Monday, August 3, 2009

Mark Prior: From perfect to unemployable, just like that

The Bald Truth

Before he ever threw a big-league pitch, Mark Prior was heralded as a once-in-a-generation talent. He had the size, the demeanor, the poise, the mound presence, the intelligence, the command and the maturity of legend. And oh, did he ever have the stuff.

His mechanics? Perfect. One expert after another said that with his mechanics, he'd never get hurt.

When the Twins passed on him to draft their hometown boy, Joe Mauer, they were ridiculed for being stupid, cheap or both. (I guess now is as good a time as any to say their decision has turned out OK.)

The Cubs gave Prior such a huge signing bonus after they selected him in 2001 - $10.5 million - that it's still a record today.

Think about that. Think about how salaries in sports - baseball especially - have escalated. And yet this guy's bonus of eight years ago remains the gold standard.

The first time Mark Prior pitched for the Cubs, it was obvious he had "it" - that special something separating the superstars from everybody else.

Fans had such high expectations for him that I took to calling him Messiah Mark. Some ripped me for "making fun" of Prior, but the more observant readers realized I was poking fun at the worshippers, not the faux deity. (Besides, I liked how Messiah Mark Prior sounded. Kinda rolls off the tongue, no?)

He went 18-6 in 2003, his first full year in the majors. In the second half of that season, he was 10-1 with a 1.52 ERA. He was simply the best pitcher in the world, A SURE THING.

Prior continued to shine in the postseason and was only five outs away from a shutout victory that would have vaulted the Cubs into their first World Series in six decades. Though he, like his teammates and manager, choked away that game, his potential obviously was limitless.

More than a few surveys of GMs, managers, scouts and sportswriters concluded that, after old-timers Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine reached the 300-win plateau, it wouldn't happen again until Prior got to 300 some 15 or so years down the line.

Then came the injuries. One after another after another.

As the injuries piled up, experts began blaming flaws in his pitching mechanics for his plight. Some were the same experts who just a few years earlier had said his mechanics were perfect.

Many fans who once worshipped Messiah Mark suddenly were all over him. Baseball people, including some in the Cubs organization, were calling him a wimp.

He didn't know the difference between soreness and injury, they said. He had a low pain threshold. He was too selfish, too worried about his next contract, to man up.

What a wuss!

I wasn't Prior's friend or fan - that's not my job - but I did feel sorry for him, and I said so in several columns back then.

I didn't feel that way because of his ailments. After all, injuries are part of sports. And certainly not because the money train had stopped pulling into his depot. With the millions he made, he should be set for life.

No, I felt sorry for him because total strangers were questioning his integrity, passion, manhood and will to compete. These idiots somehow felt qualified to look into his brain and his heart. It wasn't until the surgeries began that people finally acknowledged: "Hey, you know what? This guy actually might be hurt."

As it turns out, he threw his final big-league pitch in 2006. The Cubs let him go a year later. The Padres signed him. More surgery followed. Last week, Prior was cut loose.

He is a 28-year-old has-been.

Although it has anything but a happy ending, his is among the most interesting stories of recent times. The cautionary tale to end all cautionary tales.

Whenever some young gun is compared to the all-time greats, I always think of Mark Prior.

And whenever a team drafts the next Can't Miss Kid, I say: "Hey, if Messiah Mark can miss, anybody can."

The Balder Truth

Pirates rookie Andrew McCutchen was so incredible Saturday - 4 hits, 4 runs, 3 HRs, 6 RBI - that he was honored as Future Red Sox Or Future Cub Of The Day.


I promise. I'll never capitalize the "w" in Dewayne again.

The White Sox media guide lists the now-famous Perfect Game Preserver as DeWayne Wise. So do the lineup sheets and press notes that the team publishes on game days. But Wise says he wants the "w" lower-cased.

His wish is my command: Dewayne Wise, it is.

By the way, I really would have been impressed had Wise preserved a perfect game for Mark Buehrle on Sunday against the Yankees. Considering that Buehrle allowed seven runs on 12 hits in 4 1/3 innings, the Sox would have needed about 14 Dewaynes on the field (and maybe a couple on the other side of the outfield wall).

You know, there's only one word to describe this latest Buehrle performance: aWful.

1 comment:

  1. Mark Prior's story is sad, indeed. He was so much fun to watch and seemed to have it all. Talent, good looks (yes, that did not go unnoticed!), maturity, and did I say talent?. And, now he's done. I truly hope he had a ball while he was playing because oh man, it just doesn't seem fair. Sigh.