Walking off right

Longtime Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood retired today in the most fitting fashion possible: with a K.

He’ll go into the record books with the second-highest strikeout rate in Major League Baseball history, behind only surefire Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

Wood’s retirement today also unseated a less momentous mark. As he struck out Dayan Viciedo and then walked off the field to a standing ovation and the waiting arms of his young son Justin, my eyes unexpectedly teared up.

That hadn’t happened to me, as near as I can remember, in about six years.

It was undeniably an emotional moment, but I’m clueless as to what about that scene pushed me over the edge when other intense times haven’t cracked my stoicism.

I’m not complaining. Baseball is one of my biggest passions, and Kerry Wood has been at the center of that since the beginning.

The 1998 baseball season was when I first started really following the Cubs at the age of 11. It was also Wood’s rookie season, when Kid K threw arguably the greatest game ever pitched and along with Sammy Sosa helped lift a previously sad-sack Cubs team into the postseason. The next year he went down to injury, and Wood was periodically hurt for the rest of his career. That arguably prevented him from being an all-time great, or from at least having the chance. But when Wood was healthy — in 2003, when with Mark Prior he led the Cubs to the brink of the World Series, or again in 2008 when he was a shut-down closer for the greatest Cubs team in at least half a century.

(Read my memories of a 2003 Cubs-Yankees game, started by Wood.)

After getting essentially dumped by the Cubs the next year, he wandered to the Indians and Yankees, then took a well-below-market deal to come back to his original team. He was effective last year, but got off to an ugly start this season, still throwing hard but unable to locate his strikes.

Today, Wood announced that he’d retire — after one last batter. His previous outing, he’d gotten shelled and thrown his glove into the stands, and Wood didn’t want that to be his last appearance.

So he put together a doozy. Wood came into the game in a tense situation, with the Cubs down by one run, a runner on first and one out. This wasn’t a mop-up job. The news of Wood’s impending retirement had leaked before the game started, and by the time this happened everyone knew this was Kid K’s last hurrah.

When Wood was called into the game, the TV cameras caught him shake hands with bullpen coach Lester Strode — a simple but powerful moment. He got an ovation walking onto the mound. The Cubs announcers noted that the White Sox batter, Viciedo, was a free-swinger, making it a perfect matchup for a fireballing pitcher struggling with his command.

Wood started Viciedo off with a 96 mph fastball that Viciedo swung late on, fouling it off. Next came a curveball in the zone, that Viciedo again fouled off. It was 0-2, and the whole stadium wanted the same thing: one last K.

Before Wood threw his third pitch, WGN showed the most famous clip of Wood’s career: his strikeout of Derek Bell for the 20th strikeout in his record-tying 20-strikeout game. My eyes still pop at how much Wood’s slider breaks — truly an unhittable pitch:

The last pitch of Wood’s career was not nearly so filthy. He no longer threw that ridiculous breaking ball, a casualty of repeated arm surgeries and changes in his herky-jerky pitching motion to try to prevent even more injuries. Instead Wood went with a curveball, in the dirt. Viciedo swung through it. Catcher Welington Castillo recovered and threw to first.

It was the 1,582nd strikeout of Woods’ career, a career known for strikeouts. It wasn’t just the one game — Wood, when healthy, regularly struck out more than 200 batters per season, often leading the league. He was the fastest major leaguer ever to 1,000 strikeouts. He averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his career. If he’d been healthy, maybe Wood could have touched 3,000 strikeouts.

The next batter up was a righty, too, but acting manager Jamie Quirk wasn’t going to take a chance of Wood spoiling his last outing. His final appearance — unless he changes his mind — will be that strikeout of Dayan Viciedo.

It was what came next that moistened my eyes.

As the crowd at Wrigley Field came to its feet, all the players on the field congratulated Wood with hugs and handshakes. He tipped his hat to the fans as Justin ran from the dugout onto the field, into Woods’ waiting arms. The opposing White Sox players paid their respects. After working his way through another round of hugs and handshakes in the dugout, Wood emerged again onto the field for one last curtain call, waving his had and touching his heart, thanking the fans who had cheered for him for more than a decade.

It was arguably the most poignant Cubs moment (as opposed to moments of elation and depression) at least since Ron Santo’s jersey was retired and he told the Wrigley crowd, “This IS my Hall of Fame.”

(Note: It’s an absolute travesty that as near as I can find, there is no audio or video of that moment available on the Internet.)

Up until today, Kerry Wood had been the last real through-line to the start of my baseball fandom. But loving a sport always transcends loving a player, and Wood’s emotional goodbye won’t be any different for me.

Wood probably could have gutted out the year, turned his season around, and been a valuable member of the Cubs, even if his days of dominance were over. But he decided the end had come, that he wanted to go out on his own terms — and did it.

What better way to retire than that?