Kerry Wood isn't sure if he'll be back with the Chicago Cubs for the 2000 season.
"I haven't even had the surgery yet. It's too early to think about when I'm going to be back," the NL rookie of the year said Wednesday upon his return to the Cubs' spring training camp.
Baseball's brightest young pitcher, whose fastball dazzled fans during his rookie season, will undergo ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow in the next two weeks. Rehabilitation is expected to take about a year.
Wood has worried about a major injury since he was 12 and watched Dave Dravecky's chilling injury in the middle of a pitch.
"I've thought about this from the first time I saw the video -- I can't remember his name now -- he threw one pitch and his arm broke," Wood recalled during a news conference at HoHoKam Park.
The 21-year-old right-hander has had a tender elbow since the Cubs drafted him out of high school in 1995. He missed all of last September while it was sore.
Wood returned to throw five innings in the Cubs' final playoff game against Atlanta, then was hospitalized twice at the start of spring training because of an upper respiratory and gastrointestinal illness.
The latest injury occurred Saturday, on the first warmup pitch of the second inning of his 1999 debut against Anaheim. He lasted 26 pitches in all -- managing to throw 95 mph even after the injury.
"We were very, very conservative with Kerry," general manager Ed Lynch said. "Whether this was bound to happen, I can't answer."
Wood didn't want to blame the injury on the way he's been handled, either in pro ball or before.
"It's safe to say it was inevitable," he said. "From the time my velocity picked up and I started to throw harder, I felt it could happen on any given day," he said.
Wood intends to get a second opinion and allow swelling to subside before going ahead with surgery. Dr. Lewis Yocum, the Anaheim Angels team physician, or Dr. James Andrews most likely will perform a ligament replacement, a procedure considered radical when Dr. Frank Jobe used it to save Tommy John's career in 1974, but now is commonplace.
"Thankfully, we live in a day and age when they can put us back together like an erector set," said Cubs pitcher Terry Mulholland, ensured a spot in the rotation because of the injury.
Wood, who struck out 20 against Houston last May 6 to tie Roger Clemens' record for a nine-inning game, was a big part of baseball's renaissance last season, going 13-6 with 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts in 166 2-3 innings.
He not only was a key to the Cubs' pennant hopes, but had become one of baseball's top attractions. He was rewarded with a $690,000 salary -- a record for a player with less than one year in the major leagues.
"It's too bad for him, too bad for baseball," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "I don't like to face the uy, but he's a special, special pitcher. We need those to come along in the game like that, who really pack them in."
| Kerry Wood will undergo tests to determine how extensive the damage is in his elbow. (AP)|
Despite his promise, there was always the danger he would burn out too soon, such as Mark Fidrych and David Clyde. For now, the Cubs are positive Wood can rebound next year.
"I feel for him," reliever Rod Beck said. "I think as a pitcher, every one of us has laid in bed with an ache and a pain thinking it's over."
It was the latest blow to baseball during a spring training that has seen Atlanta first baseman Andres Galarraga, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and Florida infielder Mike Lowell diagnosed with cancer; Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio die following lung cancer surgery; and Houston outfielder Moises Alou severely damage a knee.
Galarraga and Alou are out for the season, and Torre is expected to miss 1-3 months. Lowell already has returned.
"I think our players will take this as a challenge we will have to overcome, the same as Atlanta and Houston are doing," Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said.
Following the retirement of Michael Jordan, Wood and Sammy Sosa were Chicago's biggest sports stars. It's hard to see the Cubs, the lovable losers who haven't won a pennant since 1945 and a World Series since 1908, getting back to the playoffs without Wood, even if Sosa has another 66-homer season.
"We'll keep Sammy on the field -- put a glass case around him," Beck said.
Several Cubs mentioned that Wood might benefit from having the surgery so early in his career.
"I've heard guys who had the ligament replacement say the ligament that's put in is stronger and more durable," Mulholland said.
Cubs pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez had a ligament replaced by Yocum last Aug. 21 and is ahead of schedule, hoping to return during the first half of the season.
For now, the injury means the Cubs are left with a rotation of Steve Trachsel, Kevin Tapani, Mulholland and Jon Lieber, with Scott Sanders or Kurt Miller the top candidates for the fifth spot. While Kansas City's Kevin Appier is available and perhaps others, Lynch didn't seem inclined to make a trade.
"I think every club is looking for a pitcher," he said.
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