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Mark Prior in the present tense

Former big league ace has found virtue in quest to return to the Majors

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The sun is hot on top of a hill in San Diego and the house is white, so white that it looks perfect. A late-model 1990s sedan stops in the middle of the quiet street in the old neighborhood lined with Spanish-style super-casas, mid-century modern showpieces and other glittering fortresses of privilege.

The men in the sedan, who are probably in their 40s, are not close enough to the house to see the sculpted tufts of grass or the doormat marked by the letter P, but they gaze with curiosity through the open garage door and get a good look at the folks who have just exited the family Range Rover. The father is a tall, athletic-looking guy with sunglasses resting atop his brown hair. His wife is a pretty, fit blonde. The two little girls and one little boy who are rustling about look more like their mother -- light hair and blue eyes. They're smiling and laughing and waiting for the next bit of fun in a busy day. The mom ushers them into the house for snacks while the dad lingers.

"Hey," the guy riding shotgun calls out. "Can I ask you something?"

Mark Prior is waiting on his next opportunity to try to make it back to the Major Leagues. (Jon Polmar/Special to MLB.com)

Nine years ago, the man who's about to answer this question was famous. He was a phenom, towering above baseball from the 10-inch-high Major League pitcher's mound. Already a Cy Young Award contender at 23 years of age, and -- paramount to his devotees, the beleaguered Chicago Cubs fan base that had not experienced a World Series championship since 1908 and a World Series appearance since 1945 -- a limitless, blazing 6-foot-5, 230-pound manifestation of rekindled hope aflame.

He doesn't hesitate. He's not taken aback by the request. He's comfortable and happy to oblige neighbors or strangers looking for help. Even though he lost one of the most infamous games in baseball's last half-century on that cool Tuesday night in Wrigley Field in October 2003, nobody recognizes him anymore. Not here, at least. Maybe in Chicago, but not here in his hometown, the place where he's at peace.

Nine years. It's seemed like a long time, having not pitched in the big leagues since 2006 because of one injury or the next one or the bunch after that. It's seemed like a short time, watching his kids grow up so fast, watching as he and his wife evolve as parents and adults now in their 30s, settling into much quieter days in a world where expectations have new meaning. It's no longer the All-Star Game or the World Series or the Hall of Fame here on top of this hill. It's waking up every morning, really early, and trying to do the right things. Trying to get back to the Majors.

These days the questions are less about him and more about Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, another phenom from San Diego, another guy who's had arm problems. Everybody wants to compare them.

Nine years. Maybe it hasn't seemed a day shorter or longer than that at all. Maybe it's that simple. Who knows? Like with everything else that's happened, why bother trying to figure it out anymore?

"Sure," Mark Prior says, emerging into the glow of the late November afternoon. "What's up?"

"Well, I've never seen a house so white. How do you keep it so white?"

Prior laughs a bit. He wasn't quite expecting this.

"Well, it's pretty new. We've only been here 11 months."

"Still, man ... wow."

"OK, I'll let you in on my little secret," Prior says with a smile, walking closer to the car, looking just as comfortable in a rumpled red T-shirt, cargo shorts and sneakers as he did nine years ago in that flawless white pinstriped jersey with the C over the heart and the No. 22 on the back and the blue sanitary socks pulled high over those celebrated, gigantic calves.

"I paint a different section of it every day."

The men in the car shoot him a quizzical look.

"I'm kidding," Prior says, and the three men laugh together before the car pulls away.

Mark Prior walks back to the white house that looks perfect but isn't, because nothing is. He opens the door and goes inside to his family.

 

 

***


"Sometimes expecting a good thing is more pleasurable than actually experiencing it. Consider the hours blissfully spent daydreaming about an upcoming vacation -- we get our money's worth before we even board the plane."
-- Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (Vintage Books, 2012), p. 110

 

 

It's 8 o'clock on Tuesday morning at the University of San Diego's practice football field. Mark Prior has arrived and he's staking out territory on the sidelines in silence. He's carrying what looks like a lacrosse net, pulling colored balls and a white towel out of a gym bag, and setting it all down onto bright green artificial turf. Prior doesn't look like he's aged much in the 10 years since he first appeared on a Major League mound. He doesn't mind pointing out the handful of gray hairs above his sideburns that catch the early-morning light.

 

Prior is working out every day in San Diego, throwing, lifting and staying in shape. He's healthy and hungry. (Jon Polmar/Special to MLB.com)

He's greeting his throwing partner, right-hander Stephen Penney, a skinny, red-headed tree of a 25-year-old. They crack a joke about their shared agent, John Boggs, and his glorious, immovable head of hair. They're making a plan. Maybe they can push it more than they did yesterday. They'll see where the workout takes them. So far there's not a baseball in sight.

