Thursday, January 15, 2009

Towel Boy

I was watching a little bit of the new MLB Network the other night and a small item amongst the scrolling news items at the bottom of the screen caught my attention. Mark Prior has signed a minor league contract with the San Diego Padres. I felt my stomach do a small dip and roll to the left.

My opinion of Mark Prior remains that he is a coddled prima donna, who never appreciated the adoration of the Chicago Cubs fans who forgave him for melting down in the Bartman game, and were exceedingly patient with him as he bumped from injury to injury and couldn't seem to stay on the mound for any length of time.

Of course, the patience wore out and we all grew very tired of seeing nothing of Mark Prior other than the occasional "towel drill." (Are towels provided at the minor league level, or is it BYOT?) Nothing was helped by his extremely defensive and curt attitude as people began wondering if perhaps Mr. Prior did not have the mental toughness and pain threshold necessary to be a major league pitcher.

My girlfriend hates Mark Prior, but she wasn't paying that much attention to the Cubs in 2003 (the "Pre-Tim" or "Golden" Era) and doesn't remember how good he was. She never saw the Greg Maddux-like precision combined with the Curt Schilling-esque power. He would hit the outer corner with a two-seam fastball, blow another fastball by up and in, and then buckle the knees with a twelve-to-six curveball for strike three.

It was beautiful. It was effortless. The man had tree trunks for legs and drove all of his power through his lower body. This was supposed to cut down on arm injuries that are inherent in the "slingers" like Kerry Wood. Wood absolutely blew his arm out because all of his action was going through his arm and elbow, but Prior was supposed to be different.

Cub fans romanticize about Kerry Wood because he was likable and he had absolutely nasty stuff. But the fact of the matter is he never won more than 14 games or had an ERA lower than 3.20 in a season. The love was all based on potential and the glimmers of greatness and domination that we saw in games like his 20 strikeout game as a rookie. (Normally, the links I provide are not necessary, but you should really watch the video link of the 20K game - that is a baseball he is throwing, not a whiffleball.)

Mark Prior has no signature game where he absolutely dominated. No one talks about a singular game by saying, "I was there when Mark Prior..." He simply went out every start and mowed guys down. He finished 18-6 in his rookie year with a 2.43 ERA. He finished third in the Cy Young voting and ninth in MVP voting (most votes for a starting pitcher that year). To Cub fans, he was what everyone had hoped Kerry Wood would be.

In the end, he did end up mirroring Kerry Wood, but unfortunately, that is not a good thing. He couldn't stay healthy, and the fans started to turn on him.

The Cubs didn't help anything by being less than honest about the severity of his injuries. Cub fans needed a secret decoder ring to be able to determine what the Cubs meant when they announced the status of a Prior (or Wood) injury:

  • "Missing a couple of starts in Spring Training" = Gone at least until Opening Day

  • "Staying behind in camp to get tuned up" = Will not pitch until May at the earliest

  • "We're not going to rush him back and risk re-injury" = Might possibly think about considering a return after the All-Star break

  • "There has been a slight setback in the recovery" = Done for the season
Wood owned his injury troubles and came out and said on numerous occasions that he felt guilty for being paid so much money for doing nothing on the field. When his bloated contract ended, he could very well have gone to another team that was willing to take a risk and pay him exorbitantly despite the injury history, but he stayed with the Cubs for less money.

Prior went the other way. He avoided the media or got surly when questioned about his durability. He lacked Wood's charm to be able to deflect the tough questions, and withdrew from the fans even more.

Even so, when Jim Hendry tried to trade Prior to the Orioles for former MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada and up-and-coming lefty ace, Erik Bedard before the 2005 season, the Cub fan base went crazy. They were dying for either Prior or Wood to live up to their potential. At the end of his time with the Cubs, the fans would have traded him for me and been happy about it.

Prior never was relevant on the mound again. He hasn't pitched in a game since August 2006 and has undergone two shoulder surgeries since. His replica jersey hangs in my closet and mocks me because I actually believed in Mark Prior. I thought he was going to be the ace that could carry the Cubs to the top of the mountain.

Instead, all we did was learn more than we wanted about the towel drill and the technical difference between a "strained" and "torn" tendon.



1 comments:

chester said...

Couldn't agree more. Prior is a jerk.

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