Thursday August 4th, 2016

It has been a decade since I last threw a pitch in the big leagues. Ten years … it certainly doesn’t feel that long ago. Not that I’ve been away from the game completely; I spent years trying to make it back from injuries back before finally calling it quits in 2013. 

Now, when I walk into a major league stadium, I still feel at home. And yes, Wrigley’s obviously always going to carry more emotional weight for me, but my current job as minor-league pitching coordinator with the San Diego Padres takes me to Petco Park all the time, and never feel out of place. I remain very much connected to what’s going on — to the sights and sounds and rhythms of the game. 

I love everything about my new role: Being around the game; being part of an organization and trying to make it better. I love working with the kids — as crazy as it sounds to say that, I’m not that old — the administrative balancing act of coordinating some of the moving pieces that that are integral to a major league organization.

Really, I am just thankful to be part of a team again. 

I certainly didn’t expect to be in this position when I retired three years ago, right around this time of the season. The opportunity to work for the Padres, to go back to my hometown of San Diego, came up almost immediately. I certainly would have preferred to still be on the mound, but there was no way I could turn the opportunity down. Looking back, as hard as it was to accept that I would never throw another pitch in the big league​s, staying in the game was the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Remaining connected to baseball also makes it easier to open up about my time with the Cubs, about my successes and setbacks. That wasn’t always the case. When I first arrived in Chicago, it felt like I was always being measured — against others; against history; against myself — and I was really careful to make sure that I didn’t say anything that might be misconstrued or taken the wrong way. 

I’m not so worried about all that anymore.

Even now, when people hear my name, they still think about the hype and the potential. And, inevitably, the injuries.

So fine, let’s talk about it.

Some people pointed to problems with my delivery and arm action. 

Others — mostly Cubs fans — still blame my manager, Dusty Baker, for the series of injuries that derailed my career. They believe that he overused me in 2003 and blah, blah, blah. Only, here’s the thing: I don’t blame Dusty for what happened to me. I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened during that season — beyond us failing to bring a World Series Championship to Chicago, of course. No matter how many pitches I threw, I never asked to come out of a game — doing so would have been unthinkable.

Dusty was hired to manage each game like it was his last. And over the course of a season (or even multiple seasons), that meant an endless series of decisions — especially when it comes to balancing pitcher workloads against the need to win games. Ironically, this is part of my job with the Padres now — the job pitching coaches at all our affiliates have — and it’s not an easy one. Like anything else, you do the best you can.

I believe Dusty did the best he could, and anyone who thinks he is responsible for what happened to me or Kerry Wood, I would strongly disagree.

Mark Prior holds his shoulder after a violent 2003 collision with Marcus Giles.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Also, people seem to forget two major events that significantly influenced my injury history: 1) the collision I sustained with Marcus Giles in 2003; and 2) the Brad Hawpe line drive that broke my elbow two years later. I’m no doctor, but I can’t help but feel like those incidents muddied the waters in advance of my subsequent shoulder injuries. That collision could’ve stretched my shoulder capsule out without my ever really knowing it.

I’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.

Given what happened, I still grimace when I think about those people who said I had perfect mechanics. The Kershaws, the Greinkes, the Arrietas — even they have times when their mechanics are off, and they are the best pitchers on the planet. As a pitcher, there are just times when you feel like you can’t sync up; when your sequence is off. That’s a big part of a pitcher’s responsibility: To execute and to find that groove. I never thought my mechanics were perfect. I just thought that I had a solid delivery that suited my body. I threw the way I had been taught; the way I had since I was six years old.

Now, as for the hype that surrounded my rise to the majors, I can admit that I heard it, but that doesn’t mean that I had trouble separating myself from it. With all the pressure that comes along with the fans’ expectations — they’ve been waiting a long time — it was impossible not to be aware of the buzz. And at times, those circumstances made for a less than ideal fit because of my personality.

Whether it was talking to the media or going out in public, my instinct was always to close myself off. To protect myself. I think that’s where people in Chicago got the impression I was standoffish. That I was too measured, or even defensive.

And in a way — at the time, anyway — I was.

I know that now. Some of that comes with growing up, but a big part has been how my kids have helped to bring me out of my shell.

