Before fans and collectors run out and purchase every Kerry Wood rookie card in hopes it will balloon in value once he gets into the Hall of Fame, a quick trip through recent baseball history might be in order.
Wood, the 20-year old Chicago Cubs' hard-throwing right-hander, got the attention of the nation -- and collectors -- last week when he struck out 20 Houston Astros and pitched a one-hitter at Wrigley Field. There is no diminishing the accomplishment, probably the best game ever pitched by a rookie in Major League baseball history. He permitted just one hit and thoroughly manhandled one of the best hitting teams in the National League in a cozy ballpark known more for its offensive reputation than one of pitching accomplishments.
The fact Wood, in only his first full month of his career, was able to do it on a superstation hookup on WGN-TV made the feat known to fans all over the country. Instant comparisons to Nolan Ryan, another Texas fireballing product, were inevitable if not premature. And all collectors are aware of the significance of a Nolan Ryan trading card.
However, baseball history is littered with promising young pitchers who have great success early and then flame out. That is not to say that is what will happen to Wood. His mechanics are considered outstanding; his low-key personality -- he turned down numerous invitations to appear on late night talk shows and sign up for instant endorsements -- should work to his favor. But he is pitching in one of the most difficult parks in baseball for a hard-thrower and his control is considered by scouts to be his No. 1 drawback. And unless the Cubs turn around generations of losing, he will find himself pitching from behind rather than in front of the score which can turn even the most talented pitcher into a basket case.
Some 40 years ago, another hard-throwing Cubs' right hander Dick Drott was a rookie sensation, winning 15 games. In May of that year, Drott struck out 15 against the Milwaukee Braves including three of legendary Hank Aaron. Drott was also 20 years old and seemed, like Wood, to have a great career ahead of him. Instead, Drott had arm troubles in his sophomore season in the majors and was never the same.
The Cubs didn't have the market cornered on failed prospects. The Baltimore Orioles were producing great young pitchers in the 1960s -- Jim Palmer headed up that crew -- but two others -- Wally Bunker and Tom Phoebus were actually considered to be better prospects.
Bunker was rookie of the year in 1964, Phoebus in 1967 (Palmer was never rookie-of-the-year). Bunker was just 19 -- one year younger than Wood -- when he won the award on the strength of a 19-5 season in 1964. But he tailed off after his first season and was eventually dealt to Kansas City. His major league victory total: 60 -- just 41 wins over his last eight years in the majors.
Phoebus, not considered as hard a thrower as teammate Bunker, won 14 games in his rookie season. He had two more decent seasons before arm trouble doomed his chances for a long carer. He wound up with just 56 career wins -- 42 after his rookie season -- and was destined for the trivia books.
Unlike Baltimore, Boston wasn't known for producing talented young pitching prospects. But in the 1960s, there was hope at Fenway. Don Schwall was rookie-of-the-year for the Boston Red Sox in 1961, winning 15 games. Six years later, he was out of baseball and managed just 36 more victories after his rookie campaign.
Eight years later, Mike Nagy earned a spot on the Red Sox roster and went 12-2, earning rookie- of-the-year honors and lifting the hopes of fans that he would replace Jim Lonborg as the ace of the Boston staff. But injuries felled Nagy who won only eight more games over his six-year career and was out of baseball by the time the Red Sox went to the World Series in 1975.
Entire staffs can raise the hopes of fans and collectors that they will dominate, similar to the current Atlanta Braves' stable of hurlers. The Chicago White Sox thought they had the staff for the 80s when they put together four young pitchers in the late 1970s in Ross Baumgarten, Ken Kravec, Rich Wortham and Britt Burns. Not only were they young but they were all southpaws, always in demand by scouts, and they all had solid first seasons. But if those names have you running toward dusty card collection catalogs there is a reason. All failed to live up to their great billing, although Burns did have a decent career with the Sox before retiring in 1986.
There are numerous other examples: Billy McCool of the Cincinnati Reds, Dick Hughes of the St. Louis Cardinals; Carl Morton of the Montreal Expos; John D'Acquisto, Mike Dunne of the Pittsburgh Pirates. All National League rookies-of-the-year who seemed headed for the kind of stardom people are talking about for Wood but all who faded on the field and in the memory of fans and collectors.
Wood may not fall victim to the rookie jinx. He may stay healthy, avoid arm trouble, lead the Cubs to several pennants and continue on the road to Cooperstown. But if he does, he will be defying some pretty impressive odds.