As I walked to Wrigley Field on Tuesday, May 22nd, 2002, this Soul Asylum song was not in my head. The night was not about Promises Broken, but simply about promise itself. The Cubs had a lackluster team in ’02, but this night in late May gave hope to the throngs of Faithful at Wrigley and watching on television. The baseball world held its collective breath to see what would materialize. The game was the lead story on the Mike and Mike radio show on ESPN the next morning. Rarely do poor teams, even the Cubs, garner such national attention in the middle of a pitiful season, but as Mark Prior strolled to the mound that evening, the nation’s eyes were upon him. As many of you know, Prior was the most heralded rookie pitcher in years and after the well publicized flops of Ben MacDonald and Todd Van Poppel, among others, everyone wanted to know if Prior would follow suit. A year and a half later, Prior finished the 2003 season 18-6 and a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He had established himself as one of, if not the best, young pitcher in the game. The Cubs went to the playoffs, Prior was dominant and then, well then there was a pop fly heading down the left field line and since that moment neither the Cubs nor Prior have ever been the same.
I recall many of the stories told and articles written about Prior in his first year and a half in the majors and it appeared they were already building his wing in Cooperstown. Now I, like many, was right on board with this plan and was donating supplies for the construction. A dominating fastball, a wicked curve and an insane ability to paint the black whenever he wanted. After Game 3 of the NLDS in ’03, Maddux, the losing pitcher, said,
“He can place the fastball, and when you can do that, it is the best pitch in game.”
Sometimes I think back to the way I felt leaving Wrigley that night and smile. He was the real deal and he was a Cub. Twins fans would be kicking themselves for an eternity due to drafting Joe Mauer over Prior. He was mature, and he was smooth. He had the tools, the mechanics and the drive. Though I am a fan, I never assumed it would turn south, not this kid, he was special.
Three years later Joe Mauer is the reigning AL Batting champ and Mark Prior been the Fantasy League Disabled List Champion for three years. Cubs fans have learned to guard their optimism with this young man while hearing report after report of a sore shoulder or bad tendon. Every time he made progress, a line-drive happened or a freak stretching accident happened, it seemed as if he could not catch a break.
Reports then started surfacing about his heart and his desire and whether or not his teammates trusted him or his ability to pitch through pain. The man with the “perfect mechanics” could not keep himself on the field. Every March, we wait for the report to break and for Prior to be flying to Alabama to see Dr. Andrews. And year in and year out, that is exactly what happens.
When everyone was ready to give up, Prior strolled to the mound last season and no-hit the Mets for 6 innings before leaving….with an injury. I do not question his ability or his heart. I do not know the man so I am in no place to question his character. Cubs fans, Jim Hendry and the Organization have waited patiently for the past three years, hoping he would find himself once again. Even through the injury plagued seasons thee have been spots of brilliance like the Mets game. These flashes provide hope to some while we pray he returns to glory. This season it appears that he understands his plight more than ever and must do whatever it takes to shake the injury bug and prove the naysayers wrong.
As the 2007 season begins Mark Prior knows the eyes of a baseball nation are upon him once again. Bounce back and the lauding will be endless. Fall back and a once-promising career may be all but done. No one goes into the season with more questions to answer or more to prove than Mark Prior, I really hope it turns out “Just Ducky.”
Feel free to contact me at email@example.com, and until next time….
Stay Classy Cubs Fans