The pitchers stand and stretch. Unleashed endorphins and the fast-twitch migration of last night's soreness from one muscle to the next render them unaware of the rich memories surrounding them. Mark hasn't thought about it in a while, but he used to pass right through here on those spring afternoons of JV ball at University of San Diego High School across the street. That building has since been torn down, the school moving itself up the coast to Del Mar and taking on a new name.

Prior's 32, so it takes a bit of effort to picture the 15-year-old version of himself, yapping away with the guys, in full uniforms, on their way to the Pony fields and clicking on the USD campus concrete before descending into Tecolote Canyon. Back then there was so much ahead of him and no way of knowing where the dirt trail through a dusty, sagebrush-flanked ravine might be leading.

Penney never had to do that walk. By the time he was progressing through the same baseball ranks, carpools had been worked out. That was 2003, when Mark Prior was no longer a University High sports deity a la Phil Mickelson, Barry Zito and Luke Walton. Mark Prior was already a burgeoning big league ace, the guy who might have lost that gutting Game 6 of the National League Championship Series but still had years of glory ahead.

That game never seems to go away. The Cubs were leading, 3-0, in the eighth inning, five outs from clinching the pennant, when a fan named Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul ball and knocked it away from the glove of approaching Cubs left fielder Moises Alou.

Alou got mad, the Wrigley Field crowd got madder, Chicago shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a ground ball, and the Cubs lost, 8-3, and then blew Game 7. Yet another winter -- and ensuing decade -- of heartache had begun.

Penney knew all about that game. And when he first encountered Prior, in a 2008 workout session arranged by their pitching coach, Tom House, who had become the pitching coach at Prior's alma mater, the University of Southern California, he didn't know what to expect.

Would this guy be aloof or standoffish, typical of what one might expect of a former No. 2 overall draft pick who hit the bigs within a year? Would he deem a 20th-round selection out of UC-Riverside unworthy of using the same Nautilus machine? Had the Bartman incident soured him for life? Or had the injuries to his shoulder that had kept him out of the Major Leagues since 2006 made him a big league brooder?

He figured he might as well find out, so Penney walked up to him.

"I'm Stephen," he said, shaking Prior's hand. "We went to the same high school."

That was all that needed to be said. It turned out Prior was just another guy who wanted more than anything to make it to the Major Leagues, even though he had already done it. Prior didn't know how to be any other way.

He had grown up in nearby Bonita with a father, Jerry, who had played offensive line for Vanderbilt and saw how big-time athletics could break your body. Once Mark focused on baseball, dominated high school, and showed promise as a Vanderbilt freshman before transferring and shining at USC, scouts and agents flocked.

A rocket ride began in 2002, when Prior quickly rose to the Major Leagues and had instant success. (Aynsley Floyd/AP)

He was drafted by the Yankees in 1998 but opted for classrooms and dorms instead. He saw the world, traveling with Team USA. Even before going 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA to win the Golden Spikes Award as the top player in college baseball in 2001, Jerry had told all the big league teams that they needed to call Dad and make an appointment if they were interested in Son. Jerry wanted Mark to be a college kid having fun playing baseball, a stance that frayed quite a few fiberoptic cables of the old-boy network.

In August 2001, Prior signed with the Cubs for $10.5 million, a Draft pick record that would stand until Strasburg got more than $15 million in 2009. He went back to school and lived by the beach, working toward the business degree he'd earn three years later. The following year, he pitched all of nine Minor League games between Double- and Triple-A. He struck out 79 batters in 51 innings -- enough for a grand Major League bow on May 22, 2002, where Prior struck out 10 Pittsburgh Pirates in six innings at Wrigley.

That August, the Cubs played at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco. Dusty Baker, the manager of the World Series-bound Giants, got to the stadium early, as usual. He sat in the dugout, enjoying a sunny day by the bay. He saw a striking figure warming up by the warning track and watched. He knew it was Prior. He had read the scouting reports. Now he was seeing it, and he understood. This was the right way to start a career, he thought. Arrive first, leave last. Baker imagined what it might be like to have a guy like this leading his pitching staff.

This morning, Prior casts a shadow over another field, and Stephen Penney stands and faces him. They've done a drill of throwing motions with a towel instead of a ball. Now they're standing 60 feet apart, and almost an hour after they arrived, they're throwing a baseball.

Prior is doing this every morning because his shoulder has gotten stronger and he's been good enough to pitch in Triple-A the last two seasons. He was released by the Red Sox last August, but he's going to do whatever he can to hook on with another organization in 2013. Penney is doing this every morning because this is probably his last chance to get back in the game.

The friends play catch and laugh about how tired they are. Nearby, sitting on the parking-lot curb, a worker in a hard hat eats a breakfast burrito and looks on. A passerby asks him if he recognizes the guy with the brown hair.

"Nope," the guy says. "Is he a pitcher?"