Honestly, my reputation for being aloof — maybe stoic is a better word — goes back to my college days. It started the summer before my junior season, when I had a chance to play for the United States national team. To say it was a good team would be an understatement; of the 22 players on the squad, 16 made the majors, and the roster included Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira

In the lead-up to the event, I started getting phone calls from agents in my hotel room. Mike Gillespie, my coach at USC, was the national team manager, so I told him what was going on — about the mounting pressure and having to use an alias. When we met later that fall back on campus, our focus was to figure out how to control all the off-the-field chaos. Obviously, I knew I was going to be a professional ballplayer — I was drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school and chose to go to college instead — but it’s virtually impossible to describe the level of attention (most of it unwanted) highly-touted prospects receive.

I didn’t set out to be difficult; I just wanted to maintain some semblance of control over who I met with, and when. 

Coach Gillespie and I decided to send out a letter to all scouting directors letting teams know that if they wanted to meet with me, I would be available from January 1 to February 1. After that, all I cared about was pitching for the Trojans. The last thing I wanted was to worry about having a meeting with Team X on the Saturday before a start, so we set up a finite window for clubs to evaluate me. Some teams appreciated the straightforward approach, but for those that wanted continuos access — “to get to know you,” they claimed — it was a tougher pill to swallow.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You have to understand, in the year you’re drafted, every move you make on the field is being watched. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing or not. Scouts aren’t only there to watch you pitch on Friday night; they’re at the ballpark at nine the next morning to get a sense of what your routine is after a start. What time did you get to the ballpark? What were you wearing? How focused were you?

Crazy? Maybe, but it’s to be expected. These are huge, career-altering decisions — for the player and the scout. Millions of dollars are on the line. Teams are making an investment for which they need to see a return, in the form of a bona fide Major League ballplayer. I don’t blame them for watching my every move back then — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult.

Once USC’s season started, I was done talking. I wasn’t rude, I didn’t ignore anyone, but my priority was to be the best I could be on the field.

So was I controlling? Difficult? I’d say I was protective — with good reason. My central focus, what drove me every day, was getting USC back to the College World Series. That was it. Whether people or believe it or not, where I wound up at the next level was secondary to me … at least until that college season was over. Sometimes I wonder if some deep part of me already knew how wild the ride to come was going to be. 

A few weeks back, I was in a room with some of my fellow Padres personnel. As all organizations do, we have some great ex-players working here: Moises Alou, Trevor Hoffman, Mark Loretta. We were all talking about player development, and how fast certain guys get to the big leagues. Each of them said it takes years. Then it was my turn. 

“Six weeks,” I said.

It was a funny moment, but it taught me something. Those guys might’ve taken longer to get there, but they still had great careers. That’s one of the great things about working in player development: Everyone has a different timetable. It’s my job now to help make it as smooth as possible for pitchers in the Padres system.

I was only 21 when I got to Chicago, and like most 21 year olds, I was just trying to figure things out. Forget mapping out my longterm future, I was pitching in the big leagues, stepping on the mound in one of the world’s great sports landmarks, representing an entire city — hell, enjoying life. I was barely of legal drinking age and there I am alongside Dusty Baker. Larry Rothschild. Kerry Wood. Joe Girardi. Fred McGriff.

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I know I rubbed some people the wrong way back then. But truthfully, I was so focused on pitching my best, so worried about my next start, I just wasn’t all that aware of what was going on around me. My five-day schedule was regimented to the minute, it was almost to the point of having OCD. I showed up at the ballpark every day to make sure I was getting all my work in — all to ensure that I was as prepared as humanly possible. Looking back on it, I guess there’s a fine line between having a routine — as every great athlete should — and having blinders on.

For example, when I first came up, I had no desire to talk to the media the day before a start. That was my way of trying to manage the hype so that when I took the mound, my mind was focused solely on the next pitch. 

Whether that was a good or bad approach, I really don’t know. It was just my way of trying to manage the expectations, to handle this image everyone had of me. Maybe if I’d been better about accepting the hype, better about being open and honest about all of it, I would’ve had more perspective. Not that I could have controlled what people thought and wrote about me — certainly not the media, which I deliberately avoided — but so the fans could have better understood me. 

