Can Prior still save the Cubs?

By Se Young Lee

I’ve always kept to myself a short list of pitchers that I would be willing to watch in person regardless of the circumstances: I paid more than $40 a couple summers ago to watch Johan Santana, probably the best pitcher in the league today, obliterate the Yankee lineup in a box seat at the atrocity that is the Metrodome.

Pitchers like Santana seem to render the game and all of its complex strategies and statistics into an art. They dart in and out of the strike zone, baffle even the best hitters in the league and create a sense of certainty and order. As someone who has seen his share of frustratingly sloppy games, I can say that I appreciate their ability to simplify the game in such a dramatic and masterful fashion.

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Mark Prior used to be on that list of maestros. But now, he is nothing but a sad story. With the news that he will be out for the entire 2007 campaign, Prior’s chances for a long, successful career – never mind a chance for the Hall of Fame – seem all but gone, thanks to a brittle body that has put him on the disabled list nine different times in his six years as a professional player. It has been reported that Prior received surgery for his shoulder, during which injuries in the labrum and rotator cuff were found. Very few pitchers ever recover from damages to those particular parts.

It is remarkable how quickly he rose to stardom. Granted, the Cubs were ready for a new messiah to lead them to the Promised Land when he debuted in 2002; their previous god incarnate, Kerry Wood, could not deliver the Cubs to even the playoffs other than in his spectacular rookie campaign in 1998. But Prior burst into the league less than a year after he was drafted by the Cubs and right away looked destined for greatness. His stuff was electric, with an arsenal of lively fastballs and devastating breaking balls that pronounced doom for opposing batters who had the misfortune of having to bat against him. Talking heads around the country began arguing whether Prior would be able to reach 300 wins, the hallowed mark of excellence, before he retired.

The 2003 season seemed like the year Prior would become a god. Teamed up with a resurgent Wood, Prior carried the Cubs to the very doorstep of the World Series – only to be crushed by an Alex Gonzalez bobble on a double play ball in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series that should have advanced the much-maligned franchise against a showdown with the Yankees. The Cubs were unable to recover, losing Game 7 to the Marlins.

And then, everything fell apart.

The Cubs narrowly missed the playoffs in ’04 then fell apart in ’05 along with Prior’s arm. Achilles tendon, “loose shoulder,” a line drive off the elbow all conspired against the right-hander who was once anointed as the shepherd of Cubs Nation. Dusty Baker, who is often blamed for Prior and Wood’s demise by leaving them on the mound for extended innings to counteract a weak bullpen, seemed to be praying for the two one-time phenoms’ return to form. But the renaissance did not come; Baker was replaced by Lou Piniella, who moved on by anointing Carlos Zambrano, the new flag-bearer, his ace and two hired guns in Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.

It still baffles me to this day how such a promising career fell apart so quickly. Perhaps the strain of a pennant race and the weight of the dreams of Cubs fans to see a championship were too much to bear.

I hope that I will be able to see Prior back in his masterful form some day. But something tells me that all Cubs fans and I will be left with are memories of his brilliant run in ’03. He seems destined to become another fallen hero to add to the myriad tragic lores of the Cubs franchise: A maestro whose dreams ended in failure and disappointment, then betrayed by his own body.

Se Young Lee is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]