Mark Prior officially announced his retirement today at the winter meetings. Sadly, this was a move a long time coming. Prior threw his last big league pitch over seven years ago and has been trying to make it back ever since, but his body just couldn't hold up.
Despite everything that has happened since the 2003 season, Prior and Sosa have remained my favorite Cubs players. I loved Sosa for the way he completely dominated the baseball landscape from 1998-2003, and that wasn't just about HRs. That's a topic for another post that I'll probably write around HOF election time. But Prior was the rising star on the first Cubs team that I followed from start of the season all the way through the end. I missed out on 98 Kerry Wood, but Prior easily stepped into that role.
Much ink has been spilled over what broke Prior. I remember half a thousand articles in Prior's first year about how he had perfect mechanics, and that coaches should teach their kids to copy Prior's motion. Somehow years later everyone was talking about the M arm motion in the mechanics dooming his health. (I refuse to use the term 'inverted W', unless it's in reference to the hilarious series of movie posters that came from this on ACB). Prior took a line drive off his elbow, and had a nasty collision with Marcus Giles that may or may not have messed things up. Dusty Baker in particular tends to have the finger pointed at him for his overuse of Prior in 2003. As pointed out by Joe Posnanski today, Prior threw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, and 133 pitches in his six starts in September of his rookie year, not to mention throwing 116 pitches in 7 innings despite the Cubs staking him to a 8-0 lead in the first three innings of game 2 of the 2003 NLCS. While I do think that this was irresponsible on Baker's part, I don't think it's what broke him (or blew game 6 for that matter). I think people are way too quick to jump on pitch counts these days and Prior was the kind of guy who could handle an outing like that, however it feels safe to say that doing it for two straight months is not a great idea. But really what it boils down to is that these things just happen sometimes, and it sucks.
I thought Poz had a pretty good comparison for Prior in his article – Mark Fidrych. Fidrych had an amazeballs rookie year, then his arm went dead the next year and that was that. I wonder what would have happened for Fidrych if his injury had happened 25 years later. It was pretty easy to leave things as 'dead arm' in the 70s and no one really questioned it. Prior, meanwhile, had every step of his rehab reported on in agonizing detail, from the endless towel drills to half a hundred inconclusive MRIs. Fans, implicitly egged on by the media, mocked Prior as a pussy for not playing through pain, a pattern we've seen continue with Jay Cutler over the past few seasons. When Prior finally gave up on rehabbing the shoulder and they opened it up, he did indeed have the painful shoulder injury that he claimed to have all along that the MRIs could never confirm.
Prior will probably stick around baseball, as it sounds like he has a job or something back in his hometown with the San Diego organization. I'll pour Stone IPA in his honor this weekend, and remember the good times that were the first six and a half months of the 2003 season.