Cubs, Kerry Wood needed each other

CHICAGO -- It's been sort of a rough offseason for the Chicago Cubs.

Really, it's been a rough two years.

OK, it's been a rough century. Happy now?

With 2008's regular-season run a distant memory, what is the Cubs' identity going into 2011?

They are a nine-figure payroll team with scant momentum and eroding public enthusiasm. The days of filling every seat in cool April evenings might not be over, but there are no guarantees.

Take the Cubs Convention, for example. It used to sell out in a day. But it's been on sale since Nov. 3, with seemingly plenty of tickets left. I guess even the guys who tuck their Greg Maddux jersey in their Lee jeans aren't jazzed about this team after a losing season.

In their first full offseason as owners of the Cubs, the Ricketts family has struck out like Carlos Pena, who incidentally was their only free-agent addition until the triumphant return of Kerry Wood on Friday.

The team's long-researched, poorly timed plan to renovate Wrigley Field using public funds might go down with the College of Coaches, Tom Trebelhorn's firehouse chats and leaving in Mark Prior in the eighth as all-time boneheaded ideas.

With the Tribune Co. out of the picture, and their previous largesse now an anchor on the club's books, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry was forced to finance Pena's $10 million, one-year deal.

Ticket prices stayed the same, on average, which is to say, they're still expensive, while the team added a very expensive pricing tier as a harbinger of increases to come.

After giving interim manager Mike Quade the job, a move I wholeheartedly endorse, the Cubs went in-house, and cheap, to replace pitching coach Larry Rothschild, hiring minor league coordinator Mark Riggins.

And then, of course, there's Ronny.

Beloved Ron Santo, the patron saint of lost leads and belter of groans heard round the world, passed away two weeks ago, and damn if we all won't cry again on Opening Day remembering him.

But it was at his funeral that Wood and Hendry were able to reconnect. And wouldn't Santo belt out an "All right!" for what happened next?

Wood and Hendry got to talking at Ryan Dempster's previously planned charity event after the funeral and the erstwhile ace settled on a one-year, $1.5 million bargain deal to be Carlos Marmol's set-up man.

There are incentives, but it pales in comparison to the $20.5 million he was paid the past two seasons.

"It's never been about the money for me," Wood said. "It's about being home and being here at Wrigley, which is home for me."

Wood's not lying. He had offers from other teams, he said, for considerably more money, but seeing the Cubs family together obviously changed his mind in a hurry. It's not a surprise, really. Wood's desire to perform in a Cubs uniform is what has endeared him to fans. Most thought he would come back.

Wood is 77-61 with a 3.65 ERA and 1,407 strikeouts as a Cub. He saved 34 games in one full season as the team's closer.

But forget stats, he's family. As a 20-year-old, he became a national celebrity and for the rest of that decade he mirrored the Cubs' performance -- lots of ups and downs. He's only 33, a year older than Cliff Lee, and he looks great, skinny and almost fresh-faced. It only feels like he's been around as long as Fergie Jenkins.

In his last two seasons as a starter, 2005-06, Wood pitched just 85 2/3 innings for the Cubs, making only 15 starts. Despite all his promise, he never won more than 14 games in a season, and by the end, he was linked with Prior as damaged goods for a bumbling team.

When the Cubs reinvented themselves in 2007 as big spenders for the Tribune Co.'s last gasp, Wood and Prior were afterthoughts. Lou Piniella would barely speak of them as they rehabbed in Arizona. But when Wood returned as a reliever, it was a heartwarming story. And when he left after 2008, it was accepted that he could earn much more than the Cubs could offer.

"I wasn't a fan of leaving," he said. "I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay here my whole career."

Now he's back and Hendry pointed to Santo as the reason.

"God bless No. 10," said Hendry, a sentimental sort who chokes up about Santo. "Actually, in his own great way, he had something to do with this. It was really wasn't on the radar until last weekend."

"Honestly, it probably wouldn't have come up," Wood said. "We just kind of saw each other. Me and [my wife] Sarah walked into the service and saw those familiar faces, and we started talking. … It kind of happened quick. I talked with the wife after the service and that night I saw Jim at Demp's charity event and just said, 'Let's see if we could do something.' "

Hendry had to ask Tom Ricketts' approval, and Wood met with the owner, all of which is kind of embarrassing considering the meager price tag. But it all worked out, and the deal is the best money the Ricketts will spend all year.

Because not only did the Cubs get back a player who inspires pride in the organization, they also got a valid set-up man to complete what could be one of the best 7-8-9 trios in the National League with Sean Marshall. It also allows Andrew Cashner to vie for a rotation spot.

If Pena can hit and Wood can pitch, the Cubs are creeping back toward relevancy.

"It's something that makes perfect sense," said Hendry, who seemed almost relieved to be at a media conference. "It wouldn't have been done on sentiment. He obviously fits a need for the good of the ballclub this year. It's one of those great stories."

It really is. Wood has gone from phenom to All-Star to reclamation project to All-Star, and now he's a wise, old veteran and the face of the franchise, perhaps for years to come.

And the Cubs need everything he can give them.

Breaking spring training last year, the Cubs tried to snow us with the myth of having "young, strong arms." Here's a tip, fans: If you hear something along those lines from a manager or GM, start stockpiling canned goods. Because it means your bullpen isn't that good at actually pitching.

While the 'pen improved dramatically in September, helping the Cubs win and Quade get the job (after helping Piniella lose his mind), this addition was critical.

Wood had some back issues with Cleveland, but ended up with a 3.13 ERA in 43 innings last year, and worked with former Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland to refine his mechanics, adding a cut fastball to his repertoire. He gave up two earned runs in 26 innings for New York, which tried in vain to sign him, according to reports.

"I'm going to do my thing, try to get outs and hopefully the guys down there can see how I go about my business," Wood said of any mentoring role. "I'm going to learn a lot from them and hopefully they can learn from me. I've had some experience in this ballpark and there are some young guys I can help."

It's not just about baseball either. ESPN Chicago's Bruce Levine reported that Wood's daughter, Charlotte, has some medical needs that are best served at Children's Memorial Hospital. Sarah Wood is from Chicago and the family kept their house in the city, and always planned to raise their children here.

"It's something I've always felt strongly about," he said. 'We belong here in Chicago, my wife and I and our kids. We're going to be here a long time, raise a family here. I'm a Cub. That's just the perfect fit for my family and myself, at this point."

While Wood had to deal with public scrutiny during those lost years that almost defined his career, post-2003, he was never a shut-in. I used to see him in Lincoln Park and Old Town, hat pulled low, grocery shopping or taking a walk with the family. He's a part of this city once again.

For all the bad news, bad jokes and bad omens Cubs fans are hit with, this is a rare piece of good news.

The Cubs just lost a lifer in Santo, and now they've got one back. It's not a fair trade, but as Wood will tell you, life isn't always fair.

All I know is it's good to say "We've got Wood" once again.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.