Mark Prior, 33, is officially done trying to pitch in the major leagues. He didn’t announce his retirement on Tuesday so much as he ran into the St. Paul Pioneer Press‘s Mike Berardino in a hotel lobby and told him that he was finally shutting down his protracted comeback bid for good, after yet another shoulder injury. It’s fitting that the news would come out this way, kind of accidentally, because you could be forgiven for thinking the ex-Cubs ace retired years ago.
Prior last took the mound at the highest level in 2006, but after he left the Cubs in 2007, he tried to catch on with the Padres, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Reds. For the past few years, he had been trying to turn himself into a middle relief guy, but his exhausted right arm couldn’t even handle 16-pitch outings. A job in San Diego’s front office sounds preferable to trying to fight your body each spring in a new minor league cowtown.
I haven’t followed baseball in years, but I watched the Cubs whenever they were on national TV and listened to Pat Hughes and Ron Santo on WGN’s fuzzy AM signal a lot when I was in middle school. Prior and Kerry Wood meant to me what great athletes mean to you when you’re young. They introduced me to the pleasure of watching a single player dominate a baseball game with power and balls that moved like diving seabirds. I’m sure there are kids in the Bay Area who watch Madison Bumgarner and are beginning to understand this. The first time a breaking pitch makes you laugh is a singular experience.
I remember realizing, during Prior’s breakout season in 2003, that he was set to be an athlete I would grow up with. He’s about 10 years older than I am, and if injuries hadn’t ruined his career, he would presumably be just exiting his prime, heading into another three or four years of eminent usefulness. I was expecting to spend high school and college watching him challenge for Cy Youngs. Instead, well, I might be incapable of having a civil conversation with Dusty Baker.
But while Baker was draining his pitching staff and the Cubs appeared to be mounting a World Series run, I was swept up in the first feelings of a team I liked succeeding. Wood was the madcap fireballer, but Prior was almost professorial in the way he dictated how a game was going to unfold. This has been remarked upon before, but it’s strange that a pitcher who seemed to deliver the ball so perfectly and without a trace of violence did irreparable damage to his shoulder with a single innings-heavy season. I remember being traumatized by the Bartman Game, but also thinking, after I had cooled off a week later, that I didn’t need to despair: The Cubs had two excellent young starters; they would be good for a while.
After those playoff games, which often stretched past midnight on the east coast, I went to school the next day overtired and not totally present. I nearly got kicked off my soccer team because I was ditching practice to go home and take naps. When I was young and trying to figure out what mattered to me, baseball had a gravity nothing else did. On days when Prior was pitching, it was pretty much all I thought about. I scrawled opposing lineups in my notebook during math class.
Letting the talent of an athlete consume you is a worthy enough activity when you’re 13. Most things are mystifyingly scary at that age. It’s nice to obsess over something both alien and joyful. Prior had ability to throw pitches that leave an imprint on the memory, that you can carry around with you even if you don’t watch much baseball anymore. I realized when I read of his retirement the strength of the connection I still feel with him. I’m happy that this familiar stranger is apparently starting to transition into a post-pitching part of his life. Mark Prior wasn’t great for long and disappeared prematurely, but I grew up with him regardless.