Late last week, I alluded to being on the road to Fort Wayne. The reason: I drove over 400 miles roundtrip to meet Mark Prior for coffee.
It was well worth the drive.
It has been 10 years since Prior last wore a Chicago Cubs uniform. Think about it … 10 years have passed since he last pitched in a big league game.
There’s this perception that Prior burst on the scene and disappeared just as quickly, but it’s not true. Look it up … he was still pitching, albeit at the Triple-A level, as recently as July 2013. In fact, he has been in the game for all but a few months since starting his professional career in 2002.
Now 35, Prior is in his second season as the San Diego Padres’ minor league pitching coordinator. In a nice turn of events, San Diego has a Midwest League team in Fort Wayne – and Prior was in Indiana last week to watch the Fort Wayne TinCaps play.
We met last Friday morning at a quaint little coffee shop in downtown Fort Wayne and talked for over 90 minutes. Truth be told, I am writing a longer-length piece for another entity (I do work for pay!); since I was on this company’s dime during the trip, the good stuff is going in that direction.
That said, I am allowed to use “the scraps” for my site. I’ll whet your appetite a little bit now, and then provide more from our conversation after the big story is written and submitted. But let me say this: There really were no scraps, as Prior was very insightful.
Prior had a star-crossed career, no doubt about it. He was in the majors after just nine minor league starts. In his first full major league season (2003), he was an All-Star … a bronze-medalist in the Cy Young Award voting … and a Top 10 finisher in the MVP voting. After an injury plagued 2004, his career looked to be back on the upswing in 2005 – with 11 wins and a league-leading 10.2 strikeouts per 9.0 innings. But in 2006, he threw his final major league pitch.
As we all know, there is no point to playing the “What If?” game, as it hurts too much to think about it. So I won’t ask “What if Mark Prior had stayed healthy?”
But let me give you his major league numbers. He made 106 major league starts – roughly the equivalent of three full seasons – and went 42-29 with a 3.51 ERA and 757 strikeouts in 657.0 innings of work. He averaged 10.4 strikeouts per 9.0 innings and 3.4 strikeouts per walk. His career WHIP was just a bit over 1.2. He had three solid postseason starts in 2003. And he could even handle himself at the plate, finishing his career north of the Mendoza Line (.201).
Can I ask, “What could have been?”
But injuries took their toll. Prior kept trying to come back. After multiple surgeries and multiple rehabs, he pitched in 2010-2013 before his right shoulder made him stop. All along, the dream was to get one more time on a big league mound.
Now, his role is to get as many Padres farmhands onto major league mounds. He totally sounds like a pitching coach.
“During the season, I travel around to different affiliates,” Prior explained. “With different levels and different pitchers, there’s a little bit different emphasis. With the higher levels, it’s a little bit more evaluating how close they are. Can they handle being in the big leagues? Are they potentially a call-up from an injury standpoint (to a major league player)? Are they performing at a level that’s better than what is in the big league lineup?
“At the lower levels, it’s more focused on development. Right now, we’re here in Fort Wayne. It’s our low A-ball team. Our rotation … a lot of guys were drafted last year, which is good – because we have some talented guys. Three of them were drafted out of high school, and they’re pitching in the Midwest League and holding their own quite well. But it’s challenging as well; they were in high school last year. You’re talking about guys who should be freshmen in college competing against, in some cases, guys who are 21 or 22 and went to three or four years of college. So you’re working on their development from a delivery standpoint, and from a mental and emotional standpoint … getting them used to pitching and playing baseball every single day … playing 140 games in 150 days. There’s a lot more overall teaching for our coaching staff as well as myself and the other development staff.
“So basically I travel around to all the different affiliates throughout the year. Then we have the instructional league. We have roughly 130 pitchers in the organization, give or take, and 10 pitching coaches. I try to coordinate it all together and make it run smoothly.”
Over the course of our conversation, Prior answered questions at length about a variety of topics – both on-and-off the field. He talked about his struggles with dealing with his repeated right shoulder injuries. He talked about the constant support of his wife, Heather, and how fatherhood has changed him. He talked about some of his mentors in his career transition.
He also talked about his time in Chicago – and how he wishes he knew then what he knows now.
“I was so focused on pitching, and worried about my next start … but looking back on it, I wish I went out more and spent more time going around the town,” Prior said. “There’s just so much to do in Chicago, and I hunkered down too much in my house and waited for games to start.
“Chicago is an unbelievable town, and I loved every aspect of it. Heather and I – we have nothing but positive, positive memories. I was actually talking to (Padres player development special assistant) Moises Alou about it the other day. He went back to a game in Chicago earlier this year when the Padres were in town. He was like, ‘It was really cool to go back. I hadn’t been back there.’
“I think we did an unbelievable job of changing the culture up there – and at least changing the expectations. I’m very proud of being part of those ’03 and ’04 teams. It was a lot of fun. The few times I’ve been back, there are just a lot of great memories. I enjoyed being there. I enjoyed the restaurants. I enjoyed Lincoln Park, where I lived. I plan on bringing my family back – because I want them to see it. And I need to see all the new scoreboards.”
Prior was very candid and thoughtful in his answers. Most important to me, he seemed very comfortable in his own skin – which was great to see.
And our give-and-take was fluid. As an example, during one transition, I told him that I would come back to what he had just finished saying – but that I wanted to get back to something he had earlier touched upon.
Prior: “I know. I can ramble.”
Chuck: It’s OK. You can’t tell a story in one sentence.
Prior: “I used to be able to. Then you’d be under the air conditioner in the back (of the Wrigley Field interview room) going, ‘Oh great, he’s so bitter.”
Chuck: I wasn’t used to starting pitchers with one-word answers. They usually liked to talk.
Prior: “Maybe some of the short answers were because it was 115 degrees in that little room.”
Chuck: Now, I think they have a casino in there.
Prior laughed. He looks and seems very content. In time, I’m looking forward to sharing more of our conversation with you.