August 10, 2006. The Cubs traveled to Milwaukee and lost 8-6.
Mark Prior started for the Cubs and went 3.0 innings, allowing six runs (five earned) on four hits and four walks. When he came off the field after the third inning, it was the last time he walked off a big league mound.
I was at Miller Park that day. How could I – or anyone else, for that matter – know that it would be the last time we would be witnessing him pitch in a major league game?
Ten years ago. Wow. Hard to believe 10 years have passed since that fateful day.
Several weeks ago, Mark and I reconnected. I traveled to Fort Wayne, IN, to meet him for coffee – and to help him shape thoughts for a first-person narrative. Mark is now the San Diego Padres’ minor league pitching coordinator, and he was in town to watch the organization’s Midwest League A-ball team play. We talked for quite some time, and have spoken several times since then.
My biggest takes:
I wrote a little bit about the Fort Wayne conversation after that trip – and I promised that I would share more of his insights after his narrative posted.
Chuck: How has family life and fatherhood changed you?
Mark Prior: “Honestly, I think my kids have brought me out of my shell more than anything. When they came to visit me in Tampa or Ft. Myers or Scranton, you had to find things to do with your kids. We’re from San Diego; there’s golfing, there’s the beach, there’s things to do. Scranton … we went to a dairy farm, we watched cows. That’s not something I would have done at 22. The point is, thanks to the kids, they get you out of the house and force you to go do things. And Heather was so supportive. I tried for years to get healthy and get back on the mound. Heather – it goes without saying how much she supported me in my effort to come back and pitch. She’s been with me through everything. We’ve been together 18 years – through high school, college, pro ball, surgeries, independent ball. She’s seen it all.”
Chuck: I imagine going out and touring Chicago was probably something you didn’t do a whole lot of, right?
Mark: “The reality is … no. I didn’t appreciate Chicago as a city when I was there. At 21, 22, 23 – I wasn’t going to do the architectural tour on the river or the museums. I never went to the lake, stuff like that. It’s not to say I never did anything. 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, I wish I had gone out and spent more time around town.”
Chuck: What’s it like when you go to a minor league city and your team is playing a Cubs affiliate?
Mark: “I get recognized more here in Fort Wayne – especially when we’re playing the South Bend Cubs – than I do in San Diego, which is great. I’m not going to lie and say when I look out and see the blue uniform … that there isn’t some sentimental or emotional feeling. I spent six years of my life as part of the Cubs’ organization. I don’t think my kids always get that I played baseball. My daughters understand that I’m on baseball cards and they’ve seen some video of me playing – random highlights, things like that. But in San Diego, I can go to the Little League field and it’s not a big deal. You’re just dad. You just want to be out there and have fun with him.”
Chuck: It must be cool to take your son to the ballpark. Do you think about him following in your footsteps?
Mark: “I love being able to share things with my son on a level that I didn’t get to share with him as a player. Bringing him into the clubhouse, doing all of those things. I get to take him into my office or take him into the front office. I get to take him into the batting cages in spring training. I’m very conscious that I don’t want to push him. He loves the game. This year, the light bulb has gone on. He wants to watch games. Really any sport, but he really loves baseball right now. I don’t want him to feel any pressure that he has to play baseball. I just want him to be a kid. I want him to enjoy playing soccer or baseball or basketball or whatever he wants to do. I don’t try to teach or coach. I just want him to play.”
Chuck: You became a minor league pitching coordinator at 34 years old – which is very young for a pitching coordinator. What did you think when the Padres offered you that position?
Mark: “My first year with the Padres, I was part-time. I’d work, then go home. I went to spring training. I came and saw the affiliates. I took an actual family vacation. And then when the new regime came in … I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I had an opportunity to see what’s happening behind the scenes, and I liked it. I’m intrigued by it. There’s definitely a balance between work and baseball. It’s a game that requires a lot of constant attention, and it’s not a 9-to-5 job. I knew that I wanted to be part of the game, and I felt like I could be impactful somewhere in the game. When they offered me the coordinating job … it was one of those things. I didn’t see myself at 34 – that wasn’t on my plan of attack, or life plan – but understood and was humbled by the opportunity they were entrusting me with. And this is what I want to do. I want to be part of the game. This is where most of my life has been. I want to be involved in it.”
