Mark Prior retired earlier in the week. Among his career accomplishments, he finished third in the 2003 National League Cy Young Award voting and pitched the Cubs to within six outs of the World Series in the same year.
Unfortunately, 2003 became an aberration in Prior’s career. Freak injuries and shoulder ailments detoured and derailed something promising, but the one unquestionable year of his dominance clouded my judgment, granted me delusions of baseball grandeur. He violated me in a (don’t worry there’s no “SVU” tale of horror here) way athletes violated fans for untold years: Mark Prior made me nonsensically optimistic about his career.
Right, that mindset is problematic of most Cubs fans. Hope for the best, bring your bugle and smile to the ballpark, unwrap a few Hebrew Nationals, pop some Old Styles. Who cares if the home team’s bullpen goes caput and the leaded-footed third baseman runs the team out of an inning? Chin up. The crowd needs you to sing in the bottom of the seventh. Yell “woo” to the homeless man with nice teeth who attempts to amp-up the crowd. Instruct the ushers to watch their step as they move from row to row. Traverse the landmines of piss in the restrooms. Llet’s play two. We’re here to have fun and if we grab a win along the way, that’s pure gravy.
2003 ruined such contented ignorance for a large number of fans (read: me). Success seemed fun. Sustained success seemed like more fun. And with the possibility to win the World Series? Well sign me up. Man, those Yankees, Cardinals, and Braves fans sure seemed to enjoy baseball in the fall. Maybe the Cubs could give it a try, seize an opportunity.
Prior became the face of such an opportunity. Don’t let the fingers-to-lips lips-to-chest divas or “K” signs around Wrigley Field of Wrigleyville fool you, Prior was the ace, the stopper, and the future of the organization. Wood might have been a mascot, Sosa a clown, Prior was legitimate. Things seemed…promising with him.
The future met unforeseen circumstances, notably Marcus Giles’ botched Doomsday Device on Prior and the line-drive he took off his pitching elbow. The former occurred in 2003, the latter in 2005. Both were bad-luck occurrences, only to serve as potholes in comparison to the sink hole that was his shoulder problems.
Through it all I maintained a happy ignorance. Prior could overcome them all. Never mind the inordinate pitch counts he compiled in 2003 and the extended work he did in the post-season. Did you see how he struck out the side and stressed his pitch count to only eleven in the inning? He was in total control on the mound. No wild streak that came to exemplify Wood. No padded-room actions of Zambrano.
A return to form always seemed possible for Prior. Was it his dominance in 2003? Could it have been his mechanics that were often called flawless, or the pony kegs impersonating calves that gave his pitches such velocity and movement? No way could either of those two components lead to his injury. He arrived as ready-made. Those saps in Minnesota couldn’t afford Prior. They had to settle for some catcher in their backyard. The financial resources of the Cubs had to be rewarded. He was a finished product! He could overcome anything! He had a rocket for an arm! Sorry, Frank Costanza somehow found his way into this piece.
Or so I thought. I treated him with the optimism of the Royko quote where Cubs fans are branded with the logic of, “Of course, if Dawson gets hot, and Sutcliffe comes through, and…Pa see what you did to me?” Such logic awarded Cubs fans 42 wins in five seasons.
Prior became the boiler plate for Cubs hypotheticals, and to a lesser extent, Major League Baseball hypotheticals. He never returned to dominance, taking all of my delusions with it.