Farewell to Mark Prior

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After the Chicago Cubs’ season came to an end in late September, I had a quiet October and a nearly silent November. The George Kottaras acquisition, and whatever other non-moves the Cubs have been making in the offseason, haven’t mattered to me. Trade Jeff Samardzija to the Miami Marlins for a bag of baseballs, for all I care. But one story I couldn’t let pass without some comment is the retirement of Mark Prior.

From the beginning, Mark Prior stirred up news inside the Cubs organization. The Minnesota Twins had the first shot at drafting him in 2001, but they weren’t going to pay what he wanted, so the Cubs drafted him instead. And if you didn’t know the guy Minnesota drafted instead of Prior was Joe Mauer, you know now. At one time, it appeared the Twins got the bad end of that deal.

Mark Prior had the Cubs on the verge of the World Series in 2003, then things went horribly wrong. (1045theteam.com)

Prior was rushed to the big leagues in 2002, and his biggest play early in 2003 didn’t occur on the pitcher’s mound but on the base paths at Wrigley Field. In a game against the Atlanta Braves, Prior collided with Marcus Giles while running to second base, and was upended in the process. He came back after missing a few starts, and, in September and early October, was as dominant a pitcher as I have ever seen. It seemed as if Superman pitched for the Cubs and wore number 22 on his back.

Then came the terrible night of Oct. 14, 2003. I still remember the date, and imagine I always will. My now 10-year-old daughter was an infant sitting on my lap when I told her the Cubs had to get five more outs to get to the World Series. Prior was on the mound, dominating the game as he always did. And then, well, I’ve replayed the next 10 minutes or so in my mind several times. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn he has, too. He didn’t give up all eight runs that half-inning, but it felt like he gave up the National League pennant on that night.

From there the injuries started, and they never did go away. After taking a Brad Hawpe line drive off his pitching shoulder in May 2005, he never again was Mark Prior — at least in the 2003 sense of the term.  His 2006 struggles were hard to watch, and his departure from the Cubs — after not playing at all in 2007 — was the end of a most unfortunate chapter in Cubs history.

But still there was hope he would return to the majors one day. In 2012, I found myself on Cape Cod for a week, and I toyed with the idea of spending a day driving to Pawtucket, where Mark Prior was playing in the Boston Red Sox farm system. I reasoned that just the sight of Prior in a baseball uniform would be worth the trip, whether he pitched or not. Before it could come to that, the Red Sox announced Prior was being put on the disabled list with — what else? — arm trouble.

This past season, Prior signed a minor-league deal with the Cincinnati Reds. Perhaps it was Dusty Baker’s guilty conscience for all of those terribly high pitch counts down the stretch in 2003. Yes, Prior was once young and strong and as mechanically perfect as any pitcher in a long time. But going to a well over and over eventually causes the well to run dry, and Prior’s right arm is proof of that.

Prior didn’t make it back to the majors with the Reds, or with any of the other organizations he signed with through the years. It’s comforting, perhaps, that Prior never threw a pitch in the majors for anyone other than the Cubs. We Cubs fans can forever claim him as ours, at least. It’s a laughably small consolation — after everything else we thought we could get with him — but in the end, that’s all we have.

I wish Mark Prior all the best in the next stage of his life, both inside of baseball and out. And I hope someday there will be a pitcher who can take the Cubs even farther than he did.

And with all that said, it’s back into hibernation for me.

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