Jim Riggleman's experience with Kerry Wood influences his handling of Stephen Strasburg

Kerry Wood, once a 1998 phenom and now a reliever, is trying to extend his career with the Indians.
Kerry Wood, once a 1998 phenom and now a reliever, is trying to extend his career with the Indians. (Tony Dejak/associated Press)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Kerry Wood carries himself with the manner, somehow regal and humble in equal proportions, of someone who has known both glory and pain. You don't need to read his bio or glimpse the scars on his right elbow and shoulder to know he has achieved much and endured much. He doesn't boast, nor will he abide any sympathy -- not when he has made nearly $60 million throwing a baseball and is still getting paid.

But if the many youngsters populating the Cleveland Indians' camp this spring are drawn to Wood's locker, it is not only because of his welcoming manner and his advanced (in baseball terms) age of 32. It is because they all remember a May afternoon 12 years ago, when they were mere school kids and Kerry Wood was the most electrifying young pitcher on the planet.

Long before he was a closer, before he was a perennial piece of trade bait, before he was a mainstay of the disabled list, and before he was a cautionary tale for the handling of young pitchers, Wood was the rarest of baseball phenoms. He was literally awesome, inducing awe in whoever saw him pitch. He was once-a-generation awesome.

He was Stephen Strasburg.

Or don't you remember the hype of 1998, the 20-strikeout game in May against Houston, the 13-6 record that season, the 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings, the rookie of the year award, the 100-mph fastball, the physics- and classification-defying "slurve"?

"He was so good," Jim Riggleman said recently, "so dominant."

Riggleman was Wood's manager in 1998 with the Chicago Cubs. If a manager is lucky, he gets to ride a thoroughbred like Wood once in his career. Riggleman will get to do it twice: He is the manager of the Washington Nationals now.

He has Strasburg.

Let's stop here: This is not another bash job on Riggleman for supposedly ruining Wood's career by overusing him as a rookie. This is not an attempt to scare Nationals fans by linking Strasburg to Wood, via Riggleman. Two different pitchers, two different situations, two different eras.

If anything, you may come away from this story feeling Riggleman played little or no role in Wood's injury-plagued career -- which includes three arm surgeries and 12 stays on the disabled list. You may come away understanding that sometimes, the difference between a perfectly healthy arm and a destroyed one is as random as a coin toss, as thin as the triangular band of fibrous tissue that connects the humerus to the ulna -- the infamous ulnar collateral ligament.

"My elbow was going to go," Wood said recently in the Indians' clubhouse at their spring training home. "If it didn't go with [Riggleman] it would've gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time."

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