 

 

***


"The idea behind the self-fulfilling prophecy is that it is not a forecast of a future event, but a cause of the event. ... Therefore, believing in a positive outcome will enhance the probability that the desired outcome will be realized."
-- Sharot, p. 43

 

 

Mark Prior's leaving the field, running to his Range Rover to hurry to the gym. Once he's settled behind the wheel, he mentions a book he read: The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. It was written by a neuroscientist and it helps explain how we trick ourselves into looking at the bright side of things, even if our lives keep chucking big boulders in the way.

He knows no book could ever describe 2003. It felt more like a movie, walking down Michigan Avenue or the side streets near the three-story townhouse he bought in Lincoln Park and hadn't even furnished with living-room or dining-room furniture by October. People would stop as he walked by, like they were all frozen, like in that scene in "The Matrix." They'd turn around. They'd point. They'd whisper to each other. He saw their eyes widen. He didn't get it.

Prior found himself going to the same safe Italian restaurant, ordering the same gnocchi and tiramisu. Sure, he'd go out with Heather -- they were engaged by then -- and teammates and their wives or girlfriends, but he'd make sure he didn't stray too far from his sanctum.

He'd do it differently now, if he had that option. He always loved Chicago -- the neighborhoods, the culture, the energy. He's still mad at himself for not tagging along with Heather on architectural tours. He understands now why he insulated himself, though. He was 22 years old. He was trying to win games and keep his mouth shut and it was working. Life was flying by.

In his second start of 2003, he shut out the Expos, struck out 12 and didn't walk a batter. By May 12, he was 5-1 with a 2.13 ERA. On June 26, he struck out 16 Brewers in eight innings. On July 7, he and young Cubs ace Kerry Wood were on the cover of Sports Illustrated holding baseballs with flames superimposed between them. The headline was "Chicago Heat." Dusty Baker had left the Giants after losing the 2002 World Series to the Angels and took the Cubs job. Now he had Wood and Prior as his 1-2.

Bad luck was never far away. On July 11, 2003, Prior collided with Braves second baseman Marcus Giles, setting him back a few weeks. (Aynsley Floyd/AP)

Prior's momentum didn't slow down until July 11, when he collided with Braves infielder Marcus Giles and bruised his right shoulder. He made the All-Star team but was on the disabled list. He came back Aug. 5 and pitched six shutout innings against the Padres in his hometown. Then came two straight complete-game victories, including a 131-pitch effort on Sept. 1, six days before his 23rd birthday, in which he blanked the Cardinals for eight innings. It was his sixth win in a row and he was 14-5 with a 2.36 ERA. He had given up three earned runs in his previous 47 innings.

Teammate Eric Karros called what Prior was doing to batters "a joke," but anyone who thought Prior made it look easy didn't see the agony behind it -- the moments he'd spent screaming his head off, always in the sanctuary of the clubhouse, by himself, throwing balls at lockers, cursing his imperfections. They saw a statuesque sculpture on the mound. They started counting the trophies.

On Sept. 6 in Milwaukee, Prior threw another 129 pitches for another win. The Cubs were 75-67 and a half-game behind Houston for the National League Central division lead. The next day he turned 23.

By the end of the regular season, with the Cubs on their way to the playoffs, Prior had finished a stretch in which he'd gone 10-1 in 11 starts, including 13-, 14- and 10-strikeout games in succession to end the regular season. The pitch counts for those games: 124, 131, 133.

On Sept. 26 on ESPN.com, statistics prodigy Nate Silver and injury expert Will Carroll wrote that, "In the terminology of pitching biomechanics, Mark Prior is a freak." Another source was quoted in the article as saying, "He's the model; he's perfect."

Silver and Carroll mentioned that Prior had been worked more heavily that season than "all but four other pitchers" in their "Pitcher Abuse Points system," but it didn't seem to be too much of a concern.

"There are five major principles of proper delivery that can be summarized as balance, posture, anatomical position, rotation, and release," they wrote. "Prior is textbook with all five."

They ended the piece with a caveat, a reminder that it all could fall apart, just as it had for other hyped pitchers: "Mark Prior is human."

October arrived, and Prior threw a two-hit complete game in his postseason debut, beating Atlanta in Game 3 as the Cubs took the NL Division Series. His pitch count was 133.

In Game 2 of the NL Championship Series against Florida, Jerry Prior watched from the stands along with Mark's mom, brother and sister, family and friends as Chicago's offense scored seven runs in two innings. Mark walked off the mound with an 8-0 lead after five. The Cubs, after losing Game 1, had a laugher in the bag to tie up the series.

And then there was Prior's most infamous start: Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, a.k.a. the Steve Bartman game. (Amy Sancetta/AP & Dilip Vishwanat/Sporting News via Getty Images)

Jerry picked up the golf pencil that he'd clutched during all of Mark's games clear back to Little League -- his nervous-habit pitch counter. He looked down at his scorebook. Only 73 tally marks. This couldn't have been better -- an official game, maybe one more inning and a great setup for a possible Game 6. It was even better when the Cubs scored three more in the bottom of the inning.

