Commentary

Prior gets new lease on life from Padres

Originally Published: March 6, 2008
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It's not even 8 a.m. and already the San Diego Padres clubhouse is bubbling to life.

Greg Maddux, holding an Easter Egg Hunt flyer placed in his locker by a team employee, asks, "How old is too old for a kid to do an Easter Egg hunt?" With Maddux, you never know if he's talking about himself or his own kids.

At a nearby breakfast table the talk turns to Ben Roethlisberger's $102 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, followed by a brief discussion of one of the worst linescores you'll ever see: Barry Zito's recent start for the San Francisco Giants (two-thirds of an inning, seven hits, eight earned runs, two walks). Then someone starts reading from a USA Today story on the first all-electric, high-performance production sports car.

[+] EnlargeMark Prior, right
AP Photo/Morry GashMark Prior, right, signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Padres this past offseason.
"How much is it?" asks a player.

"Uh, $98,000," says the other player, like it's a bargain.

Two clubhouse TVs -- one tuned to ESPN, another to CNN's election day coverage (Maddux's choice) -- blare simultaneously. Former Padres pitcher David Wells, here to do some sports talk radio, walks through the clubhouse holding a baseball glove. Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman, already dressed for work, breezes in and out of the room. Tony Clark walks in carrying a bat and already has a layer of perspiration on his shaved head.

"Why's he sweating?" Maddux asks. "Every time I see him he's sweating."

So much is going on that you barely notice Mark Prior in the left corner of the clubhouse, a toothbrush in his hand after eating breakfast. He's already completed one workout, showered, and will report to the weight room for another session after the daily team meeting with manager Bud Black.

Of course, this is the way Prior likes it. Stealth pitcher. No daily "Prior Watch" injury updates in the Chicago Tribune. No whispers inside and outside the Chicago Cubs that he might be jaking it. It's just him, his surgically repaired right shoulder and, after six years in Chicago, his new team.

"I think it had gotten to a point where change was inevitable on both sides," says Prior, who signed a one-year, $1 million deal with additional incentive clauses after the Cubs didn't offer him a contract. "I think it was good for both sides. I'm very happy over here. Guys have really taken me in, accepted me, and I feel like I've kind of been a part of this organization almost as long as I'd been a part of the Cubs organization. It's weird to say that only being here for two months."

Weird, but true. It was time for Prior to leave. You can couch it 100 different ways, but the truth is the Cubs were weary of Prior and Prior was weary of the Cubs. Sometimes it's that simple.

Prior was once the pitching centerpiece of the Cubs organization. Selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 draft, he won 18 games and helped lead the Cubs to the brink of a World Series appearance in 2003. He pitched well in 2005, but was ultimately undone by a series of freak baseball accidents and injuries, by his own careful silence, and by an organization and fan base that got tired of waiting for him to be healthy.

"People always said, and I heard it -- not that it was whispers, it was right in your face -- 'He doesn't want to play. He's scared to pitch,'" Prior says. "If that was the case, I don't think I would have made it as far as I did and done as well as I did early in my career. You don't just show up one day and say, 'I don't want to play.' I tried to pitch through pain. I pitched through pain probably for three or four years. … Most people who watched me throw realized that I wasn't even close to throwing the way [I could] … that something's not right."

Something hasn't been right since 2003, and even then there were red flags waving all around Prior's pitch counts and innings totals. He went from 138 2/3 innings during his final year at USC to, counting the National League playoffs, 234 2/3 innings in 2003, when 29 of his 33 starts for the Cubs lasted at least 100 pitches and 22 of them exceeded 110.

That's a dangerously high number of innings and pitches for a second-year player. Prior blames no one, including then-manager Dusty Baker, for those bloated numbers and the possibility, if not likelihood, that they later contributed to his shoulder problems.

