Cub of the 2000s: Mark Prior

In some ways, the first decade of this century can be thought of as a great decade in Cubs history. After all, the team won their division in 2003, 2007, and 2008. It’s the first time in the history of Wrigley Field that three titles have been won in the same decade. It’s a level of success that we had not seen before, and surely have not seen since, either.

And yet, I can’t think of any Cubs fans who would look back on the 2000s–or is it the Aughts?–in a positive light. Yes, they captured a division title on their home field by sweeping a double header on the second to last day of the season in 2003. They also won a post-season series for the first time since the 1908 World Series. And winning four out of five from Tony LaRussa and the Cardinals to start September off that year was something special. September and early October of 2003 were, in many ways, the best time I’ve ever had as a Cubs fan.

When the Cubs were setting the rest of the league on fire in September, Dusty Baker was riding his hot hands, namely Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Remember “In Dusty we Trusty”? I sure do. So when Baker–an offensive player from an era where pitch counts didn’t exist–trotted Wood out to the mound for 122 pitches on September 7, nobody batted an eye. When Prior threw 124 pitches against the Mets on September 16th at Wrigley Field, his 8 2/3 innings of dominance overshadowed any ill effects on his pitching arm. And Prior’s 133 pitches in the first game of the division-clinching double header were just a prelude to the victory celebration that came later on in the day.

Mark Prior, in particular, was a beast down the stretch in 2003. I will forever cherish the memory of–after the Cubs had dropped game 2 of the NLDS to the Braves in Atlanta’s Turner Field–getting in the face of a Braves fan who was taunting me about the Cubs. With a swagger and a certitude that I didn’t think possible for a Cubs fan to possess, I told the gloating Braves fan that his team would face Mark Prior in game three, and I predicted a stat line that probably wasn’t very far off from the complete game, seven strikeout masterpiece that he wound up throwing. Another 133 pitches were tacked on to Prior’s regular season total of 3401, but the kid seemed invincible on the mound. Why give the bullpen a chance to mess things up?

When the Cubs moved on to the NLCS for the first time, Prior again played a big part in the Cubs’ success. He took the mound in Game 2 of the series, after the Cubs had suffered a tough loss in Game 1, and proceeded to get them back on track with a 12-3 victory. But the way this game played itself out had an ominous effect on the remainder of the series, and the Cubs’ World Series hopes as well.

The Cubs jumped out to a big early lead against the Marlins at home. Sammy Sosa smashed a Brad Penny fastball 495 feet to center in the second inning, and the rout was on. The lead stood at 8-0 after three innings, and 11-0 after five innings. There was no way the Marlins could come back from that deficit.

But here’s the type of thing that hindsight can provide. Let’s say that Baker was content to let Prior pitch five innings in order to collect the win. He could have pulled Prior after three innings–and a paltry 49 pitches thrown–but the psychological benefits of taking a win can’t be overlooked. After throwing 14 pitches in the fourth inning, and just 10 pitches in the fifth inning, Prior could have come out after just 73 pitches thrown. With the benefit of hindsight, it certainly seems like that would have been a smart move for Baker to make.

But Prior took the mound in the sixth inning, and threw 21 pitches to the Marlins’ veteran lineup. In the seventh inning, he threw just ten pitches and retired the side in order. His pitch count stood at 104 which, to any modern fan, seems like quite enough. But Dusty Baker thought otherwise.

When Mark Prior took the mound in the eighth inning of Game 2, he had a 12-2 lead. What could possibly be gained by sending Prior out there is beyond my ability to know. And Marlins backup catcher Mike Redmond–in his only plate appearance of the series–taxed Prior’s arm further in a nine-pitch at bat that ended with a base on balls. And still Prior stayed in the game, throwing three more pitches to Derrick Lee before leaving after 116 pitches had been thrown. Whether saving those extra 43 pitches from the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings would have made a difference later on is something we’ll never know for certain. But it’s three-and-a-half dozen pitches that he didn’t need to throw.

The Cubs peeled off two more victories after Game 2, and were one win away from the pennant when Josh Beckett shut them down on a Sunday afternoon in Miami. I watched that game from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was inwardly relieved that I would be back in Chicago when the Cubs won the series at Wrigley Field. How stupid I feel now, knowing how everything turned out.

In Game 6, Prior looked like his usual dominating self. When he came off the mound at the end of the sixth inning, he held a slim 1-0 lead. His pitch count was at 96, but it seems as though nobody was really bothering to keep track. The Cubs pushed across another run in the bottom of the inning, and Prior took the mound again with a two-run lead, which was all but insurmountable in those days.

But the Marlins were retired in order in the seventh, and Prior only needed nine pitches to get to the late Bernie Mac and the seventh inning stretch. Resplendent in a blue Cubs jacket, Mac warbled out “root, root, root for the champions” and every Cubs fan loved it. Yes, the Marlins still had six outs to go, but Prior wasn’t going to give up that lead. No way.

The Cubs led off the bottom of the seventh with a single by Paul Bako. Another manager might have been tempted to send up a pinch hitter in that situation, but not Dusty Baker. Prior received a thunderous ovation when his name was called, I’m sure, and he also did his job by sacrificing Bako over to second. But the seeds of the Cubs’s demise had also been sown.