But Prior came out for the sixth, the seventh, the eighth. By the time he really was done, having given up two solo homers, he was at 116 pitches. The Cubs won, 12-3.

Six nights later was Game 6, and, well, that one can wait until later.

Back at the gym, it's a regular fitness day -- pick a partner -- and Heather's here, too, although she's paired with someone else. "I don't need to be his partner here," she cracks. She's getting after it, too. So is he, bouncing from Pilates balls to a box jump to biceps curls and on. The walls are painted with self-help axioms, human and otherwise:

"The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary." -- Vince Lombardi

"Your attitude determines your altitude." -- Zig Ziglar

"Do or do not. There is no try." -- Yoda

Most of the folks in this workout group don't know a thing about Pitcher Abuse Points or remember who won it all in '03. They're being egged on by the owner, Todd Durkin, a charged, flat-topped brick of a man who practically leaps off the cover of his book -- which is being sold at the front desk, right near the fridge stocked with two different types of coconut water -- onto the gym floor, whistle in hand.

There's a 40-year-old mom who's in great shape and knows it. There's a preacher with a big smile trying to get rid of his big boiler. And doing pull-ups by the mirror along the back wall, there's a former Major League phenom, 32 years old and wincing from the strain.

 

 

***


"People tend to feel more optimistic about things they believe they can control. Often, this sense of control is just an illusion."
-- Sharot, p. 69-70

 

 

Lunch at last, and Mark Prior is still happy to stick with something that works. He's at a busy restaurant, the one with the turkey sandwich he loves. The manager looks up from the oven to greet him. Heather walks in with Matthew and Caitlin. Amanda's still at school.

The specialty here is Chicago-style pizza, and the walls are covered with Windy City lore: black-and-whites from the Great Fire, Mike Ditka's middle finger, a Jeff Tweedy concert poster. A blue coffee-table book rests on a windowsill behind where Heather is sitting. It says "Cubs" on the cover in large red-and-white letters. Prior's watching Caitlin eat red grapes from a container her mom brought.

Education was always important to Prior, who received his degree from USC's business school in May 2004 and addressed the graduating class. (Kevork Djansezian/AP)

The book is subtitled, "From Tinker ... to Banks ... to Sandberg ... to TODAY." It came out in 2005 and led off with a summation of 2004 -- another good campaign, with the Cubs finishing 89-73, but a disaster otherwise. The team was looking like a Wild Card lock until it lost seven of nine in late September and missed out on the playoffs.

As always with the Cubs or any team believed to be cursed, there was plenty of blame to sprinkle around -- on closer LaTroy Hawkins, who had given up a game-tying three-run homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth against the Mets on Sept. 25. On Dusty Baker. And, yeah, even Mark Prior. He had missed the first two months of the season with Achilles tendinitis and made just 21 starts that year, pitching 118 2/3 innings. His record was 6-4. His ERA was 4.02. Fans could be encouraged after Prior's final start in '04, a nine-inning, 16-strikeout effort, but the Cubs lost that game.

The next year wasn't any better. On May 27, 2005, a line drive hit by Colorado Rockies outfielder Brad Hawpe broke Prior's right elbow, forcing him out of action for a month in an otherwise productive year with 11 victories. The Cubs finished 80-82.

The following spring, Prior strained his shoulder, missed the first two months of the season, and wallowed through two more disabled list stints before packing in 2006 with a 1-6 record, a 7.22 ERA, and an established reputation among Cubs fans. Prior was no longer a thoroughbred. He was broken-down, soft and content to sit on the disabled list and collect his checks. Another disappointment in a century-plus full of them.

The message boards piled on about his training methods, with joke after joke about how he could still snap a towel with the best of them. They piled on Baker and the pitch counts. Of course they blogged about Game 2, and don't forget Game 6.

Teammate and close friend Glendon Rusch heard about it at his golf club in Southern California one day when a member of his foursome found out he was a Cub. "Whatever happened to Prior?" the guy asked Rusch. "Did he just fall off the face of the earth?"

Here's what happened: Prior got seven screws put in his mangled shoulder -- torn labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule -- by Dr. James Andrews in April of 2007 and missed the whole year. He shuttled back and forth from San Diego to see Andrews in Birmingham and to rehab at home. That December, the Padres signed him to a one-year deal, knowing he wouldn't be ready until June of 2008 at the earliest. In May, Prior was in Peoria, Ariz., at extended Spring Training, trying to face hitters. He could hardly throw a strike, and the ones he did throw were getting crushed by kids who weren't yet in A-ball. He was tired after 20 pitches. Dead tired. He threw one more and almost fell off the mound. He said, "I'm done," walked into the clubhouse and couldn't pick up his arm for a half-hour.

