June 21 - Career Rehab
The calendar read 2005, but it didn't seem all that different than 1987.
Separated by those 18 years were two superstar pitchers enjoying as precipitous of falls as meteoric of
rises. In 1987, you had Dwight Gooden, a young hurler with an overpowering fastball and a curveball
that could make the strongest of knees turn to jelly. Fast forward to 2005, and there stood Kerry Wood,
with the same JUGGS gun-popping numbers, and a slider that more resembled a Wiffle ball. They had
both struck out dozens in the show. They were both the next big thing in the game, until drugs (Gooden)
and numerous injuries (Wood) gave them a slap of reality to the face.
I happened to be privileged enough to see both men make rehab starts in an attempt to start the ascent
back up the ladder. The reaction to both was nearly identical.
You see, when Gooden rolled into Lynchburg, VA in 1987, and Wood to
Nashville, TN in 2005, it was a rarity of the highest order. Lynchburg and
Nashville don't get many opportunities to rub elbows with big-leaguers.
The stars they see are those who may have had a decent big league
career, or the ones that will be great down the road. Minor league
baseball fans don't get much of a chance to “live in the now”, as it were.
Both games featured tons of starstruck fans – most of whom had never
even been to a single game in that park – who came to catch a glimpse of what they never ordinarily
saw, and what those who saw it every day took for granted. They wanted to see the 95 mph-plus
fastball, the wicked breaking ball, the mound presence, and, most of all, to get a taste of what life was
really like in those cities and games they mostly only saw on television.
The park was full in Lynchburg for that one Gooden start, which back then couldn't have been more than
a few thousand, but most of Lynchburg's population at the time would claim that they were in
attendance, were they asked. The paid attendance in Nashville for Wood's start was 9,864, but years
from now, it will be more on the order of 35,000.
The numbers they both put up in those starts are even somewhat similar. Gooden threw four innings,
gave up two hits, walked two and struck out three. Wood also threw four innings, giving up four hits and
two earned runs, while walking three and striking out six. Neither of them earned a win, unless you
count the win those in attendance received by seeing these two pitch.
Gooden left Lynchburg shortly thereafter for Norfolk, VA, where he continued to round himself into shape
for the Mets' AAA affiliate in Tidewater, before a brief return to prominence in the bigs. Wood will depart
Des Moines after one more rehab start for a return to the ivy-covered walls of Chicago's Wrigley Field.
I'm just thankful I got to briefly hitch a ride with them on their return.