruled an error. 22 years later it's still a hit. Woody escapes it with a strikeout and a pair of groundouts and absolutely zero realization that Kevin Orie just fucked him out of more historical recognition 

This was the first time I was able to fully grasp the concept of how you could make a hitter look stupid. Up to this point in my life I just assumed all MLB hitters were these titanic overgrown monsters from a different planet. They chewed tobacco and looked like Frank Thomas and scared the absolute shit out of me. Then you see guys like Jeff Bagwell screw himself into the ground like he's on his 17th double vodka soda and it makes me think different about the game and what a pitcher can do with a baseball. In turn, words like Nasty and Filthy and Dirty take on complete new meanings to me and countless youngsters alike. 

Top 4: Derek Bell leads off with a short flyball to Sammy in right. He makes the catch then pounds his chest a couple times before blowing kisses to a couple of very thirsty 40+ cougars that know where to wait after the game. Sammy is feeling very good about his prospects as well as his dick girth. The humidity plays to his favor. Elsewhere, Kerry Wood follows with back-to-back strikeouts against Bagwell and Howell. They're now a combined 0-4 with 4 K's. 

It's Kerry Wood's 5th career start. He enters the game 2-2 with a 5.89 ERA in 18+ innings, but strikes out a whopping 31% of the batters he faces. It's basically his only consistency through his first month in the big leagues.

Just 2 starts before he got chased in the 2nd inning at Dodger Stadium, giving up 7-earned runs over 53 mostly-embarrassing pitches. But his velocity was off the charts and anyone with a clue knew that dominance lurked. He just needed to get into a rhythm and build momentum, which is exactly what he did on April 30th in his 4th start against the Cardinals at home: 107 pitches over 7 clean innings of 5-hit ball with 9 k's. Stay with me here because history and context is important. 

Top 5: It's getting worse for the Astros. 12 pitches, 3 strikeouts and now 11 total for the game. He's on pace for slightly less than 20. People are starting to wonder exactly how good this game is going to turn out. Answer: very fucking good. 

Heading into that April 30th game against the Cardinals, the Cubs had dropped 6 of their last 7. It was a revamped team of 30-something year old veterans rebounding from a 68-win, last place '97 season. The roster turnover was significant no matter how shitty they'd been historically. Ryne Sandberg retired. Shawon Dunston and Brian McCrae were traded midseason. Doug Glanville got moved that winter. The bench veterans were dumped and the bullpen gutted. In came Mickey Morandini and Jeff Blauser up the middle with Oh-Henry Rodriguez in left. Lance Johnson was bouncing back from injuries in center while Jose Hernandez blossomed. Save for Grace & Sammy hitting 3-4, so much had changed heading into '98 that it was impossible not to be optimistic after starting 8-2. It was meatball heaven.

So now imagine the emotional swing in just that short span. From the best start in MLB to 4th in the division following a brutal 7 game stretch. Mix in a long flight home from San Diego with the Cardinals waiting for a classic 4-game Thursday-Sunday series. You're Kerry Wood and you're pitching game 1 after getting your doors blown off in LA. Someone, somewhere reminds you that the Cubs drafted you to make these starts. Go beat your rival and end a losing streak. 

Top 6: Groundout. Strikeout. Hit By Pitch. Kerry Wood's streak of taking 9 straight hitters to 2-strikes is now snapped as a hopeless Derek Bell stumbles his way to a merciless 0-3, waving at the 1st pitch and popping out to Mark Grace. 

Now if you really and I mean really want to appreciate Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout game, we're going to dig just a little bit deeper. Because that 4th start against the Cardinals was ready to go off the fucking rails. 

Top 1st. Lead off walk, stolen base, line-drive single and it's 1-0 redbirds just 11 pitches into your afternoon. Do you think fat-faced Kerry Wood is nervous at this point? Couldn't get out of the 2nd-inning in his last start and now you're down early, runner in scoring position, no outs. Mark McGwire just got in the box with a 226 OPS+ and a HR rate that nearly doubles 2019's leader, Pete Alonso. This at bat happened 22 years ago and yet I'm still uncomfortable.

Kerry Wood, on the other hand, was not nervous. In fact some experts argue that his MLB balls dropped right then and there as he K'd McGwire on 3 pitches and escaped the jam with limited damage. From there the Cubs scored 5 of their own in the bottom half and cruised to an 8-3 victory without registering a win probability lower than 86% the rest of the game. In turn, Kerry Wood experiences an invaluable epiphany: when your stuff is that good, pretend you have a 5-1 lead and challenge the hitters.

Top 7: Strikeout, strikeout, strikeout. Houston's 3-4-5 of Bagwell, Howell and Alou finish 0-9 with 9 K's. I haven't fact checked it but that sure seems like some fucking history to me.

