Kids in the Hall?

From all the talk about last year’s best rookies, you’d think they were headed for Cooperstown. Kerry Wood and Ben Grieve just want to play ball.

IT’S NOT LIKE THEY WERE BUDDIES. IN FACT, they didn’t even like each other, in the way cocky jocks from rival high schools don’t. Kerry Wood, the fastball pitcher for Irving MacArthur, and Ben Grieve, the hard-hitting outfielder for Arlington Martin, had faced each other a handful of times before. The pitcher had gotten his strikeouts, and the batter had gotten his hits.

Yet this, their last schoolboy meeting, wasn’t just any game. It was Grieve’s turf, and it was Grieve’s time. The all-American senior (who would wind up hitting .486 for the season) was one of the best players in the state on a team headed to the state finals. Thirty major league scouts sat in the stands on a spring day in 1994, buzzing about him. “We weren’t too friendly,” remembers Wood, then a relatively unknown junior on a 6-17 team. “But it was more of an ego thing. You know, all these scouts are looking at him.”

The scouts sat up a little straighter when Wood struck out Grieve in his first at bat. They might have heard the pitcher jawing as he walked off the mound; the slugger sure did. By Grieve’s last time up, everyone was on the edge of his seat—and he connected, sending a 3-2 pitch out of the park. Words were exchanged. Postures were struck. A club was formed: the Reluctant Admiration Society; membership, two guys with more in common than either cared to admit.

The next year, Wood (then at Grand Prairie High) got his turn with the busloads of scouts, the spotlight, and the envy. He was named the Texas 5A Player of the Year and selected as an all-American. “I got the same thing I was doing to Ben,” he says. “Every team we played, a group of guys would come to heckle me.”

For most high school stars, the melodrama ends with graduation; for Grieve and Wood it was just beginning. One of the best hitters in the history of Texas high school baseball, Grieve was selected by the Oakland A’s in the first round of the major league draft in June 1994. He went through the team’s farm system and in 1997 was named Minor League Player of the Year by both USA Today and The Sporting News.  Called up to the bigs in September of that year, the six-foot-four-inch, 226-pounder hit .312 in the final 24 games of the season. In 1998 his strong, easy swing and great eye helped the 22-year-old hit a solid .288 and lead American League rookies in runs, hits, homers, and RBIs.

Wood, carrying comparisons to Texas pitching legend Nolan Ryan, was chosen in the first round of the 1995 draft by the Chicago Cubs. After three years in the minors, the Cubs called him up last April. Over the course of the season, the baby-faced big man (six-foot-five, 225 pounds with the scary fastball and alarming curve went 13-6 with a 3.40 earned run average. His biggest moment came in his fifth major league start, when he struck out twenty  Houston Astros, tying a record that had been set by another Texan, Roger Clemens. “I think that’s the best game I’ve ever seen pitched,” Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said at the time. Wood’s cap was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. The head that wore it that day was twenty years old.

No one was surprised when Grieve and Wood won their respective leagues’ 1998 Rookie of the Year awards. What was surprising was how much they had in common. They grew up just miles apart in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They both have fathers who love the game (Tom Grieve, picked first in the draft by the Washington Senators in 1966, logged nine seasons of big-league ball, then became the general manager of the Texas Rangers and is now one of the team’s broadcasters; Garry Wood was a talented shortstop who never got a chance to go to college but spent a lot of time coaching his son). They both played baseball early and often, from Little League through high school—including fall and summer leagues, which are one reason, they believe, that Texas produces so many prodigious talents. “You can play all year round,” says Wood. “The more you play the better you get.” Grieve says the level of competition in the summer leagues was high. “Almost everyone went on to play in college or the pros.” Wood also credits good coaching: “My high school coach in Grand Prairie ran the team the same way we run it in the big leagues—the same drills.” Ultimately, however, the success of Wood and Grieve can be chalked up to something more personal. “Their work ethic is unbelievable,” says Texas Christian University assistant baseball coach Donnie Watson, who watched them play while they were growing up.

If Grieve and Wood learned the fundamentals of playing the right way, they have also learned well the fundamentals of saying the right things. Being named Rookie of the Year is “an honor,” Grieve says, “but at the same time you can’t gloat. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just an award. It doesn’t change my statistics. I still have to go out next year and do the same things.”

“It was a great honor,” Wood says. “But we’re both ready to get into this season so we’re not rookies anymore.”

An award-winning sophomore year is no sure thing. Grieve, for one, has to hone his fielding. “My arm wasn’t as strong as I’d like it to be. I picked up some bad habits, but I’ve worked on it real hard. And I need to work on my speed. I can’t do a whole lot, but I can do little things, like work on explosiveness, reading the ball off the bat, getting a good jump on it.” Wood was dogged last season by a sore elbow that kept him off the mound in September and almost cost him Rookie of the Year.

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