I know exactly where I was the last time I saw Mark Prior pitch a Major League game and paid close attention to it. It was 2003, still two seasons before injuries would shelve him for the better part of five, and it was October. I had a week off for fall break, and I was visiting my grandparents in Florida. Earlier in the day, the Yanks had won Game 5 of their ALCS match-up against Boston to take a 3-2 lead in the series, and the evening action shifted to Chicago.
For many in the Windy City, October 14, 2003 is a day that still lives in infamy. The Cubs, thanks to Prior, were oh-so-close to the World Series. The 23-year-old right-hander, making his 33rd appearance of the season and with nearly 230 innings under his belt, carried a three-hitter into the 8th, and the Cubs had a 3-0 lead. Then, all hell broke loose.
Prior got Mike Mordecai to fly out before Juan Pierre doubled. Luis Castillo lofted a foul ball that Moises Alou seemed to track before Steve Bartman, oblivious to the game with his headphones broadcasting the radio feed, leaned over to interfere with play. While Alou later said he wouldn’t have made the catch, the Marlins had life. Castillo walked, and Ivan Rodriguez singled in a run. Miguel Cabrera reached on an Alex Gonzalez error, and after the 119th pitch of the 233rd inning of Prior’s season, Derrick Lee hit a game-tying double. Dusty Baker brought in Kyle Farnsworth, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As a Yankee fan watching the NLCS unfold, I was happy to see the Cubs go down but sad to see Chicago so victimized. The city and the team truly seemed cursed, but selfishly, I didn’t want to see the Yanks face Kerry Wood and Mark Prior three or four times in a potential seven-game World Series. Back in 2003, I kept having nightmares of a Schilling/Unit tandem but in Cubs’ uniforms. Be careful what you wish for when it comes to baseball, I learned.
After that game, the Cubs and Prior faded into and out of my baseball conscious. Over the next two years, he put together some mighty fine peripherals with a K/9 of 10.3 and a K/BB rate of 3.06. But he couldn’t stay healthy. He threw just 285.1 innings over two seasons and lasted just 43.2 disastrous innings into the 2006 season. He hasn’t made a Major League appearance since August 10, 2006, and has tried rehab and comebacks with various organizations and independent league teams.
This year, as we know, Prior is with the Yanks on a minor league deal. He’s 30 now and is hoping that he can restore himself to some semblance of use. He’s being considered strictly a reliever, and anything the Yanks get out of him at any professional level is a bonus. Still, I’m pulling for him. Of all the Yanks’ spring training invites, he’s the guy I most want to see succeed. He’s finally with the organization that drafted him in the late 1990s, and he’s basically pitching for the only career he’s ever known.
Over at LoHud tonight, Chad Jennings takes us inside Mark Prior’s arm. The one-time ace has pitching with a torn shoulder capsule a few years ago. Surgery can’t fix it, and he’s hoping it will hold up. “They’re trying to compare what I am today to maybe what I was in 2005 when I was last throwing the way everybody probably remembers me throwing,” he said to Jennings. “I can’t do it. I can’t compare it. I’m not the same person.”
Yet for all of his trials and tribulations, Prior seems to have a good attitude about him. He’s working to find his stuff, locate his fastball and stay healthy. So far, he’s emerged unscathed through one bullpen session, which might be more than anyone expected this early in the spring.
The Yanks, for their part, have a feint glimmer of hope in him. “I definitely think the stuff is capable, and I definitely think it’s there,” Larry Rothschild, Prior’s former Cubs pitching coach and current Yankee boss, said. “Is it what it used to be? Probably not. It’s kind of like apples and oranges, but I definitely think it’s good enough to get guys out, absolutely.”
So I’ll cheer for Prior and hope he can give something, anything, to the Yanks this year. Even a handful of appearances would be more than what he’s done in the past. It would be a great comeback story indeed.