By Ryan Wonsowicz
As Chicago Cubs fans like myself prepare for a World Series for the ages, all eyes are on our Cubbies to win it all. The team has looked great all year and I, along with millions of others, are finally hoping to end the Curse of the Billy Goat. Even though everyone in the Windy City is in good spirits, I think October is a great time for reflection. With the likes of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta in the rotation in 2016, many people may forget about a pitcher the Cubs had in their arsenal a little over a decade ago. This was no ordinary pitcher, he was a flamethrower that struck fear in the eyes of every batter he faced. If he had not succumbed to a multitude of injuries that derailed his career, he may very well be the Cubs’ featured ace in their run to the 2016 crown. His name? Mark Prior.
Prior was blessed with extraordinary talent. His legacy began at the University of Southern California after not being able to sign with the Yankees after getting drafted by them in 1998. He played three years at USC, becoming a star as a junior. He finished the season with a 15-1 record including a 1.69 ERA. Those numbers, in addition to his 202 strikeouts, had MLB GMs salivating at the possibility of him playing on their team. The 2001 Draft came along and the Minnesota Twins had the first pick. In a surprising move, they opted to take catcher Joe Mauer first overall. The Cubs, who owned the second pick, stopped Prior’s slide. They made him their top selection and the rest is history… right? Not quite.
Prior made his major league debut on May 22, 2002. He was phenomenal, striking out ten and allowing two earned runs in six innings of work. He finished the year starting 19 games, going 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA. Those are solid numbers for a rookie pitcher, but Prior really broke out in year two. He went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. In addition to fanning 245 batters, he finished with three complete games and his first career shutout in a 3-0 victory against the Expos. However, manager Dusty Baker had Prior pitch 211.1 innings, a very high amount for such a young player. Prior was named an All-Star for the first time in July of 2003. Along with fellow young stud Kerry Wood, the two flamethrowers became a two-headed monster on the North Side. Sports Illustrated Magazine dubbed the duo “Chicago Heat” in its July issue.
Due in large part to the success of Prior and the rest of the rotation, the Cubs clinched their division for the first time since 1989. In the NLDS, the Cubs squared off against the Atlanta Braves. With the series tied 1-1, the Cubs sent Prior to the mound to face off against former Cubs star Greg Maddux. Despite the high stakes, Prior pitched close to perfection. He threw a complete game, allowing one earned run on two hits. The Cubs ended up taking the series 3-2. The series victory set up a date with the Florida Marlins in the 2003 NLCS, a seven game series that will forever be remembered in Cubs infamy.
After losing Game 1, the Cubs sent Prior to the hill for Game 2. While not as dominant as his NLDS performance, he still got the win and tied the series up. Eventually, the dominant Cubs took a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 at Wrigley Field. Prior was sent to the mound to shut down Florida and send the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945. He was in the midst of tossing another gem, only allowing three hits into that fateful eighth inning, with the Cubs five outs from advancing. But, of course, the Lovable Losers couldn’t have their way. There was some fan named Steve Bartman who interfered with a ball that came his way and a bonehead error by Alex Gonzalez, one of the game’s top defensive shortstops. When all’s said and done, Prior gave up four hits and three runs that inning and was yanked by Baker with the game tied 3-3. The Cubs’ collapse continued, as they would wind up losing that game and the series.
It seems that the Curse of the Billy Goat lingered a little longer than that eighth inning nightmare, as Mark Prior was never the same afterwards. He missed the first two months of 2004 with an Achilles tendon injury. He came back but didn’t live up to the previous year’s expectations, finishing with a 4.02 ERA. 2005 saw Prior take more trips to the DL, including a fractured elbow thanks to taking a ball to the body on May 27. Prior finished ’05 with an 11-7 record and 189 K’s, but the Cubs would miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. In his last year with the Cubs, the former All-Star was a disaster. More injuries resulted in only nine games started and he finished with an awful 7.21 ERA. His WHIP inflated from 1.212 to 1.695 and his WAR dipped into the negatives with a -0.9. For comparison, his WAR in ’03 was 7.4. He missed the entire 2007 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Prior’s days in the Windy City were officially over when he signed with his hometown San Diego Padres on December 26.
Mark Prior will forever go down in Cubs history, for better or for worse. Instead of heading to the Hall of of Fame, he’ll join a list of notable pitching flameouts that include fellow Cub Kerry Wood, Gary Nolan, Justin Thompson, Ernie Broglio, and Matt Harvey. Fans cringe when they hear these names. Prior had all the potential in the world, and Cubs fans only caught a glimpse of it in 2003. All signs point to Dusty Baker for ruining Prior’s career. Out of all the numbers listed in this article, the most important has to be 211.1, Prior’s IP in 2003. He was well overworked and it seems like the team didn’t have an inning count for the franchise’s most valuable asset since Ryne Sandberg. Who knows what the future could have been if Prior didn’t suffer those injuries? All those thoughts lead Cubs fans to the same question “What if?”.
* All statistics retrieved from BaseballRefernce.com and USCTrojans.com