Prior had torn the capsule again, this time clean off the humerus bone, but he wasn't deterred from his plan to make it back. Dr. Heinz Hoenecke operated on him in San Diego, the Padres signed him to a Minor League deal for another shot, and in June 2009, back in Peoria, he tore it again.

More bad luck came on May 27, 2005, when Prior's right arm was broken by a hard line drive off the bat of Brad Hawpe of the Rockies. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

With scar tissue on both sides of his shoulder and two young daughters and a pregnant wife waiting for him, Prior went home and did nothing for two months. Some nights he'd ask Heather if she had any idea why he was still doing this. She reminded him that he loved playing baseball. He thought of those games when the guy at the plate didn't have a chance, when Prior felt like he'd almost rather have a guy on third base with none out than bases empty, just so he could strike out the next three and pump that fist on the way back to the dugout. He thought about the clubhouse gags with the guys, the road-trip camaraderie, the daily routine. He'd quiet down because he knew the answer. He had to keep going.

But when he tried to throw that August, he couldn't get the ball past 40 feet and man, his shoulder hurt.

He got in his blue BMW, the one he bought when he was a Cubs rookie, when everything was ahead of him. He drove up to visit Tom House, to see if his mentor had any magic left for him.

Now the turkey sandwich is almost gone and Matthew has eaten enough grapes to earn a few fries. A guest asks if Prior's ever noticed the book on the shelf behind Heather. He says he has not.

"Check it out," the guest says, picking it up and pointing to the thumbnail photo under the header "TODAY." It's a strong, fearless right-handed pitcher in full windup.

"You're on the cover."

***


"The trick the brain plays once it encounters the unbearable is to quickly find the silver lining. ... In order to continue functioning, we quickly need to reevaluate our circumstances and reverse our evaluation of the situation that has befallen us so that we can carry on with our lives."
-- Sharot, p. 173

A Southwest Airlines jet takes off and zooms right above Mark Prior and his son, Matthew, in the Range Rover on the way to gymnastics at 4 in the afternoon. The airport's close to downtown, and it has a single, short runway, so your takeoff is quick and straight up to the sky and your landing can be harsh.

 

Prior got a chance to pitch at home, signing with the Padres in 2007 and 2008, but injuries did him in both times. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

Caitlin and Amanda have been at the facility for an hour, and Heather sits and observes with the other moms. Matthew woke up from his nap and Mark gave him a choice: stay home with Dad or go for a ride to hang with Mom and Dad and watch his sisters. He chose gymnastics ... or, as Mark put it, the vending machine at gymnastics.

During a break in Amanda's balance-beam practice and as Caitlin gets ready to tumble, Mark and Heather and Matthew walk to a nearby juice bar. Matthew scoots around the tables in a miniature car while his parents order a smoothie made of lemon, ginger, apple, celery, cucumber, kale and romaine lettuce. Minutes later, the drink is ready and the three head back around the corner to gymnastics. The high school sweethearts take turns drawing from the green concoction's straw. The sky is beginning to darken and the air starts to cool among the trees where the desert ends at the Pacific.

It's an easy, patient life here with the Priors. Matthew is jubilant with a mouthful of SunChips. For a few minutes, he has everything he wants. Matthew's dad does, too -- except for one thing.

Prior wouldn't let himself think his career was over that day he braved the freeway traffic up to USC. He got to Tom House's office and wanted answers. Would he ever be able to pitch again?

"I don't friggin' know," House said.

They agreed on one thing: Prior's right shoulder was a mess. A big hole in the capsule. Not much to work with there. But, House wanted to know, what would happen if they went right at the pain? Strengthen all the muscles that hold the shoulder together. Throw and throw some more. What if they tried things nobody had tried before?

Prior glared at House as if the old coot had spinach in his teeth. House laughed. It was the same look Prior had been shooting his way since they started collaborating when Prior was 14 years old. Soon Prior was fighting that San Diego Freeway crawl three days a week, working with conditioning coach Jackson Crowther. House had Prior putting elastic bands on his thumbs and walking for 10 to 20 minutes with his arms held aloft like goalposts. And doing something he had never learned how to do: throw a football.

Jerry Prior would have forbidden his son from football if Mark had ever shown interest in it. Too many injuries. Not worth it. And here was his son, 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, mobile -- a model quarterback, really -- and unable to keep a straight face because he couldn't produce even a hint of a spiral and didn't know how to grip the laces.

He got there. One hundred throws a day went from 40 feet with a lot of pain to 60 feet with a little pain to 90 feet and 100 feet and, whoa, wait a minute, hey, here was a little bit of accuracy, a little bit of zip. Then back to a baseball and a real plan, with a focus on recovery and fatigue management. Watching lactate intake. Working on keeping more oxygen in the lungs. Smarter nutrition. Making the nervous system go faster. Mitochondria strength. Mark Prior was improving and learning, absorbing every scientific term House could pluck from the journals. He was fitter than he'd ever been. It was summer 2010 and he was ready.