"Dusty caught a lot of grief for it," Prior says. "Dusty [was] in a no-win situation. I understand that. We're coming down, we're trying to make the playoffs. Let's be perfectly honest: Nothing against the guys that we had, but our bullpen was not as solid as a rock. We had a lot of good pitchers, but at times they were kind of up and down.

"So he was in a no-win situation as far as pitching me. I don't know if there were any internal discussions, like, 'We got to watch him.' I don't know. I wasn't in a position to say anything. I really didn't want to say anything at the time."

Since his final start of the 2003 postseason -- Game 6 of the NLCS, the Bartman Game -- Prior has won a grand total of 18 games. He's about to make his 10th appearance on the disabled list and begin his fifth consecutive season on the DL. It's always something.

In '03 it was a bizarre basepath collision with Atlanta Braves second baseman Marcus Giles. In '04 it was Achilles tendinitis. In '05 it was right elbow inflammation and, later, a fractured right elbow after being hit by a line drive. In '06 it was a right shoulder strain and then right shoulder tendinitis. In '07 it was everything. He never made it out of spring training before the Cubs shut him down.

"We could tell," said pitcher Glendon Rusch, who played with Prior in Chicago and now is trying to win a place on the Padres' roster. "I could tell just from his arm angle, just the way he was releasing the ball. … He wasn't the same guy."

The last time Prior pitched in a game was Aug. 10, 2006, at Milwaukee. As he walked from the bullpen to the dugout after his pregame warm-up, Prior passed Rusch. Rusch was the designated long reliever.

"Get ready now," Prior said.

He knew.

Prior's first inning: walk, single, walk, single, sac fly, hit by pitch, sac fly, lineout. He was gone after three innings.

"I remember looking up at the radar gun and I was throwing 82 [mph], 84, and my elbow's in my back pocket," Prior says. "You're trying to survive. [The shoulder's] just killing me."

I think to feel fully complete, the injury questions have to stop. I'm sure that's Mark's goal. And all the questions are just about his pitching and not about how your shoulder feels.

--Padres manager Bud Black

Exploratory arthroscopic surgery was performed in April 2007 by Dr. James Andrews. Andrews found damage to Prior's rotator cuff, a labrum tear and a split capsule.

Prior pulls up his right sleeve to reveal six puncture scars, or "portholes," as they're called. They don't look like much, except that Prior was in a sling for nearly six weeks and could barely raise his right arm.

He'll admit it: He was scared. Scared what Andrews would find. Scared whether he'd ever pitch again, or even be able to throw again.

"If you say that's not in the back of your head, then you'd probably be lying," Prior says.

There is no real timetable for his return, though the Padres and Prior have set a soft target date of late May, early June. He has yet to face live hitting and pitches off a mound only about once every five days.

"I think to feel fully complete, the injury questions have to stop," Black says. "I'm sure that's Mark's goal. And all the questions are just about his pitching and not about how your shoulder feels. It's about, 'What pitch did you strike so-and-so out on? What were you thinking when you got the double-play ball?' Those are the questions you want to be asked."

Prior can't wait. He was born, raised and still lives in San Diego. He could find himself in a formidable rotation that includes his former Cubs teammate Maddux, Jake Peavy, Chris Young and Randy Wolf. And if the early June return happens, guess who the Padres play at home June 2, 3 and 4?

The Cubs.

"A change of scenery is going to do him good," Rusch said. "I think it's going to end up being the steal of the year for these guys."

Prior, 27, isn't looking for sympathy, empathy or even vindication. He actually seems at peace with it all, with the injuries, the Cubs, the media scrutiny past and present.

"Day by day," he says. "I try not to get too far ahead of myself."

The Padres' clubhouse suddenly erupts in cheers. Minor league first baseman Kyle Blanks enters the room wearing a gold leisure suit, accented by a gold cape and cane. His afro is wider than home plate.

Prior looks up and starts laughing.

"That's great," he says.

Nobody notices Prior's laugh. He blends in. At last.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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