It was June 25. And my friends and I had recently graduated high school at Southgate Anderson High School in suburban Detroit.
This was the second full season that Major League Baseball had implemented interleague play.
While I was always excited to attend a Tiger game, watching my home team play the Cubs made for an even more fun night.
Five summers before, my father took me to my first Cubs game at Wrigley Field. I watched in horror as Orlando Merced of the Pittsburgh Pirates smacked a game-winning, two-run home run off Shawn Boskie.
While disappointed, I found solace in pictures of our drive to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, prior to our journey to Wrigley.
Back to 1998, with very little money and no ballgames to play on our schedules, we piled into my friends beat-up Chevy sedan and hit I-75 northward toward Tiger Stadium.
It was nearly first pitch by the time my friend halted his squealing chunk of metal in a decrepit parking lot, just a stone’s throw from at least a one mile walk from the ticket office.
Like madmen, we hustled to the ticket booth hoping tickets were still available for the game. While the Tigers were not doing so well at 35-45, 30,000 Tigers fans came out to the ballpark that night.
For some fans, this was perhaps one of but a few opportunities remaining to watch a game at this white palace at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. It was no secret this stadium was on its last legs, as chipping bright blue paint inside the stadium could attest.
Add insult to injury, the once-powerful offense the Tigers assembled during the mid-1990s was no more. Shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whittaker had recently retired, leaving a gaping hole in Detroit’s hearts.
Mickey Tettleton had taken his powerful swing to the Texas Rangers. And Cecil Fielder, who thumped home runs 50 and 51 on the final day of the 1990 season at Yankee Stadium, had been traded to the New York Yankees for Ruben Sierra and Matt Drews.
Rob Deer, Dan Gladden and Skeeter Barnes had also handed in their badges to the Tigers front office.
Yet for all the carnage, Tony Clark and Bobby Higginson still roamed the hallowed grounds for the Tigers. These two ballplayers gave the hometown fans some hope for a positive future.
Fortunately for my friends and I, the $5 center field bleacher seat tickets we wanted were still available. With hot dogs and Cokes in hand, we made our way to our favorite part of the ballpark. We loved sitting 440 feet from home plate for two reasons. First, we could heckle opposing outfielders. Second, homers looked truly majestic as they sailed past blue steel.
To say we were excited for the ballgame against the Cubs was an understatement. My friends and I had the rare opportunity to watch one of baseball’s most electrifying young pitchers at the time take to the hill for the Cubs.
His name was Kerry Wood.
Wood was our generation’s version of Stephen Strasburg—without all the social media buzz.
This 6’4” flame-throwing Texas native burst onto the scene in 1998, when he struck out 20 Houston Astros hitters in a complete game shutout at Wrigley Field.
Coming into the game against the Tigers, Wood was 7-3 with 118 strikeouts.
Having heard the hype about Wood, we were anxious to see for this growing legend with our own eyes.
Now, sometimes youth combined with adrenaline can equal delusion.
Although the Tigers were terrible, we were convinced our home team would crush Wood that night.
That was until we heard Wood’s first fastball hiss through the hot summer air, before thumping into catcher Tyler Houston’s glove.
My friends and I just looked at one another in amazement, as we heard the fastball from center field.
This would be the first of many times Wood would do this for the Cubs that night. He ended up striking out eight Tigers in six innings of work.
But for the record, Wood did not leave this game unscathed.
Damian Easley took him deep for a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth inning. The Tigers added two more runs off Wood in the bottom of the sixth, when Geronimo Berroa doubled Bobby Higginson and Luis Gonzalez home.
Wood went on to surrender three earned runs on four hits in a no-decision for the Cubs.
The Tigers ended up winning the game 6-4 that night, thanks to a three-run homer by Tony Clark.
I must say as a baseball fan, I truly enjoyed watching Wood pitch at Tiger Stadium. After watching Wood, my friends and I thought he would easily go on to a Hall of Fame career.
This was especially true after Wood finished the 1998 season with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in just 166.2 innings of work. He also won National League Rookie of the Year honors.
Sadly for Wood, injuries would plague the rest of his career, as he was never able to find his groove.
Although some consider Wood’s career 86-75 record, 1,581 strikeouts and 3.67 ERA respectable, others are convinced Wood by no means lived up to high expectations.
To this, I will let others debate this over the course of the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, I will continue to reminisce about Wood’s performance at Tiger Stadium that night.
Because frankly, it is a night that will stick with me forever.
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