Mark Prior was the reason I actually showed an interest in the MLB Draft, and I was immediately in love with the man. As a dumbass 16 year-old, I was concerned that I loved another man, but for Prior, it was totally worth it. This is a guy that pitched 138 innings, yet managed 202 strikeouts while walking just 18 batters during his Junior year at USC. He went 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA.
The Cubs had the second pick in the draft, which was a huge bummer, because there was no way that he wouldn't go number one overall. But I heard rumors that the Twins were considering not taking him, because of signing bonus demands. I had no idea that teams took cheaper players instead of the best players, so this was a huge shock to me. But I was overjoyed with the news. I remember thinking how badly the Twins shit the bed when they took a local catcher named Joe Mauer. What idiots.
But their loss was the Cubs gain, as the Cubs quickly snatched Mark Prior with the second pick. This was going to be awesome, as the Cubs could pair him with Kerry Wood and the next Pedro Martinez, Juan Cruz, and have the best 1-3 starters in baseball history.
He started his professional career in 2002, where he pitched in nine minor league games, striking out 79 batters in 51 innings, before getting called up to the big league roster. Nine games. In a perfect world, that would have been the extent of Mark Prior's time in the minor leagues. Instead he would pitch 64 games in eight different seasons over an eleven year span. This is not a perfect world.
He made his debut on May 22, 2002 and fulfilled even my insanely high expectations. He pitched six innings, had ten strikeouts, and got the win against the Pirates that day. He cruised through his rookie year with 147 strikeouts and 38 walks in 116 2/3 innings. He was only 21 years old.
In 2003, Mark Prior may have been the best pitcher in baseball. He only came in third in the NL Cy Young Award voting, but that was because Eric Gagne pitched one inning really well, and nobody knew that park factors could help a pitcher like Jason Schmidt while hurting a guy like Prior. The only thing that hurt Prior that year was some shoulder soreness in July, but it was no big deal. He had perfect mechanics, and he came back stronger than ever. At the end of July, he was 8-5 with a 3.01 ERA, and still finished 18-6, with a 2.43 ERA, struck out 245 while walking 50 in 211 1/3 innings. He went 10-1 while lowering his overall ERA by over half a run down the stretch. He wasn't just great; he was getting better.
And then there's the 2003 postseason. And everybody remembers Bartman, but that doesn't matter. What matters is 133, 116, and 119, the number of pitches Prior threw in the postseason after his first big league year. That middle number was thrown in a game the Cubs won 12-3. The cubs were already up 11-0 after five innings, yet the Cubs kept sending him out there until finally taking him out when he was unable to retire the first two batters in the eighth. I hated Dusty Baker for a long time as I looked back at those numbers, because I felt robbed. Mark Prior would never be fully healthy again.
But just because he wasn't fully healthy doesn't mean he still wasn't pretty damn good. He struck out 327 batters in 285 innings in 2004-2005. He still looked like Mark Prior but nothing was quite as crisp, and he couldn't consistently dominate like he used to. Also, he spent a lot of time on the disabled list. In 2006, the wheels came off. He had a 7.21 ERA in nine starts. The Cubs shut him down after an August 10 start against the Brewers where he gave up five runs in three innings, while striking out only one, the opposing pitcher, Doug Davis. It would be the last time he ever pitched in the major leagues.
He didn't pitch at all in 2007, 2008, or 2009. But in 2010, he pitched for the Orange County Flyers of the Golden Baseball League, striking out 22 in 11 innings with a 0.00 ERA. The Rangers gave him one minor league inning to end the year, and I still believed that he could be a valuable asset to a big league team. But it wasn't meant to be. When he pitched, he did well. From 2011-2013, with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Reds minor league affiliates, he managed an ERA of 3.66 while striking out nearly 12 batters per inning.
Unfortunately, over those three years, he only managed to pitch in 46 2/3 innings.
It is easy to look at Mark Prior's career and call it a failure. Mark Prior may even agree with that sentiment, as he stated when he retired, "I have no regrets. I did everything I could. I left it on the field, gave everything I could to it and came up short."
I agree with everything in that statement except for the very end. I'm glad he has no regrets, and this is a man who did everything he could, left it on the field, and gave everything he had to baseball. But he didn't come up short. He was a hero, and even though I was a legal adult during his greatest year, every time he pitched, I had the awe of a child. I know I'm not alone in that sentiment. And because of that, the name Mark Prior will stick with me forever.
Some may remember him as nothing more than a cautionary tale. I will remember him as what greatness truly looks like. Either way, he deserves to be remembered. Mark Prior for the Hall of Fame.