After almost quitting, Prior and his resurgent right shoulder took the first job that came his way: reliever for the independent-league Orange County Flyers in 2010. (Courtesy of the Prior family)

And he couldn't get a job. Well, not a big league one, not even close, but Steve Boggs, the son of Prior's agent, John, was having fun on the independent-league Orange County Flyers. They were managed by Paul Abbott, who had pitched in the big leagues for 11 seasons. They wanted to see Prior throw. The team was playing on a junior-college field in Fullerton, Calif., because it couldn't afford to rent the Cal-State Fullerton stadium. Prior threw for a few minutes and was up to 88, 89 mph. Abbott gave him a uniform and a contract. Prior was happy to accept the minimum -- not even 800 bucks a month. He told Abbott he wanted to be a reliever. He wanted to see if he could pitch back-to-back days, to get the adrenaline level back up. To go at guys. Abbott said it sounded great.

"Be yourself again," Abbott told him. "It's not hard. Just be Mark Prior."

Prior debuted against Vancouver and pitched a 1-2-3 inning. Then the Flyers got a five-day break because the next team on the schedule, from Tijuana, had lost their field. This was "Z-ball," after all. The games were re-slotted in Yuma, Ariz., on a back field where it was 110 degrees at 10 in the morning. Prior had forgotten his sliding shorts and had to find a Dick's Sporting Goods. He got his pregame meal in full uniform at a nearby Subway. He hadn't been this happy on a baseball field in four years.

The "season" continued. Prior was up to 90, 91. Abbott watched him out there, still running poles, still doing exercises while other guys were showing up right before first pitch and drinking beers right after the last out. Abbott heard Prior beating himself up. "You know ... with my luck," was a common one. But he also saw lots of smiles.

The team went to Maui. Seriously. Somehow, someone paid for it. There was another indie team on the island, Maui Na Koa Ikaika, and the Flyers flew out to play them and ended up at the Grand Wailea Resort. The $450 low-end rooms were free, but the $20 cheeseburgers weren't. These guys had to eat, so Prior, the only one with a Costco card, shepherded a few over to the island's only location to stock up.

The Flyers were making a late-season push, so Prior grew a playoff beard with his teammates. He wasn't expecting to get a call from his agent after a morning of snorkeling, but John Boggs called him and told him the Rangers were offering a Minor League deal. He was off to Oklahoma City.

Before he left for the mainland, he addressed his teammates, thanking them for the opportunity, the support. They saw how serious he was. Was he getting a tad emotional? Steve Boggs could have sworn he was.

Prior got in one inning for Oklahoma City before the season was over. He went back to San Diego, beard in tow. The Cincinnati Reds were in town playing the Padres, so Prior sneaked into the manager's office before the team arrived. He made himself comfortable and smiled when Dusty Baker walked in.

They talked, as they had a few times a year since 2006. They made their points. Prior had never blamed Baker for his injuries the way so many Cubs fans had, but he did ask his former manager about the strategy in Game 2 of the 2003 NLCS, leaving him in for so long despite such a big lead. Baker had come to accept that he'd be forever pilloried by Cubs fans and the stat gurus he called "propeller-heads," with all that data to back up their claims, but who knew at the time? Throwing a baseball is an unnatural motion. Even the healthiest pitcher can get hurt. He told Prior he had learned from it. Prior said he understood.

That led to a Spring Training invite with the Yankees in 2011 and part of a season with Triple-A Scranton. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Now the family leaves gymnastics and heads to the cars as the evening arrives. Another airplane takes off from the short runway as Caitlin and Amanda play rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets to go home with Mommy. Amanda wins and Caitlin and her dad plot a reverse-psychology strategy for her next go-around.

There's one more thing to do tonight. It's an exercise that might unearth some lingering emotional scars or something deep that Prior has yet to figure out about himself, like how he manages to stay so calm yet so driven despite all the setbacks. Or maybe it's nothing.

Either way, Prior has been asked if he's willing to watch Game 6 of the 2003 NL Championship Series for the first time since he experienced it from the mound as Heather watched from the cold Wrigley stands nine years ago.

"Sure," he says. "Why not?"

 

 

***


"Emotion strongly enhances our recollective experience. It increases the confidence that we are remembering the incident as it actually unfolded, and the vividness of the image. However, this enhancement in recollection does not happen at once; it takes time."
-- Sharot, p. 85

 

 

The game is on. Mark and Heather Prior are sitting on their large wraparound sofa. The kids are asleep.

Announcer Thom Brennaman, joined by former-ballplayer analysts Steve Lyons and Al Leiter, reveals the stakes: the Cubs are one victory from clinching, up three games to two, "but we are talking about the Chicago Cubs. A franchise that has not been to the World Series since 1945."

