MESA, Ariz. – A week from Opening Day and about an hour after the announcement Kerry Wood has been reborn a closer, Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry enjoyed a vigorous rant defending what most regard as a prudent decision, even accessorizing the outburst with churlish profanity and dismissive hand-waving before declaring the whole non-argument argument off the record.
It was Monday, otherwise a glorious morning, the Budweiser Clydesdales clomping and snorting outside the right-field gates, the Cubs favored to win the NL Central again, a sea of "Santo" and "Williams" and "Zambrano" jerseys in the HoHoKam Park bleachers, the ballclub actually in the admirable position of fitting good arms (they think) around better arms (they pray).
Earlier, manager Lou Piniella had climbed the few stairs from the dugout to the warning track, shoved his hands into his back pockets and said Wood had the ninth inning, Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry would set him up, Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis were in the rotation, Jon Lieber would pitch in middle relief and Sean Marshall would spend the rest of spring seeing how he might take to a bullpen job.
"We've got ourselves a really nice pitching staff here," Piniella summarized. "What can I say? I mean, these guys have competed well."
OK, makes total sense.
Insofar as the rotation, Dempster talked his way into a spring tryout, then pitched his way from the ninth inning to the first. He's done this before and, for a while, in Florida, was pretty good at it. Marquis' best two months generally are April and May, including last season, his first with the Cubs, when his month-by-month ERA went 2.35, 3.38, 5.09, 6.29, 4.45, 6.21. So, give him the ball early and keep Lieber, who seemed the most obliging to a bullpen role anyway, stretched out.
The ninth inning was a bit more complicated, given three reasonable entrants – Wood, Marmol and Howry – and the added variable of Wood's body being unreliable. Then Wood started pitching reliably at 98 mph and, in 10 spring innings, didn't walk a batter. Better yet, he reported every day to the mound and not the trainer's table, a trend that began early last August with a shoulder recovery that was borderline miraculous.
All of which, seemingly, would be great news for Hendry, who, for among the first times in his 5½-year tenure, not only has a healthy Kerry Wood, but isn't overseeing a Mark Prior rehabilitation. His good buddy Kevin Towers is, up in Padres camp.
Asked (granted, for the thousandth time this week) for his view on why Wood as closer and not, say, as starter, middle reliever or setup man, Hendry became a little vicious and a lot angry, suggesting a very stupid question, a very short temper, a very defensive general manager or an incredibly sensitive organization.
Now, I don't know if there are seven innings or seven hundred innings left in Wood's body. Either way, seeing as Wood is almost 31, it's about time the Cubs get what they can out of that arm, one of the extraordinary and tragic limbs of our generation. We're six weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Wood's 20-strikeout, no-walk, one-hit game against the Houston Astros, that in his fifth big-league start. We're also likely on some anniversary of a pulled or torn or achy or failed ligament or muscle or labrum or something.
The Cubs' medical people determined many months ago that Wood's best chance for survival was to pitch in short bursts, meaning the starting rotation was out. But, opinions change. And Wood has pitched consecutive games twice in his career, once – in 2005 – a couple weeks before shoulder surgery. Still, he hasn't started since 2006, and any questions about that, in Hendry's opinion, amounted to nothing more than "stirring the sh--," leaving the unstirred options middle relief, setup relief or closing.
Again, Wood should be the closer. No one can know how many bullets he has left and the ones he's got currently are approaching 100 mph, so the Cubs are wise to spend them where they have the greatest impact. That would be the ninth inning.
Hendry's reply, somewhere around retroactively deciding the conversation – such as it was – was off the record: "I don't give a f--- what you think."
Fans above the dugout, the ones who were flipping him caps and balls to sign, chuckled at that.
In fact, he said it twice. Happy, carefree days in Cub-land.
I'm going to assume Hendry was fixing for a fight, imaginary or not. I'm going to assume he's had enough of the second guessing, even when it's not there. I'm going to assume, well, I'm sure he doesn't care what I think. But, maybe the whole Wood thing is wearing on him, which would be understandable. He clearly didn't like the question, thought it uninformed or antagonistic, and just as clearly responded too petulantly for it to be about one question.
Fortunately, Piniella and Wood believed it necessary to put a bow on the competition – and the story – that had dominated spring training. Wood is back, he's in a critical role, and he's healthy. That, it seems to me, is a very good thing for the Cubs, no matter how they got there.
"We decided on Kerry Wood," Piniella said. "He's thrown the ball exceedingly well all spring. He's got experience. And he's earned it."
Piniella believes Wood can pitch on consecutive days, perhaps even three in a row. He believes Marmol and Howry will endure the more stressful roles.
As for the injury risk, Piniella said, "If it happens, it's going to happen. It's not going to be because [he's] overworked."
In the clubhouse during the game, Wood leaned against a chair, his arms crossed over his chest. A few hours earlier, pitching coach Larry Rothschild told him he'd have the ninth.
"I appreciate the fact I've been given another chance to get out there and play the game I love," he said. "I want to take advantage of it."
No argument here.