When Prior took the mound in the eighth inning–now with a three run lead–he was probably on autopilot. But he was also on the verge of facing a veteran Marlins lineup for the fourth time in the game. After the first out was recorded–and I, like every other Cubs fan, blurted out “Five more outs to go!”–the wheels started coming off when Juan Pierre lashed a double to left field. We all know about Moises Alou and that foul ball down the left field line, and I’m not going to belabor this point, except to say one thing. Mark Prior, in the aftermath, left the mound and began pointing in the direction of what had transpired. And in that moment, he had his Ivan Drago moment.

Remember Ivan Drago from Rocky IV? He was a machine: a pumped up, doped up, remorseless fighting machine. He killed Apollo Creed, and didn’t seem to feel bad about it, either. But Rocky somehow landed a lucky punch on him. He cut Drago, which not only gave him hope that he could win, but reminded Drago that he was only human, after all. And so it was with Mark Prior on that Tuesday night in Wrigley Field. No longer was he Mark the Magnificent, but a second-year pitcher facing a seasoned lineup with the World Series on the line.

He returned to the battle against Luis Castillo, without the benefit of a visit to the mound from his manager to calm things down. He lost that battle by issuing a walk, and also throwing a wild pitch in the process. Clearly, the almost-robotic Mark Prior was in trouble. But Baker had no faith in his bullpen beyond closer Joe Borowski, so Prior was left in to continue the battle.

Ivan Rodriguez, who went on to become the MVP of the series, singled on an 0-2 pitch to plate the first Marlins run. And then the Cubs’ last, best chance at winning presented itself. Prior needed a double play ball, and he got one on the first pitch that he threw to rookie Miguel Cabrera. It was a bouncing ball, hit directly at shortstop Alex Gonzalez, the top fielding shortstop in all of the National League that season. And Gonzalez dropped the ball. At that moment, it became clear that the Cubs were in serious trouble, even though they still held a 3-1 lead.

At this point, Mark Prior’s aura of invincibility was long gone. And yet, a move to the bullpen could have yielded a different result. But Prior had carried the Cubs this far, and Dusty Baker proceeded to roll the dice. He had been criticized, remember, for pulling Russ Ortiz in the pivotal game of the 2002 World Series against the Angels. The Giants lost that game when Baker’s move backfired, and he likely didn’t want to get burned by a pitching change again. So with Kyle Farnsworth ready to go into the game, Prior threw one fateful pitch to Derrick Lee. And Lee didn’t miss it, either, tying the game with a double. In the process, the pennant effectively slipped through the Cubs’ fingers. It was agonizing to watch it all unfold.

All of this second-guessing of Dusty Baker’s decisions–from leaving him in during Game 2 of the series to not pinch-hitting for him in Game 6–comes with the aid of hindsight. Had he actually made any of these moves, I would have complained as loudly as anybody else. The alternate ending that I so desperately want is never going to happen. It turned out like it did, and no amount of “what ifs” can ever change that.

Mark Prior will never be made a scapegoat for what happened in 2003. He approached hero status for most of that year, and throughout the seemingly endless cycle of injuries and trips to the disabled list that came after 2003. I always rooted for him to come back and be the ace pitcher that he was in September and October of 2003. It was such a strong feeling with me that in 2012–when Prior was pitching for the Pawtucket Red Sox–I toyed with the idea of driving from Wellfleet Massachusetts to Pawtucket, Rhode Island on the off chance that Prior might be called in from the bullpen to pitch.

To make such a trip would have been 100 miles each way, but I was willing to make that drive, even if it meant I could only see him sitting in the bullpen during the game. Seeing him in a baseball uniform again would have meant something for me. But irony kicked in and sent Prior to the disabled list before I could even make the trip. If there’s a more fitting anecdote to describe Mark Prior’s career, I don’t know what it might be.

There’s no more decade celebrations scheduled at Wrigley Field after the 2000s. But as the stars of this decade–we hope–are now converging on Wrigley Field, I would offer two observations. The first is that no player–regardless of how great he looks in the minor leagues or wearing a big league uniform–is a sure thing to be successful.

In 2003, everyone knew that Prior had the look of a dominating pitcher, and his stellar career at USC proceeded him to the majors. His mechanics, we were told again and again by baseball experts, were flawless. He had the delivery, and the pitching repertoire, that would allow him to win several Cy Young awards. If any pitcher was bound for Cooperstown in 2003, his name was Mark Prior. So as great as Baez and Soler and Bryant and Russell and the rest might look now, remember that things can go south for any of them. I’m hoping they will all be big stars someday, but experience has shown that it’s not a given for anyone.

Secondly, I would suggest that 2003 has left a pretty strong emotional scar on me, and perhaps on some of my fellow Cubs fans. I didn’t buy any “2003 Divisional Champions” gear as the playoffs were unfolding, because I expected bigger championships to come. “National League Champions” and even “World Series Champions” had a pretty nice ring to it. Bernie Mac thought so, too. When the playoffs came crashing to a halt the next night, when the Marlins won Game 7 and the right to move on to the World Series, I went out and bought a silver “2003 Division Champions” baseball. I look at it to this day, not with a sense of satisfaction, but with a terrible longing for what might have been that year.

Divisional titles, whether in 2015 or any season after that, will certainly be a feather in the cap of the players and front office who who achieve them. But for a fan like me, it will be something like going back to Paris for a second time: Exciting, for sure, but probably less magical than the first time was. The 2007 division-winning Cubs team never did anything for me, and the 2008 team that seemed poised for a run at the World Series fizzled out, too. So win a division title if you want to, Cubs players, but I’ll need to see a bigger championship before I consider this rebuild to be a success.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!