Tonight, Prior says he'd never heard of "The Curse of the Billy Goat," the tale of Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis being booted, along with his stinky pet goat, from Wrigley during that 1945 Series and dooming the franchise by proclaiming they'd never win again. He says he wasn't aware that the team hadn't won the Series since Oct. 14, 1908.

"I was still young," Prior says. "I was completely oblivious. We were just trying to win."

Brennaman continues. "We know all about Mark Prior," he says. "Arguably he has been the best pitcher in the National League the entire season."

The camera catches homemade signs strewn throughout the crowd. One reads, "World Series our PRIOR-ity" and "Prior for President."

The guest fast-forwards through Prior's seven shutout innings. Bottom of the seventh and Prior's at the plate. He bunts a two-strike pitch, a clutch sacrifice. "This guy was, for lack of a better word, bred to be in this position tonight," Brennaman says.

Tonight, Prior rolls his eyes.

"That is the biggest misnomer," Prior says. "Breeding."

"Right," Heather adds. "A robot."

"I worked with House, so I was groomed," Prior says. "It's the biggest bunch of BS ever ... to say I was scientifically put together. My mechanics have been my mechanics since Little League."

Top of the eighth. Marlins utility man Mike Mordecai flies out to left. Cubs still up, 3-0.

"Wow," Heather says. "Your face was so fat back then."

Prior laughs. "Thanks," he says.

Juan Pierre steps into the box and fouls off one pitch after another before lining a one-out double to left. Now Luis Castillo enters the frame. This is it. This is the at-bat.

It's a 1-and-2 count when the camera shows the huge throng gathered on the street outside the stadium.

In 2012, Prior pitched most of the season with Triple-A Pawtucket and had a blast along with his now-full dugout: wife Heather and children Caitlin (left), Matthew (middle) and Amanda (right). (Courtesy of the Prior family)

"I had absolutely no idea that there were so many fans out there," Mark says, watching himself miss with a curveball. The camera pans down the left-field line to where the Cubs relief pitchers sit, motionless.

Castillo fouls one out of play. A graphic on the screen says Prior's average of 113.4 pitches per start in the regular season topped MLB and that he's averaging 124.5 in the postseason.

Prior mutters, "Led the Majors."

Castillo fouls off another. Cubs reliever Kyle Farnsworth is shown getting loose.

Prior reaches 93 mph on his 113th pitch, and then, on a tablet screen nine years later, left-handed Castillo swings and hits the ball.

"Again in the air, down the left-field line," Brennaman says while the ball drifts foul to Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113.

"[Left fielder Moises] Alou reaching into the stands and he couldn't get it, and he's livid with a fan!"

Many remember the ensuing imagery: Alou's mini-tantrum, the scrum in the stands that includes Bartman, even though the TV cameras haven't yet ID'd him as the person of interest.

Tonight, 32-year-old Prior watches as 23-year-old Prior gloves the next ball thrown by Bako, nods, and gets back to work.

"What we're seeing is all the drama, that as a player, in the course of a game, you're not thinking about," Prior says tonight. "I mean, I'm just trying to pitch."

Now FOX shows the slow-motion replay. And a slower replay.

"That's a Cub fan who tried to make that catch," Brennaman says, to which Lyons responds, "Why?"

Prior throws the next pitch, 50 seconds after the last one. It's ball four, low, and it gets away from Bako. Wild pitch.

"We'll call that a passed ball," Prior says now, grinning.

Pierre is on third, Castillo on first. Pudge Rodriguez, the tying run, is ready to hit.

Now another replay of the incident, focusing on Prior, who had pointed to the stands and barked what appeared to be, "That's [expletive] fan interference!"

"I'm sure I reacted to [Alou's] reaction," he says tonight. "Or maybe I just reacted. I don't know. It was just weird."

Then the shot of Bartman with his cap and headphones, glasses and expressionless expression. The forever shot.

"Poor guy," Heather says, and Mark is asked how he feels about Bartman.

"Honestly, I don't have any negative feelings toward him because of what he did," he says. "You don't want him to go through that. I feel awful about that part of it. But dwelling on that situation ... as I've grown, matured, the older I get, especially with kids, the more I realize that you have to move on.

"At that age, I had so much to look forward to ... a pile of positives. Why would I be worried about this one negative thing?"

Prior puts Pudge in a quick 0-and-2 hole. Bako sets up to block a ball but adjusts when Prior spins a curve that Rodriguez rips for a single to left. Pierre scores. It's 3-1.

You can't spell priorities without Prior. That's his 2001 Golden Spikes Award under there, by the way. (Doug Miller/MLB.com)

"That's the pitch that bothers me," Prior says tonight. "Probably more than anything. Put it on the plate and he strikes out. You've got to bury that pitch."

