So, a spate of major injuries has hit some of the stars of the 2000s as of late, particularly stars associated with the NL Central. Kerry Wood started by retiring due to his injuries. Scott Rolen and Lance Berkman have since come down with major, career-threatening injuries. This seemed to stir some thoughts and memories in me, so I figured now would be a good time to reflect on them as players.
First, Wood. As a Cardinals fan, I remember being terrified of him back in 2003 or so. Back then, the Astros, Cubs, and Cardinals always struck me as the big three of the NL Central, which I suppose makes it fitting that I’m covering a representative from each team now. Wood and Prior were their two aces, something it felt like the Cardinals lacked even one of. (I recall Matt Morris being the Cards’ number 1 at the time, but I remember him being an ace-type pitcher for much longer than he was even good.)
Wood, like Prior, was good until he just wasn’t. That’s more or less how it is in my memories, at least. I remember all the speculation about how the 2004 Cubs could sport four 20-game winers (aren’t pre-season predictions fun?). I don’t think anyone would have given up on them by 2004 or 2005, though. That seems much too quick. I guess it was 2006 or so, then, when the two of them officially went from “disappointing stars who would be fantastic if they were healthy” to “running joke”. I think they’ve officially shed those labels, though, for different reasons. Prior because it became sad to see after a while. He’s still there, though. Maybe he’ll return eventually, but after a 5+ year absences, I doubt it.
Wood, though, graduated from the title when he adapted and thrived. I guess it was around 2007 or so when he officially became a reliever (I’m going by Baseball-Reference, as I don’t have a date tied to the story in my recollections; it just happened). I don’t know how I reacted to it exactly, but I’m almost positive it was in an “end is near” sort of way. And yet, out of nowhere, he showed that-surprise!-he was still just as good as ever. For those two years (check the predictions section, not the results), where the Cubs were on top of the world (Remember Jayson Stark picking the Cubs to win the World Series? Twice?), I remember thinking maybe Wood would last as an All-Star closer for a long time. He was a major free agent going into 2008 when the Indians signed him, and I saw no reason he wouldn’t continue to be outstanding if he was healthy. After all, he just posted two straight seasons with ERA+’s of 140 and 141 not that I knew that at the time).
But he got to Cleveland and became...mediocre. I think that was the biggest shock. When he was hurt the first time-sure, pitchers get hurt all the time. When he came back-sure, he was always good, his health was always the issue. But suddenly being mediocre was just weird. He sort of slipped out of memory-those Indians teams were sort of the AL’s answer to the Cubs, great teams that suddenly just stopped being great.
And then, he reappeared in a blaze of glory as the Yankee’s set-up ace* after the deadline. I could have sworn it was the year the Yankees won it all, but it was apparently the year after. Just another reason I plan to one day have my memory surgically replaced with Baseball-Reference. In any case, he was deceptively good in his short time there. His peripherals weren’t noticeably better, but he somehow managed a 631 ERA+. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like that in a stat line for a season that wasn’t still ongoing.
*As a side note, Prior signed with the Yankees on a minor league deal the next season. Can you imagine what would happen if you somehow travelled back to 2003 to show Cubs fans pictures of future Wood and Prior in Yankees jerseys?
Even though he had been great, and even though he was only just turning 34, I think it was understood he was returning to Chicago to finish out his career that offseason. It seemed to me that he could pitch there until whenever he felt like he was done, which wouldn’t be too far away. Either way, even if he was a long-time rival, I’m glad he went out when he wanted and how he wanted.
What really got me thinking about this was the similar issues Rolen and Berkman are having. Having rooted for both of them, I feel much more saddened by the threat of their retirement. I hope that they can continue to be productive for more years, but the nature of their injuries means it’s very uncertain. Both have been incredible, with the Cardinals or otherwise. Berkman was, from the Astros World Series year on, the player in an opposing lineup that worried me the most. His numbers are borderline-Hall quality, and it would be a shame if he didn’t get to return to add to them. Scott Rolen was one of my favorite players even before he was a Cardinal-something about him drew me to him as a fan back when he was just starting. Rolen probably has less time left to play, given that he’s older and he’s been struggling much more as of late, but there’s nothing borderline about his Hall case. He’s hands down one of the top ten third basemen all time. However, seeing someone as incredibly talented as Kerry Wood struggling to stay on the field has given me some perspective on these players, I think. It can be difficult to not only be great at baseball but also to stay healthy enough to play. I feel lucky I’ve gotten to see these players as much as I have and that they’ve managed to demonstrate their talents for as long as they have.
The more that I think about it, the more players I can think of that fit this mold. These three, however, really made me think about it. If this is the end for them, I’ll definitely go back and revisit their careers one more time. But I hope they both can return, at the very least to have one more great moment they can look back on like Kerry Wood.