Mark Prior and Me: A Life Story

December 11, 2013 – 2:58 am by Hickey

prior

Mark Prior retired from baseball on Tuesday, which probably goes somewhere on this year’s list of top “No sh*t, Sherlock” moments. Prior hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2006, though he has attempted multiple comebacks throughout the years.

The end officially came in a hotel lobby at baseball’s Winter Meetings, where Prior told St. Paul Pioneer Press Twins beat writer Mike Berardino he was officially through after blowing out his shoulder during his most recent career revival with the Triple-A Louisville Bats.

That’s how it ends. A casual conversation with one reporter in an Orlando hotel lobby.

If you were there at the beginning, you’d never believe it.

*****

I was there at the beginning. Before the beginning, really.

It was May 21, 2002, and Mark Prior and I were just two of the dozens of bodies crammed into the Wrigley Field media room. And we were crammed. “Room” may be too generous a descriptor of the interview area located deep in Wrigley’s bowels. “Luxury broom closet” would probably be more accurate.

The small space is tucked down an unassuming side corridor. Across the hall they stacked the bags of fertilizer used to keep the field looking like one of America’s baseball gems.

I was less than two weeks on the job as an intern, and this was by far my biggest assignment. A veteran reporter turned to me and said, “This is the biggest press conference I’ve seen in this town since Jordan’s retirement.”

“Which one?” I asked.

“The first one.”

He wasn’t kidding.

The room felt more like a packed nightclub where there wasn’t even enough space to swing your elbows, albeit one filled with balding, paunchy men rather than beautiful women. (On the plus side, there were no douchey spiky-haired guys covered in Axe, although Axe had not yet been invented, so — well, on with the story).

My job merely consisted of plugging a cord into the mult-box — a device used to give you direct access to the press conference sound system so there aren’t a million microphones in front of a guy’s face — but I probably spent 90 percent of the presser making sure that thing didn’t pop out. This was shaping up to be a seminal moment in Chicago sports history, and damned if I was going to screw the pooch.

I can’t really remember what Prior said. His interviews were much like his pitching style — purely mechanical. But I knew that this would likely go down as one of the most significant moments of my journalism career even if it was before my career actually started.

I took one other thing out of that press conference. I thought Mark Prior’s sideburns were cool. I decided I’d grow some too.

I was a 20-year-old intern. Prior was a 22-year-old phenom. For both of us, it appeared the sky was the limit.

*****

The next night, Prior lived up to the hype. In six innings against the Pirates, he allowed four hits and struck out 10. The Cubs had found their cornerstone.

Though the 2002 Cubs were a particularly awful squad, Prior’s introduction to the world stuck out in my internship experience. This was definitely meant to be my life’s pursuit. Given our similarity in age, I figured maybe by the time Prior’s career was over, I might work my way up to a full-time gig covering a big-league beat. A full-circle type of deal.

In the meantime, I could just enjoy his growth from the perspective of a fan.

The 2003 season delivered. For the first time since I was 7, the Cubs were division champions, and Prior was one of the biggest reasons why. He was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in his first full major league season. Could it get any better?

Yes, it could. Who better to have on the mound going into Game 6 with the Cubs on the verge of their first pennant since 1945? I even called up my internship boss in the press box during the seventh-inning stretch.

“Can you believe they’re actually going to do this?”

From there, everything started fading to darkness.

The defining moment of Prior’s career would end up being that fateful eighth inning where everything unraveled. I had taped the game, though within 24 hours that VHS would be thrown onto the sidewalk from a third-floor window. All other details are lost in a haze of Wild Turkey.

I do remember the day after Game 7. I was walking to class when I spotted one of my buddies smoking outside the student union at our beloved Indiana University and stopped to commiserate with him. Actually, it was more him cheering me up.

“We’ve got Prior and Wood coming back next year,” he said. “This is only the beginning.”

*****

For Prior, 2004 was the beginning of the end.

He missed the first two months of the season due to injury, and never found his form until late September. That development boded well for the Cubs postseason hopes, but multiple doses of LaTroy Hawkins out of the bullpen in the last two weeks of the season killed that on the launching pad.

For me, ’04 opened as a year of great promise as well. I was feeling good about my career prospects, as an interview with Sports Illustrated seemed to confirm that only wonderful things lay ahead. Then May turned into June turned into July. It wasn’t until early August that my career’s first step would take place, and it was far from the Big Apple — a decaying Illinois town where two of the three buildings sharing a street corner with the newspaper were abandoned and the other was a crackhead apartment building where the SWAT team once showed up.

It’s not quite the scene I envisioned as an intern, but it was a start. Like a ballplayer, I figured working your way up to get to the big leagues was the best way to prove yourself.

*****

Prior’s 2005 season actually started in April, and the Cubs seemed poised to wipe away the disappointment of their 2004 finish.

If only.

On May 27, Prior was hit in the pitching elbow by a Brad Hawpe line drive. He’d be on the DL for a month.

In 2006, Prior’s season wouldn’t start until June 18. Once again, the anticipation for his return was high. I even made a trip to Peoria to see one of his rehab starts.

But it clearly was not the same Mark Prior. Upon his big league return, he was rocked on a regular basis until his final start on August 10. That outing — a mere three innings against the Brewers — marked the last time he’d set foot on a Major League mound.

*****

After he was let go by the Cubs, Prior would spend time with the Padres, Red Sox Rangers, Yankees and Reds organizations. But he never stayed healthy enough to return to the majors. And so a career that opened with such a fury ended in a hotel lobby. No jostling for space. No need to keep an eye on the mult-box. Just a simple conversation between two people.

My own career has progressed on a similar arc. I got a taste of my dream as an intern on that June day and the rest of that summer, but the moments where it has manifested into reality have been few and far between. I’ve topped out at the Double-A level of journalism. Like any minor leaguer, I know there’s a chance I’ll still get called up to the show. There’s still a few good years left in this brain. But I also recognize that financially and emotionally I am rapidly approaching the same point Prior must have when he decided he’d fought the good fight as long as he could. It was time to move on from the dream to something else.

For me, maybe the dream will still become a reality. If not, at least I can take comfort knowing that Mark Prior and I walked into the same room on the same day believing that anything was possible.

Sometimes life just has other plans.

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