Going Deep with Mark Prior
by Alan Schwarz
You think last year was a disappointment for Cubs fans? Imagine how it felt for Mark Prior.
Considered a possible (if not probable) Cy Young Award winner coming off his 18-6 breakthrough performance in 2003, Prior spent the season's first two months on the disabled list with a mysterious Achilles strain and then balky elbow. Even when he returned, the once picture-perfect pitcher looked anything but, his suddenly sketchy control leaving him oddly hittable and with a final 6-4, 4.02 record. The most promising pitcher in years had lost a lot of his luster.
Prior enters 2005 comparatively under the radar, trying to reassert himself on a Cubs team that enters the post-Sammy Sosa era relying on their rotation more than ever before.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted three days before Prior suffered an elbow injury that will likely delay the beginning of his season.
ALAN SCHWARZ: So much of last year was about waiting for you to feel healthy. Where do you stand now?
MARK PRIOR: I feel good. Obviously last year was frustrating for me. It was the first time I missed an extended period of time because of an injury. All the way from Little League. Right now just taking every day individually--not thinking about what I want to do in four or five days or a week or a month or June. I'm just coming to the ballpark every day, and setting some goals, whether it be in my bullpen or conditioning or bunting, and make sure I accomplish those things.
AS: You've had this image of being a kind of "robopitcher." Is this a positive side of your injuries, showing people that you're not made of metal?
MP: The only good side is that if something does happen, whether it's my arm or my leg, I think I'll have a better understanding of how to deal with it and a better patience level. Last year I was so antsy to get back.
The whole “I'm a robot” thing--I'm human. I get tired. My mechanics get inefficient at times. When your mechanics get off a little bit, it doesn't take much for something to go wrong. For every one of us, one pitch, one throw, anything can happen.
AS: Your injury was kind of mysterious and cultivated a lot of rumors. What was the craziest one you heard?
MP: There was a report coming out of New Jersey that I was going to have Tommy John surgery. Someone said my arm was broken. Things like that. People were so skeptical--am I done? Am I just another one of those high-profile college guys who burn out?
AS: Have you made any adjustments to your delivery because of this?
MP: No, no delivery adjustments. Mostly training. I don't do a lot of long-distance running. That, I think more than anything, is what aggravated it. Just the constant impact. I don't know if it has to do with my legs, because they're big and bulky, or the stress of my calves.
AS: Moving off the field, you finished up your business degree at USC last year. What made you do that, when there was so much else was going on?
MP: Education was very important in my family. My mother was an educator for 35 years. My brother got his degree from Villanova. My sister got her degree and MBA from the University of San Diego. It was something that was stressed a lot--get your grades. They raised me to get an education and see where it took me. Since I had only one year to finish up, I went back right after I was drafted and got a semester out of the way. I was so close then, and it was something I really wanted to do. I'm not big on starting things and not finishing them.
AS: You've described yourself as generally “standoffish” to strangers. Why do you think that is?
MP: I don't know if it's really standoffish. I'm not sure . . . it's just that I really like to listen more than speak. I like to just listen to people. It's only after I get to know them a little bit that I feel like I have something to say back. That's just the way I am.
It drives some people crazy. It drives my wife crazy sometimes. I'm just kind of a laid-back guy who's kind of quiet and tries to learn from things and move on. I don't get that excited. I'm very intense on the mound and all, and the other 24 guys in the clubhouse will tell you they've seen me very emotional. But I'm not really that much outside of that environment.
AS: Last year was your first with Greg Maddux. What did you learn from him, given that he isn't anywhere near the same pitcher you are?
MP: You're right. Situations, how handle things. Our mechanics are different, we have different bodies, things like that, but he's been in thousands of situations, and I've been in probably less than 100 in my young career.
AS: Did he tell you anything you wish you had known in Game 6 of the 2003 championship series [the game in which an eight-run eighth inning, helped by fan Steve Bartman's interference with a foul pop, essentially cost the Cubs the pennant], when all hell broke loose in the eighth?
MP: Probably just to step back a little bit, take a breath and reset. I thought I was doing that at the time, and I asked myself afterward if I was doing it. But I think I could have done more. Maybe take five or 10 seconds just to even stop their momentum a little bit. I don't think I would have changed any of the pitches we called or where I threw them. I think what it might have done more is changed Pudge's timing a bit. Maybe he would have seen me as more confident in what I was doing, and he would have been a little more on edge.
AS: You've been somewhat candid about the effects of Sammy Sosa leaving will have on this team.
MP: We're both better off. Just because of the way it ended last year, the scrutiny that it had throughout the offseason. We got a change of scenery; he got a change of scenery. In no sense do I mean good riddance. Obviously you're going to want a guy who hits 30 home runs and drives in 100 guys. Are we better off numbers-wise? We won't know until the end of the year. But as of right now, we're better off. We don't have that whole saga.
AS: Is this a pitching team now, with Kerry (Wood) and you and Carlos (Zambrano) and Greg at the forefront?
MP: I think every team has to be a pitching team. If we all get our 34 starts, I think we're going to be in a good situation. I'm not saying necessarily the best situation, but a situation we want to be in at this point.
AS: Certainly a better situation than last year or the year before.
MP: You talk about my injuries last year, but I'll tell you, what people bring up most is the Bartman game. They ask me about that all the time.
You know, it happened. It's unfortunate that it happens, but life goes on, you know? There are much more important things going on in the world than a baseball game like that. I'm not saying what I do is not important in its way--of course it is. It matters to a lot of people, me most of all. But I feel like I have to move on from things. I can't dwell on them the way other people do. If that makes me a robot in some people's minds, I'm not sure what I can do about that.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.