For five years, I rode the waves of life in the major leagues. The great and the not-so-great; the exhilarating wins and the debilitating losses. Then, at 25, I find myself suddenly confronted with the kind of adversity many players don’t face until well into their 30’s. 

Each time I got hurt, I felt upset. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was probably mildly depressed, too. Eventually, I became bitter at times. I wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t pitching. And when I did pitch, my ability to perform seemed to get worse and worse.

I remember vividly the conversation that finally changed things.

Larry Rothschild had been my pitching coach for all six seasons in Chicago, and anytime you spend six seasons with someone — day in and day out, spring training after spring training — you’re bound to have ups and downs in the relationship. I remember him pulling me aside near the end of the 2004 season. It had been a trying year to say the least. I’d sprained my elbow and never quite got it going, though I did finish the season on a bit of an uptick. I was worn down, first by the injuries, then from the pressure to get back and perform to the standards I’d set. 

I remember the conversation like it was yesterday.

 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“You’re 23, and you’re acting like a 50-year-old, grumpy man,” Larry said. “You need to take a step back. Start being a better teammate. Start having a better attitude.”

I’d been defensive and guarded for so long that I didn’t even realize how these challenges were affecting my daily life; how I had shut off certain relationships I never should have. Sure, I knew how good I was, and I had never lacked in confidence, but facing failure for the first time can do strange things to an athlete. It can make you question yourself.​

I still talk to Larry from time to time, and I often kid him about that conversation. I’ll use that story when talking to young players, to remind them how important it is to see the forest for the trees. Baseball is an individual sport on so many levels, but it’s still a team game first and foremost. 

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Sometimes it’s easy to get so tunneled into what you need to do every moment of every day that you lose perspective on of your interactions with people — your coaches and teammates, the guys you’re supposed to be battling alongside. Being part of a baseball team is a process. It can’t always be about how you feel at any given minute; it needs to be more about where you and your teammates collectively are after a day, a week, even a season. Letting a process play out isn’t something a lot of people have patience for these days. And yet that’s so much of what our game is all about. 

If I’d known then just how close the end really was, maybe things would’ve worked out differently. But there I was, 25 and trying to get back on track. Sadly, it never really happened. As great as my time in Chicago was, it seemed to flash by in a blink … and then it was gone. From potential franchise savior to just another guy trying to hang on and salvage a career.

I spent six years trying to make it back.

Through all of my attempts to recover, my goal was simple: Take a big league mound for one pitch. Just one pitch. Whatever happened next, so be it. But to overcome a pair of shoulder surgeries and endless setbacks, to take the mound again — I felt like if I could just get there, maybe anything really was possible.

By the end, I was able to go out and compete. Maybe not at the level people remember me for, but well enough to be part of a Triple-A ballclub — a place, it’s easy to forget, that so many guys would kill to reach. 

The challenges I faced, the injuries I endured, going through extended spring trainings in Tampa and Fort Meyers and Peoria, gave me a vastly different perspective on the game (and on life). When I got a big league invite to the Yankees in 2011, I went there gave up one run in nine spring training appearances. When Joe Girardi told me they were going with Bartolo Colon instead, I took it in stride and accepted the triple-A assignment.

Would I love to still be pitching now, at 35? Without a doubt. But would I change where I’m at in life, the personal as well as the professional? Absolutely not. I loved my time at USC, and still support the program as an alumnus to this day.

And I loved my time in Chicago, too, despite how things turned out. If I would have signed with New York out of high school, maybe I would’ve crashed and burned years earlier. Or maybe I would’ve pitched for a decade and never made it to The Show. It’s impossible to say.

I do know that I’ll never have any regrets. 

Andy Hayt via Getty Images

There’s another conversation that’s stuck forever in my head. I was having lunch with Dusty shortly after I retired. He asked me what I planned on doing. I told him I didn’t know. He said, “If you’re going to stay in the game, don’t get out for very long, because the game is always changing. It doesn’t take long for your generation to move on from relationships. And that’s what baseball is: A relationship.”

When I talked to other people — friends, former teammates and other people around the game — they all said the same thing: “Despite everything that’s happened, Mark … if you really love the game, you have to stay involved.”

Ultimately, my relationship with baseball has, at times, been pretty complicated — even difficult. But it’s one I’ll always be grateful for and forever committed to. 

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