Chuck: Do you allow yourself to look long term, or are you taking this year-by-year?
Mark: “I think whatever gets presented to me, I’m willing to evaluate it and see if it’s the best route. If something were to come up in the front office, I can see myself taking that path. If something comes up in coaching, I can see myself taking that path. I always tell this to people when they ask … I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into player development, or front office, or scouting. If there’s a need, and somebody thinks that my skillset fits that need, then let me go attack it. I think I have the ability to do different things, vs. always being a coach or always being a scout or always being a front office kind of guy. I’m definitely not a master of everything or anything, but I think I have the ability to learn the different skillsets needed to do whatever job is asked. I’m pretty much open to anything. The main thing is to focus on what I have to do right now. I love being around it, I love impacting kids, and I love trying to make something better than it was before.”
Chuck: It feels like your career was over in a flash, but you had some outstanding numbers during your time in the majors. Obviously, you wish you could have pitched a lot longer – but are there things you wish you could have accomplished?
Mark: “I wish I hit more home runs. I’m still trying to get the video of my one home run. I would have loved to have won a championship. I obviously would have loved to have gone to the World Series. I’m bummed that I didn’t get to pitch in the All-Star Game because of the collision with Marcus Giles. It goes without saying that I would have loved to pitch for 10 more years, stuff like that. I accomplished a great deal in 2003, winning 18 games, but I guess it would have been cool to win two more games and say that I won 20 in a season. I know I won 20 if you include playoff games.”
Chuck: I know it took a long time for you to watch Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins. What goes through your mind when you think about that game?
Mark: “I never really dwell on it. People talk about it. If that play doesn’t happen, do we win? Nobody knows. I think it’s hard to make that conclusion. Does it give us a greater percentage? Maybe. I don’t know. Looking back on it, being naïve at 23 years old was probably a good thing. I couldn’t tell you what my mental state was after that play. I honestly can’t. I know people say I got rattled or somebody should have come out and talked to me. I’ve watched the game. I was dealing. And I’d been doing that for two and a half months at that point – where I’d gone deep 7-to-8 innings in a lot of pressure situations. People fail to remember that we won the division by one game. So to say I was 23 and got rattled … I might have been, I’m not saying I wasn’t. But to make the conclusion that somebody should have calmed me down. I didn’t feel rattled. The next pitch I yanked. It was a wild pitch. I get that. The 0-2 breaking ball I hung to Pudge (Rodriguez) – I want to kick myself over that. And then Derrick Lee yanked an inside fastball at 95; it wasn’t a bad pitch. I got the ground ball, but Alex (Gonzalez) didn’t make the play; he had made a lot of great plays all year. You look back on it, and it was an unfortunate series of events that didn’t go our way. That’s life.”
Chuck: You seem much more comfortable now than you were when you first came up. It’s nice to see.
Mark: “I think I’m much more open and honest now than I was 15 years ago. Some of that has to come with age … growing up. At the end of the day, it’s me and my family. I realize that there are people who are going to like you in this world and there are people who don’t like you. You’re not going to make everybody happy. At 21-to-25, everybody wants to be liked. But I think I’m much more confident now than I was back then. I was much more measured in my responses. Back then, if I gave up a 2-1 fastball homer to left-centerfield and lost the game, what did you think I was going to say 20 minutes after the game? I wasn’t happy about it. I think now, if I was in the same situation at 35, it would probably be like, ‘Hey, it happens.’ I think I took every negative, every defeat … I took it so personally. It was a big event for me back then. Now, I think I would probably shrug it off more and say it’s part of the game. Again, it comes back to your perspective on life. We make mistakes, and we make adjustments based on experience.”