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

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; D01


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."

Indeed, any fair retelling of the Wood story must include the back story: The Cubs knew Wood had a "ligament issue" (probably some fraying) in the elbow when they drafted him with the fourth overall pick out of Grand Prairie (Tex.) High in 1995. They also knew he was ridden hard in high school, in one instance throwing 175 pitches during a doubleheader.

"He was so dominant we had to take him," Riggleman said. "But we knew he had some issues with that ligament. In hindsight, more rest and less pitching was only going to delay the inevitable."

Memories of '98

Let's remember this, too: This was the north side of Chicago, Wrigley Field. These were the Cubs. This was 1998, with Sammy Sosa at the peak of his home-run-hitting skills. This was a contender.

The clamoring for Wood, at the time the Cubs' fourth-rated prospect, began during a dominating spring training and continued after he was sent to Class AAA Iowa to start the season. Barely a week into the season, he was called to the majors when injuries to the pitching staff necessitated some shuffling. He was 20 years old.

In Wood's fifth start, on an overcast afternoon at Wrigley Field, he produced what may have been the most dominant pitching performance in history -- a one-hit (on an infield single off the third baseman's glove), no-walk, 20-strikeout gem against the Astros. Nothing would ever be the same for him.

Wood threw 122 pitches in that game, the first of eight instances during the 1998 season in which he threw 120-plus -- capped by a 133-pitch, 16-strikeout epic on Aug. 26, with the Cubs battling the New York Mets for the wild card. It was also one start before Wood reported elbow soreness. The Cubs promptly shut him down for the rest of the regular season.

"The dilemma was that the games were important," Riggleman said. "We weren't in last place. We had a chance to really do something, and he had a chance to be a big part of it. We kind of pitched him like we did any other starter. And because he got so many strikeouts, and [batters] were fouling him off, he was usually six innings, 112 to 115 pitches. And he's got about 13 strikeouts.

"We're trying to win. You're caught up in moment, but you're concerned about him. Sometimes we'd send him back out for another hitter, and next thing you know the guy fouls off some pitches and he's at 125 pitches. So it tended to get away from us a little bit."

When Wood looks back at 1998, he recalls wishing he had been left in longer -- not taken out sooner. And he wishes he hadn't been "babied" in the minor leagues, because that failed to get him accustomed to the rigors of the majors.

"I was never allowed to throw 100 pitches in the minors," Wood said, "and then I get called up, and I'm throwing 120."

An even bigger problem, Wood said, was his delivery. At the time, he threw across his body, meaning his legs were not generating enough power, and his upper body -- his shoulder and elbow -- was doing all the work.

"If there's anything to point a finger at -- I don't want to say it was bad mechanics, because I don't want to blame the pitching coaches," Wood said. "But I did throw across my body. I was having success, and it's tough to change when you're having success."

After resting for most of September 1998, and watching the Cubs take the wild card, Wood was given the ball in Game 3 of the NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, pitching five innings and taking the loss as the Cubs were swept out of the playoffs.

In his first start the next spring, the ticking time bomb that was his elbow finally blew -- a torn UCL. He had ligament-replacement surgery. He would not pitch again that season. The Cubs would lose 97 games and Riggleman would be fired. Wood would return in 2000 and make an all-star team in 2003. But the rest of his career would be plagued by shoulder injuries, necessitating a move to the bullpen in 2007. A year later, the Cubs would let him go.

Riggleman reflects

Riggleman is tired of answering questions about Wood in 1998, but he has done it this spring anyway -- understanding, perhaps, what is at stake with the Nationals and Strasburg -- and he does it with honesty and introspection.

"If I had it to do over, I would do it differently," he said. "And we probably wouldn't have gotten to the playoffs. If I had known what was going to happen, I wouldn't have pitched him that much, period. But I would have caught a lot of grief. I caught a lot of grief as it was. We lost a lot of games where [Wood] came out after five or six innings. I was getting comments like, 'C'mon, Riggs, leave him in.' "

Andy MacPhail, the Cubs' president at the time, said he was surprised to hear Riggleman express regret over 1998.

"I don't really have an issue with the way Jim used Kerry," MacPhail, now the Baltimore Orioles' general manager, said in a telephone interview. "I don't really remember any discussion of, 'Gee, this guy was overworked.' . . . You didn't hear much of that back then. What has changed over time is the scrutiny and the documentation" of pitch counts.

It's true much more is known today about the handling of young pitchers. Nowadays, teams rarely let inexperienced pitchers throw much more than 100 pitches in a game -- 110 at the absolute most. They place stringent limits on innings totals.

And sometimes even then, the elbow blows out. An example: In 2009, with Riggleman as the bench coach, the Nationals put a young ace-in-training, Jordan Zimmermann, in their rotation. He averaged 98 pitches per start, never going beyond 109. The plan was to shut him down by September, but he never made it that far. Despite the Nationals' extreme care, he blew out his elbow in July.

"I know as an organization, we're glad we had those limits on Jordan Zimmermann, because he got hurt," Riggleman said. "If we didn't have those limits and he got hurt, we would be thinking, 'Well, did we do too much?' "

Strasburg almost certainly will never throw more than 110 pitches in a game this year. He almost certainly will not pitch more than 150 or 160 innings. And still, you just never know.

As for Riggleman's history, all you need to know is this: If Wood were Strasburg's father, he would have no problem placing his son in Riggleman's care.

"He kind of got the fall for the injury and all that. But he's great," Wood said. "He's a very good baseball person, very solid. He knows the game well. He's fine with young pitchers. He's probably better with them than with older guys, to be honest. He was great with me. He didn't do anything wrong."

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