Prior changes for the better away from the game

Prior changes for the better away from the game
September 9, 2013, 9:30 pm
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The name Mark Prior evokes a wide range of emotions in Cubs fans who remember his meteoric rise to dominance that nearly helped lead the Cubs to the World Series in 2003, as well as the sudden decline in his other worldly stuff that ended his career as quickly as it had started.

I recently caught up with the former superstar and we touched on a variety of topics, including why he believes the Cubs have not won a title in more than 100 years. In spending well over an hour with him, I found a drastically different person than the Mark Prior I knew when he was one of the game’s brightest stars, playing on a Wrigley Field stage that was drawing nationwide attention.

The Mark Prior of 2003-2005 was laser-focused on the task at hand and was, at times, tough to approach. As his career unfolded, he became distant from the media that covered him on a daily basis and as he started to deal with the effects of injuries he became withdrawn and moody. That was a far cry from the gregarious young man that I met shortly after the Cubs drafted him in 2002 out of the University of Southern California.

Prior, by his own admission during our extensive sit-down, became bitter as his career was sidetracked on numerous occasions by injury. The Mark Prior of today, however, is a much happier person despite not reaching the meteoric heights everyone in baseball projected for him. When he looks back he says he does so without any bitterness and he says his regrets -- other than not winning a World Series with the Cubs -- are personal in nature.

"I never went to the museums...I never did the architectural tour. Certain things I should have experienced as a person that I wish I did [in Chicago]. I think it goes back to, you're so focused on every fifth day. And so, I think at times I was so focused on just getting to the field and getting my work in that I didn't take the time to enjoy some of the other things," Prior said. "So those things I regret as off the field as a person.  I've tried to enjoy that more even in Scranton, Pawtucket, Louisville, do things with my family that people in those places do. There are a lot of great things in this country and I want to experience as many of them as I can especially with my family."

Prior was open and honest in our conversation and he told me that he looks back on his days in Chicago with a lot of great memories.

“I don’t think I regret anything else. I went through a stage where I think I was bitter. There were some things that obviously transpired a couple years through there that I think jaded me a little bit. It took me some time to kind of get away and understand that it does nobody, it does me no good. I want to be upbeat and positive. So, I look back and think about all the good things. Ya know, I think about heck, I even think about getting line drives and collisions and there are a lot of things that have happened. And that's basically what I told the kids when I spoke to the Cubs top prospects last winter in Chicago,  I said look, you don't know what tomorrow's going to bring. I was one of the biggest names in the game and it ended far too quickly. You never know what your future may hold,” he added.

Prior has attempted numerous times to keep his career going signing with the San Diego Padres, the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds but each time he has had to deal with injuries or a shortage of space on the major league roster. But each time he pitched and on every stop along his journey he says he has enjoyed the experience and the opportunity.

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So after injuring his shoulder again last April while pitching in the Cincinnati Reds organization, Prior is still unsure if he should walk away from the game he loves or give it one more try. In fact, despite being 32 years old, Prior still wants to leave the door open to pitch even though he knows it will probably never happen for him.

"I don't know...I never say never. The last few years have actually been a lot of fun. I know that some people don't understand that, but the last couple years have been fun playing baseball. It has been in Triple-A, but it's been a lot of fun with my family with me. To get back to just playing, this year was going well and I blew out again. I think what draws me back is every time I get back, and I'm pitching, I pitch well. So, I know I can get guys out. And so, right now I'm just kind of sitting back and trying to enjoy some family time during the summer for the first time in a long time, before they go back to school. And we'll see where I transition in to. I love the game. My passion for the game is still there. I think that people who have been around me understand that.

“I love being around the younger guys, trying to kind of help them along the way. I think that's the one benefit of my career, which has been a great career -- maybe not what everybody had scripted, but that doesn't bother me, because very few people make it to the big leagues. Very few people have success in the big leagues, but, I've seen a lot of different aspects that people haven't. I've seen the big leagues. I've been an All-Star. I've been in independent ball and anywhere in between. So, I enjoy sharing my experiences and if they can help people along the way and help them in their careers, that's what it's about. That's how the guys were when I came up. Fred McGriff, [Kerry Wood], [Joe] Girardi, those guys showed me what it was like to be a professional and I want to give back to other players what they gave me.”