Miguel Cabrera is next. He swings at the first offering, bouncing a high, slow hopper into history when shortstop Alex Gonzalez moves for a quick double-play toss just before the ball's in his glove.

Brennaman: "Bobbled by Gonzalez and everybody's safe!"

The bases are loaded. A Cubs fan is shown with his hands on his head. Young Prior is stoic as he looks in at Derrek Lee, the next batter.

"Every coach has told every player, 'Don't show your emotions on the field,' and you don't," Prior says tonight. "Initially, I probably thought, 'Oh, crap,' but Gonzo was one of the best shortstops there was. He had saved my [rear] probably 100 times.

"And I'm still more [ticked off] that I didn't bury that pitch to Pudge."

Prior delivers and Lee hits it hard. It drops onto the left-field grass. The game is tied. Baker is walking to the mound to take the ball from his phenom.

"I threw him a 95 mph fastball in on his hands and he just turned on it," Prior says tonight. "The bullpen came in and didn't really calm it down. What are you gonna do?"

As Farnsworth strides to the mound, the iPad is turned off. Game 6, once again, is over for Mark Prior.

 

 

***


"Our belief that happiness is just around the corner is, ironically enough, what keeps our spirits high in the present. Imagining a better future -- which is attainable if we follow certain rules (or so we think) -- maintains our well-being."
-- Sharot, p. 88

 

 

Mark Prior and Stephen Penney are back at the USD field. It's Wednesday, 8 a.m. sharp, and Prior has set up all the props and placed his iPhone gently on top of a metal tackling dummy.

It's not ringing today. He won't hear for a few months if he'll be offered a Minor League deal for 2013 or if he'll be asked to audition. He's still weeks from getting and accepting an invitation back to Wrigley -- a January mini-camp where he addressed the Cubs' top prospects on how to handle pressure and hype at a young age.

He's sure he'll keep getting compared to Strasburg, who was shut down for the playoffs last year by a team with the best record in the National League. Everyone will want to explain why pitchers get hurt, whether it's overuse or "scapular loading" or the "inverted W" or whatever. Prior's done trying to explain it.

This morning he's wearing a red warmup shirt with the "B" of the Boston Red Sox on the chest. It was part of his gear last year while pitching 25 innings -- his most in a season since 2006 -- for Triple-A Pawtucket. He stayed healthy, something he couldn't do in an 11-game stint in 2011 with the Yankees organization cut short by a groin injury, and he did OK. He struck out 38 batters but walked 23, and knows he has to be better. The pitching coach there, Rich Sauveur, said he didn't know what Prior was doing at 91 or 92 mph for guys to be taking some of the ugly swings they were taking, but that he should keep doing it.

He hopes he can. He had a blast last summer. He sat down next to then-Pawsox hitting coach Gerald Perry on a bus ride to Rochester and a 15-minute conversation turned into two hours. When he and catcher Mike Rivera ate breakfast in a downtown Indianapolis cafe, there were Cubs fans who recognized him. A Chicago lady told Prior that her son had a picture of him on his wall. Rivera made sure that anecdote made the clubhouse rounds.

When the team went to Buffalo, Prior took a side trip to Niagara Falls. The family came out to Pawtucket one weekend and they drove to Cape Cod, picked blueberries and played on the beach.

The next opportunity might come. It might not. Mark Prior is here to tell you that he's OK either way. (Jon Polmar/Special to MLB.com)

One night in Pawtucket, Heather sat with Matthew, Caitlin and Amanda in the stands while Mark warmed up and it hit her: This was the first time all three children had seen their father pitch. She was close to tears for a brief moment until the poignancy was overtaken by the reality of playing host to three toddlers at a baseball game.

For Mark, it was all back, that hard-to-describe feeling on the mound -- the moment when you know you're better than the guy with the bat in his hands. Nothing could beat it. And although Boston released him in August because the Red Sox were going young in the bullpen, there was always 2013. No reason to give up now. Not with three kids asking him every day when and where he's going to pitch next. Mark and Heather assure them it'll be somewhere. Even if it's an independent league, they'll all go out on the road together for the summer and Daddy will pitch and they'll all have fun and they'll love it, because that's why Daddy's still doing it: it's fun and he loves it.

Prior and Penney move out onto the field, heading to the 20-yard line. Penney's got a football in his hand. He's the quarterback and Prior's the receiver, lining up wide right. They march up the field. Some passes are complete, some aren't. They turn around at the goal line and head the other way.

Now Prior's the QB, and his form looks good. He's finding the laces every time, throwing a consistent spiral with some oomph to it. They get down to the 20 and Penney does a fade route. Prior lofts one high into the left corner of the end zone. Penney reaches out both arms and hauls it in, making sure to get both feet in bounds.

Mark Prior laughs and pumps his fist. Touchdown.

Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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