Thirty teams comprise Major League Baseball. Each franchise is made up of a 25-man roster. That adds up to the best 750 ballplayers in the game.
Each season, Baseball pushes the pause button for its annual All-Star Week. The break celebrates the best and brightest stars with a week of events that culminates with the All-Star Game played between the American and National Leagues.
Last season, Cliff Lee and Travis Wood were each selected to represent their teams (the Phillies and the Cubs) for the National League All-Star Team. Think about that for a second. Two men who both grew up in Saline County, not ten miles away from one another, were selected as the best in baseball and representatives to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
Major League Baseball’s Opening Day has come and gone, and hope springs eternal once again. You dust off the old sweat-stained ball cap of your favorite team and start planning your nights around those moments when you can catch just a few innings of the game.
Baseball is a long season, more a marathon than a sprint. There will be highs and lows, but like most of us, you’ll hang with your team every step of the way. That’s what it may be like for us fans, but what about the players? You know… the guys we’re actually tuning in to watch? For them, they’ve already been at this for months, and with the regular season now in play, it’s time to get down to business.
And like you, we’ll be watching closely the seasons for Saline County natives Cliff Lee and Travis Wood.
For the Philadelphia Phillies’ Lee (Benton), the walk-up to Opening Day has become old hat. Starting his 13th season, the 35-year-old has amassed a stellar career with stops in Cleveland, Texas, Seattle and Philly. In that time, Lee has won 139 regular season games, has seven post-season wins and has claimed the AL Cy Young Award in 2008.
To put it simply, he’s a staple in the League and as a member of the starting rotation with the Phillies in 2014. In fact, he led baseball in 2013 in strikeout-to-walk ratio and walks allowed per game. His year-to-year consistency often finds Lee listed among the game’s best pitchers.
By contrast, Wood’s career is still getting started. After an incredible start to his 2010 rookie season with the Cincinnati Reds that included a near-perfect game against the Phillies, Wood has found a new home with the Chicago Cubs.
In his first full season with the club last year, Wood went 9-12 with a 3.11 ERA, but his mother, Dena Wood, recalls her favorite moment coming not on the mound, but during an at bat in a June 1 game against the Cubs’ cross-town rival Chicago White Sox and Jake Peavy.
“His grand slam has been my favorite memory so far,” she said. “You’d think it would be something he’s done pitching, maybe almost getting that perfect game, but it was that grand slam last year that I immediately think about.”
Wood appears to be ready to make his mark with the Cubs’ starting rotation. He recently signed a $3.9 million contract for the 2014 season. But for mother, Dena, she is still all nerves when her son takes the mound. “I’m constantly amazed and nervous,” she said. “I’m never able to sit down and watch a game where he’s pitching and not get nervous. It’s crazy.”
The career paths for Lee and Wood seem to mirror one another in remarkable ways. Both were standout athletes for Benton and Bryant, and Benton High School head baseball coach Mark Balisterri says both possessed a unique skillset often coveted in the game.
“They were both left-handed and could both throw 90+ mph when they were in high school. When Cliff was young, we would have 20 to 25 scouts at every game he pitched. You saw the exact same thing with Travis, when we played against him. Radar guns would come out every time he would pitch.”
The two Major League pitchers share the same agent and a mutual love of the outdoors. They work out together in the offseason, but Dena Wood says the two rarely talk about baseball. “Most of the time when the two of them are together they’re talking about hunting,” she said.
With almost ten years separating the two pitchers, it’s not unusual to learn they never played together on teams as amateurs. But what’s even more impressive and unique is the day the pair’s individual paths finally led them into the same clubhouse and on the same team. It just happened to be with some of the best players in the game today.
“Watching these two grow up, you knew there was something special about them,” said Mark Balisterri. “But to think that Cliff would develop into one of the best pitchers in the game today, and Travis would become one of the top up-and-coming pitchers would be far-fetched.
“These two guys were tremendous athletes,” he added. “I think Travis could have made it as a position player in Major League Baseball, too. You can see that by the way he hits the ball. Cliff was clearly the best athlete in high school, not just baseball. He could just do anything.”
Balisterri added that while outsiders see an achievement like the All-Star selections as incredible, many in Saline County may take Lee’s and Wood’s accomplishments for granted because the two are hometown guys. Two people who don’t take the recognition for granted are Travis’ parents, Jay and Dena Wood.
“It was so exciting when we saw that (Wood) had been chosen for the All-Star team; to realize that he did this,” Dena Wood said. “It was surreal going to New York to watch him. We got to see him in the parade. We also stayed the same hotel with the players.”
Dena Wood also recalled enjoying breakfast and lunch in the same restaurants alongside the baseball greats. “They were eating right next to us. Mariano Rivera with the Yankees was eating at the table right next to ours.”
Travis Wood didn’t see any playing time during the 2013 All-Star Game at CitiField in New York. Lee gave up one run in one inning of work. In the end, the American League won a 3-0 shutout over the National League.
Fast forward to the present day. Both Lee and Wood are back at it, gearing up for their upcoming 2014 seasons. Each will have a new set of goals and expectations from their respective clubs.
Lee will be trying to help return Philadelphia to its past postseason glory under new manager and former Chicago Cub second baseman Ryne Sandberg. Wood will likely still be in the Windy City, working to remove the tag “Lovable Losers” from the Cubs.
They’re both tall orders for these two Arkansans. But, if they are able to hold up to past form, and maybe get a little lucky, we’ll being seeing these two again in July when the 2014 All-Star Game is played at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Wouldn’t that be cool?
Note: Not to be forgotten, Detroit Tigers’ Torii Hunter from Pine Bluff was selected to the American League All-Star Team. The selection was Hunter’s fifth to the All-Star Game.