When Prior came back to Chicago last January it was the first time he had been to Wrigley Field in six years. But when the call from Cubs vice president Jason McLeod came inviting him to speak to a collection of Cubs prospects, Prior jumped at the opportunity.

“There was some people who were high draft picks, and some low draft picks, and they're all prospects. I basically told them this: All of you or none of you will make it or might make it. You don't know. The only thing you can do is prepare and make yourself ready so that you put yourself in a position to be successful. I felt like I did that for the majority of my career. Injuries derailed me. No secret about that, but that's life. And, I just wanted them to understand that the position that they're in is a very fortunate position. Whether you make it or not, there's tons of people who would love just the opportunity to play Single-A ball or Triple-A ball, let alone make it to the big leagues with this organization in this city," Prior said. "And so I was just trying to deliver a message: Get you're work in. Be responsible. Be professional. Enjoy it. But don't take anything for granted.”

When I asked Prior if he took it for granted, he told me that he never took for granted the effort and commitment it took to be a big league baseball player, but he did take his career for granted.

[MORE: Spoiler role not a fit for the Cubs]

“Because I thought that I'd go on and pitch for 12, 15 years. And at the end of the time I'd count my wins and strikeouts, but that's not how my career ended. My life is outstanding. So, I'm not bitter at all. I was trying to get these kids to understand, you're not defined by everything that you think your career will be," he said. "Just go and work hard. Be responsible. Have some fun. And just leave it all out there. Don't leave anything behind, because you don't want to look back and regret: I should have done this or should have done this more. You know, I should have been better. I should have paid attention more. You don't want to have that. It's an unsettling feeling to have.”

When I asked Prior why the Cubs haven’t won in so long, he spoke like a man who wants to be a general manager someday, like a man who has a plan for building an organization.

“The older I've gotten, I've understood the day-game philosophy a little more. I just think that more than any one thing, they just haven't found the right pieces to the puzzle. And, I'm a big believer that you have to have a philosophy and stick to it, and you can't deviate from it. I've never run an organization, but you have to develop players. You have to have a core set of guys which I think they're starting to do. If something happens, you can't try to change your philosophy midstream trying to right the ship. You have to come up with a game plan and stick to it. It's not always easy, but I just felt for me like we changed," Prior admitted. "We went from being the lovable losers. I felt that 2003 really changed the culture of accountability. We were demanding a team. And, I just wonder if we got a little sidetracked in trying to go New York Yankees-style and 'let's go buy a championship.' It doesn't work. People forget, the Yankees had four or five, six guys that were core guys.

"You're going to have to add free agents and you're going to have to add pieces. But you're going to have to come up with a philosophy of how you want the game to be played, what are going to be your strengths and stick with it. I think overall, from everything that I see, I don't follow them that closely but it seems like that's kind of the direction they're taking. I think a lot of its just luck. Sometimes you've got good teams and sometimes you've got bad teams. Sometimes guys have great years, and then the two guys you thought were going to have great years have bad years. I mean, I threw huge wrenches into the plan when I got hurt. You have to have 1,000 innings out of your starters, and a couple of those years I gave them 60 [innings]. Injuries really hurt us through the 2004-2006 years. I know I hurt them. So, I don't know if there’s a right way or wrong way. I know that certain teams have found the right way or a more consistent way. I'm not saying that's the best way, but I think, to me, there needs to be a plan and you have to stick to it.”

[MORE: Does minor improvement in record mean anything for Cubs]

When I asked Prior what he thinks Chicago will be like when the Cubs finally do win a World Series, he lit up like a child on Christmas morning.

"I don't think you can describe it. You're just going to have to wait and see what it's going to be like. A lot of emotions: rejoice, gratitude, people being happy and definitely some tears of joy," he said. "It's going to be something to watch. Absolutely. The town is definitely going to have to shut down for a few days. I think being a Cub is on par with being a Red Sox, or being a Yankee, or being a Phillie...but in a different way.

"When you're part of a storied franchise, an organization...for good or for bad. I think about the guys that they were there, they stayed around the organization. For me to say that I've played for the Cubs means a lot. When I went back to Wrigley in January that was the first time I went back in six years. And, there's a lot of emotions that come back. You spend a lot of your time there (Wrigley). It's a place that's not going to go away (hopefully), it's going to change and it’s going to adapt but it's some place that you can always probably call home. And, that you would hope you're welcome there, to always come home. I look at it that way.”