In 2003 I left the sweltering heat of Tucson, AZ with my degree from the University of Arizona in hand, a car filled to the brim with all of my possessions and no future plans except one. I was moving to Chicago. Mrs. Left Coast Bias, then Ms. Left Coast Bias, was a resident of Chicago and love being an intoxicating drug (and a degree in Creative Writing not opening a ton of doors), giving it a go in the big city seemed like just the thing. So off I went.
In 2003, the Cubs were entering the season after coming off a dismal 5th place finish in 2002. But there was reason for hope in 2003. Two years prior, the Cubs had signed the largest draft pick contract on a USC Golden Spikes Award winner. He was considered as can’t miss as a young arm could possibly be. Prior to the 2001 draft, Baseball America had this to say:
“All the superlatives come out when Prior’s name is mentioned in coaching and scouting circles. He dominated hitters with a 94-97 mph fastball with exquisite location on both sides of the plate, and outstanding command of his quality breaking ball. And it all happens with a free, easy, effortless delivery.”
The “free, easy, effortless delivery” was in part what made Mark Prior so coveted. And seem so safe. Of course, we know better know.
Living on the Northside of Chicago in 2003, it was easy to get swept up in the excitement the Cubs were generating. As a baseball fan (unless you are a White Sox or Cardinals), the Cubs run in 2003 appeared to be destined for the history books. They had as good a 1-2 punch in Prior and Wood as any team could ask for. For Prior’s sake he was phenomenal. But that skillset, coupled with the Cubs push for the division, made it awfully difficult to monitor Prior’s innings, or shut him down completely.
That arm helped take the Cubs to within 5 outs of the World Series in 2003. After returning to Chicago up 3-2 on the Marlins, with their starting rotation set-up to throw Prior and Wood if needed, the Cubs and their fans were making World Series plans. I wanted to be part of the atmosphere so I made my way to a bar in Wrigleyville. A bar that typically had no cover was suddenly $20 with $100/hr minimums to sit at a table. It was easily breaking fire code ordinances for occupancy. No one cared.
Of course, you know what happens next. Bartman, Gonzalez, Alou, a Marlins comeback and a devastated Wrigleyville. I was at the epicenter and I’ve never experienced anything like it. Thousands of fans milling the street, nearly silent save for a random F-bomb from here and there.
I was enamored by Mark Prior that season. I got to watch him a lot and the delivery, that devastating curveball, the plus fastball. He was must watch television. 3 years later Prior made his last professional start, not that anyone knew it at the time. Mark Prior hasn’t pitched since 2006 as injury after injury plagued one of the most promising careers of any pitcher I had ever seen.
The why of Mark Prior’s career will likely never be determined. He had a few freak injuries (line drives off the arm, collisions with Marcus Giles) and never-ending shoulder injuries that may have been due to overwork (Dusty Baker), mechanics or just simple bad luck. Twice he tried a comeback with the Padres, both times signing incentive-laden deals. Both times, further tears and shoulder injuries kept Prior from pitching at Petco Park.
This week, as the Winter Meetings were just getting started, Mark Prior officially retired from baseball. He’s career a cautionary tale for organizations across MLB regarding the handling of young pitchers. How cautionary? From MLB-SI:
In 2003, at age 22, Prior made four starts of 130 or more pitches in 33 total starts between the regular and postseasons. In 2013, there were just four such games in all of the major leagues in 2,469 regular and postseasons games — none by a pitcher under the age of 25.
Mark Prior supposedly will find his way into the San Diego Padres front office in the very near future, joining Trevor Hoffman in the pitching braintrust the Padres are acquiring. It sounds like he will be in a “catch-all, do everything” role and given the chance to learn from the inside. I hope he finds success in baseball. I root for him today as I did 10 years ago in a bar in Wrigleyville.