Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Enigma That Is Mark Prior

Mark Prior is no Ted Williams.

In the winter after the 1959 season, Williams offered to take a voluntary pay cut because of his poor showing the previous season. Williams poor performance during the 1959 season included a career low batting average of .254. Williams was embarrassed by his performance and despite 17 seasons with a batting average in excess of .300 (three of .400 or better), Williams volunteered to play for less money. He felt he had cheated Red Sox ownership.

By contrast, in 2006 Mark Prior suffered through an injury riddled season and appeared in only 43.2 innings over nine games for the Cubs. He went 1-6 with a 7.21 ERA. Even so, at the end of the 2006 season, after already earning $3.65 million for his 2006 performance, Mark Prior asked for a raise.

When Mark Prior was selected as the #2 pick overall in the 2001 draft by the Cubs, he was considered a “can’t miss” prospect. He had already pitched for two years at USC, including his junior year in 2001 when he led the Trojans to the College World Series.

It was said that Prior had perfect mechanics. Stories circulated about his work with former MLB pitcher Tom House that made House sound like a mythic figure who had “created” the perfect pitcher.

Prior joined the Cubs in 2002 after a whirlwind tour of the minors. He pitched in 116.2 innings that year, earning a 6-6 record and a 3.32 ERA. He was only 21-years old.

The 2003 season would only add to the huge expectations the Cubs (and the fans) had for Prior. The Cubs made the play-offs that year and came within five outs of going to the World Series. Prior had a magnificent season, going 18-6 with a 2.34 ERA. He pitched an impressive 211.1 innings, giving up only 50 walks compared to 245 strikeouts. Prior was a horse that year and the Cubs (particularly manager Dusty Baker) rode him for all he was worth.

With five outs to go in the 2003 NLCS, the wheels came off for the Cubs. They ended up losing the NLCS to the Marlins who then went on to win the World Series. Probably the most famous play of that sixth game of the NLCS is the infamous “Bartman play.” Coincidently or not, Prior threw the pitch that eventually became the “Bartman ball.”

Fate took a cruel twist in Prior’s career after that game. He suffered several injuries over the next three seasons and spent a great deal of time on the DL. Some of the injuries were obtained in the heat of battle, such as when a line shot off the bat of the Rockies Brad Hawpe hit Prior on the arm. But there were other injuries too, like when he strained an oblique muscle during batting practice (yes, batting practice) and when he was diagnosed with a “loose shoulder.” To my non-medical mind, a “loose shoulder” sounds like a symptom, not a diagnosis.

Because of the odd types of injuries Prior has had and the number of times he has been on the DL in the past three years, fans have turned on him. They’ve questioned his desire to play and his commitment to the game. Others have questioned his toughness and his durability. And many have questioned his character. Which brings us back to Ted Williams.

By offering to play for less money after suffering through a sub-par season (at least by his standards), Ted Williams showed a tremendous amount of character. He showed that he expected more out of himself and he showed that he understood that his employers expected more out of him. He took personal responsibility for his poor performance and offered to make up for it by accepting less money.

What did Mark Prior show when he asked for a raise after his horrible 2006 season? At first, I just wrote it off as “that’s baseball in the 21st Century.” Even if that is true, it doesn’t excuse Prior’s request. If Prior had taken personal responsibility for his poor performance, if he had acted with strong character, he wouldn’t have asked for a raise.

Mark Prior is an enigma. It is difficult to really get your hands around him. He lacks character, but he was a hell of a competitor in 2003. He has pitched horribly over the past year, but he still shows a ton of potential. He’s washed up, but he’s only 26-years old. For every negative thing you can say about him, Prior has a positive characteristic waiting just around the corner.

When it was announced at the end of Spring Training this year that Prior would start the year at AAA Iowa, he said that he’s just an employee and it was now his job to go help his team win. He also joked about making the AAA all-star team and said maybe he would be chosen to pitch in the Futures Game.

Even his comments are enigmatic. I don’t know if he’s being a jerk or just making a joke. In a way, I guess he’s doing both.

Mark Prior is young, talented, and has already proven that he has the stuff to be a dominant pitcher in the big leagues. He has also proven that he is injury prone, has a sense of entitlement, and has been unable to duplicate the form he showed in 2003.

As a Cubs fan, I would like to see Prior return to dominance. As a baseball fan, I’d like to see him live up to his potential. As a human being, I’d like to see the hardships Prior has endured over the past few years help to build some character in the young pitcher. That’s a tall order for any player, but if Prior needs a role model, he might want to take a look at Ted Williams.


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