Practically nobody noticed this, but the Cincinnati Reds released one-time pitching sensation Mark Prior from his minor-league contract Friday. This is the 10-year anniversary of the Chicago Cubs’ ill-fated 2003 playoff run, and Mark Prior was at the center of it all. He even did what had been impossible to that point: He made us believe the Cubs were going to the World Series. That’s something that hadn’t happened before and — except for about three innings of the 2008 NLDS — hasn’t happened since, either.
A short story illustrates the effect Prior had on us that year. By some twist of fate, I found myself in Atlanta on business when the Cubs opened up the 2003 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves. I made it a point to go to both games in Atlanta, knowing that I’d never be able to afford playoff tickets once the series returned to Chicago.
In those pre-StubHub days, in case you’re curious, playoff tickets were sold on eBay, but through a loophole in the auction process. Selling tickets for more than face value was against eBay’s rules, but if you put an old Led Zeppelin CD up for auction, and informed bidders that the winning bid would also receive two tickets to the Cubs playoff game, that Led Zeppelin CD would then go for huge sums of money. It now seems like a different world from those days.
Anyway, back to Atlanta for a moment. The Cubs won game one, but lost game two, and the series then headed back to Chicago for game three. After the game, I was at the outdoor bar section of the bleachers known as Turner Beach, and a Braves fan started giving me an earful about how the Cubs were doomed to lose the series, as they always had before.
Rather than bow my head and take this fan’s smack, I got in his face and told him that it wasn’t going to be that way, not this time. Mark Prior was pitching in game three, I informed him, and Prior’s stat line was going to be something like eight innings pitched, three hits allowed, one run and about 12 strikeouts. I just made up the numbers on the spot, but I was supremely confident Mark Prior was going to come through. The confidence emboldened me, which was something that, as a Cubs fan, I had not experienced before. And I’ve missed that feeling terribly since then, too.
Mark Prior’s stat line for game three of the NLDS was about as impressive as I had predicted: He went the distance, giving up one run on only two hits, with a mere (for him) seven strikeouts. But he threw 133 pitches, on top of a season’s worth of overuse by Dusty Baker. And this finally caught up with him in the next round against the Florida Marlins. The less that’s said about that the better.
Mark Prior pitched three more seasons for the Cubs after the 2003 collapse, but he never regained what made him so special that season. His annual signing with one organization or another always made news in Chicago and was followed by the inevitable question of “He’s still pitching somewhere?” Whether or not he resurfaces anywhere else after this — at the still-not-quite finished age of 32 — remains to be seen.
It’s safe to say that Mark Prior won’t ever embolden anyone to make prognostications about his next start. The one time that he did this is a baseball memento I can’t wait to trade in for something better. But a decade later, I’m still playing the waiting game.