LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — You were reminded of just how fragile this rebuilding project will be when a fan held up a phone and posed for a picture with Mark Prior in the lobby.
Prior wore a golf shirt and dress pants, a standard look for front-office types at the winter meetings. He’s only 33 years old, an age where he should still be wearing a uniform and not transitioning into his next job as a special assistant with the San Diego Padres.
“My shoulder’s shot,” Prior said this week after confirming his retirement. “As much as I love to play, the writing was kind of on the wall.”
The cautionary tale from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort isn’t just the megadeals the Cubs are avoiding now. It’s fooling yourself into thinking all these prospects are going to hit or that you can just flip a switch.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein is exactly right when he says the kids aren’t going to magically solve all the franchise’s problems. But at a time when the Cubs don’t act like a big-market team, they’re betting everything on the farm system, with the business side selling the idea of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora to season-ticket holders.
The Foundation for Sustained Success can fall apart.
“Don’t take anything for granted,” Prior said. “You never know how long your career’s going to be, how short, how good, how bad and everything in between. (It’s) understanding the privilege and the opportunity those kids have to be sitting in that position.”
Prior delivered that message to Cubs prospects last winter, flying into Chicago for the rookie development program to help out Jason McLeod, his buddy from San Diego who oversees scouting and player development.
“Nothing’s destined,” Prior said. “It’s really what you want to make of it and things don’t always work out and life’s not fair. I think we all know that. (But) you just got to pick yourself up and keep moving forward.”
The North Side hasn’t seen a wave of talent this hyped since Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano came up to form the homegrown core of what was supposed to be an annual contender. They will have to deal with all the temptations that come with Chicago nightlife, a quirky media market and the 100-years-and-counting pressure.
“Chicago’s a different environment than a Kansas City or New York,” Prior said. “Every organization you play in comes with different responsibilities. Chicago has a lot of them. We get so focused on what we have to do on the field that sometimes you get distracted with what goes on around you.”
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At times, Prior had a prickly relationship with the Chicago media and issues with the training staff. The series of injuries fed a sense of distrust and frustration.
“I had a job, you guys (in the media) had a job and I felt like I respected that,” Prior said. “But (some) days you’re going to come off the field and you just got your butt whooped and you don’t want to listen to the second-guessing and all the questions.
“That’s just a responsibility and that’s something that you have to respect. You try to answer the questions as honestly as possible and sometimes you come off upset. But it’s being able to be prepared for those situations and understanding this is going to happen.
“Don’t be blindsided. The hype (is) just part of the animal in today’s game. It was a little bit 10, 12 years ago when I started. It’s grown exponentially since then. It’s just what a modern player has to accept and attack head-on. It’s nothing to shy away from.”
The 10th anniversary of The Bartman Game brought back all those memories in October. Yes, the Cubs were five outs away from beating the Florida Marlins and going to the World Series. But they still had what looked like a long runway with Prior (23), Wood (26) and Zambrano (22) all having their prime years in front of them.
Jim Hendry — the Cubs general manager at the time and now a special assignment scout with the New York Yankees — felt that way. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 draft out of USC had a golden right arm and was supposed to be a sure thing.
“Except for my memory of Doc Gooden,” Hendry said, “I don’t remember anybody coming in and throwing that well and that consistently in the beginning of their career like he did.
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“When I was driving to work that year, if Prior was pitching that day you just assumed you were going to win. It really was a tremendous thing as a GM. You had Wood and Prior at a young age. Z was really young and very good then, too. Naively, you think: ‘Well, we didn’t finish it off in ’03, but there will be many more of these because of the young pitching we had.’
“That just shows you how fragile this game is.”
That year Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, making the All-Star team and finishing third in the National League’s Cy Young vote. His last game in the majors would be Aug. 10, 2006.
Prior wanted it bad enough that he played independent ball and pitched on the Triple-A level for the Yankees, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds across the last four seasons. He had a blast sharing it with his family but knew it was over when the shoulder started bothering him again and the Reds released him last summer.
Prior will go back home to San Diego to be with his wife and three kids and learn another side of the game with the Padres. He says he’s at peace with the decision.
“Am I disappointed that I never made it back to the big leagues and made that complete comeback? Absolutely,” Prior said. “In all honesty, yeah. But did I actually come back from my injuries and pitch and pitch effectively? Yeah, I did.”