"Warming up for the game, I don't think I threw one strike in my 40 warm up pitches. I told the pitching coach it couldn't get any worse on my way out there." - Kerry Wood, obviously

You should be able to step into his shoes at this point no matter how physically impossible that may have seemed prior to starting this blog. You lived through that Cardinals start and April of '98 for the Chicago Cubs for a reason. Now it's May 6th and the weather is shit. You can't find the strikezone and you're up against a 1st place club. Definitely not ideal for building momentum, but you know from last start to be aggressive. Even if you suck, you can't give free passes and beat yourself. McGwire K'd last time but don't get in the same spot with Bagwell. Just go at Biggio with your fastball to start the game and don't walk the motherfucker:

Ball 1. Upstairs. 98. 

Ball 2. Upstairs. 96.

Internal conversation: "Hey dickbag. I thought I said don't pussyfoot around and walk this guy. Now it's 2-0 to start the game and you're out here embarrassing yourself. Throw some goddamn strikes.

Strike 1. Still very much upstairs and probably not a strike. 98 and moving. 

This is your McGwire strikeout break. It's on the 3rd pitch of the game. The count goes to 3-0 and you're really playing with fire but instead Jerry Meals calls it a strike. Probably because Biggio was waving his bat over the plate like the LLWS and Jerry doesn't have time for that busch league chicken shit to start the series. Get back in the fuckin box Craig. 

Deep breaths.

FOUL BALL. Strike 2. Knee high. 98

I wonder if I can throw it harder? 

Strike 3. Upstairs. 99 



Top 8:  Strikeout, strikeout, strikeout. Houston's 6-7-8 of Dave Clark, Ricky Gutierrez and Brad Ausmus finish 1-9 with 7 K's, notably better than the group above. 

I'm at a charity event in Chicago a few years ago for Anthony Rizzo. Briefly put, I shouldn't be there, but I am and I'm alone. There's an open bar. I'm doing double jack and cokes and waiting for my filter to wear off. Nearly everyone at this thing is seated at a numbered table while I remain in the back of the venue, small talking the bar staff and looking for ice cubes at the bottom of rotating cocktail glasses. 

A guy approaches

Are you getting served back here? 

I am. Come on down partner. 

We exchange pleasantries as his drinks are made. He's in real estate and is familiar with Barstool, but has never heard of me. 

I really like Big Cat. Is he here?

"No. But if you wait long enough I might be able to make you laugh too. That is if I don't get kicked out first so don't stray too far."

We keep chatting it up each refill. Good guy. Trading laughs. Diehard Cubs fan. He was fascinated that I would come alone and sit in the back and try to meet people. He thought I was hustling and being a creep and he just really liked the vibe. So much that he asked me to follow him back to meet his friend.

You're gonna love this guy he's right over here

We turn a corner in the room. 

Hey Kerry this is the guy at the bar alone I was telling you about

It was Kerry fucking Wood in all his glory on the receiving end of an introduction I couldn't even dream of. 

What'd you say your name was again? 


Kerry this is Carl

I dare you to introduce yourself to me Kerry Wood. 

I'm Kerry Wood

We stand in a semi-circle for what felt like hours to us for completely different reasons. 

"Hey Kerry"

Hey Carl

Before someone asks me to leave tonight, can we talk about the 20-strikeout game? 

Only if you get us another round

I thought you looked thirsty.

Top 9: Strikeout, groundout, strikeout. Cubs win 2-0. Kerry Wood finishes with a 1-hit* CG shutout with 0 walks and 20 strikeouts.

There's a lot of things that could have stopped this from happening. I mean we're talking down to a Craig Biggio strike call in the first inning or a Mark McGwire at bat the week before or the lineup scoring 5 that day, etc. Going even further back there's no logical explanation for a 20 year-old top prospect throwing 122 max effort pitches in his 5th career start. You could even cut the strikeouts in half and I'd still argue that it's preposterous this game exists in the first place.

But probably most impressive out of everything is that the Cubs' catcher, Sandy Martinez, completely abandoned location in the 1st inning. Instead he just set up right down the middle of the plate and told Kerry Wood to trust his stuff and feed the glove. That's the kind of stuff you say to a guy who is about to walk 20, not strikeout 20. 

But that's the beauty of baseball. There's so much chance and variety and luck. For whatever reason on that one day in those 9 innings, Kerry Wood had the best stuff we've ever seen. Only seldom can you really say anything with certainty in this game and here's one of those rare circumstances:

On May 6th of 1998, Kerry Wood pitched the best game in baseball history.

Please embrace debate in the comment section below.