Late December Meanderings on Unfortunate Moments and Mark Prior

By JCB on Saturday, December 29, 2007

“I cringe at the Bartman references”

* * *
I was trading text messages with my friend TK about the Holiday Bowl, Texas versus Arizona State. You probably saw the highlight of the guy—reported to be coach Mack Brown’s son-in-law, Chris Jessie—coming onto the field and probably touching the football with his thumb while it was still in play on account of what turned out to be a backward pass and therefore a lateral, a live ball, by ASU quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Not long after, deconstructing the replays, the announcers referred to that other interference play. The one Cubs fans remember all too vividly. Especially those of us who were at the game.

And of course, if you search Google today for “youtube chris jessie” the first clip is captioned “The Holiday Bowl Bartman.”

I’ll admit that I was already thinking about the 2003 NLCS moment, pleading in my mind, “Please, please don’t go there,” even before the announcers went there. Game 6 exists for me not only as a memory of sight and smell and sound—remembering how it was to watch Mark Prior pitch with the will of over 40,000 people within eyesight and millions more around the globe behind him, ballpark smells mingling with chilly Autumn air, and cheers growing louder, promising the ultimate crescendo—but more, a memory of emotion, the utter nauseating turbulence of having some of your strongest hopes dashed in a matter of minutes. This feeling, or its memory, does not leave you.

The feeling was similar the other night, or should I say reminiscent. Momentum, all on my team’s side, until an inadvertent, somewhat reflexive but nevertheless inappropriate act of interference, and then, as jaws drop, momentum vanishes. But the differences between the two interference plays only widened as the Horns went on to win convincingly, and the unfortunate young man breathed a sigh of relief that Mr. Bartman, unfortunately, was never allowed to breathe.

Even had Texas lost, it would not have been as significant as that single loss was to Cubs Nation. Although, I doubt that would have proven to be much solace for Mr. Jessie. Moot, this point.

Still, there was that cringe of recognition, the way that something entirely unexpected—dare I say it... (is it too soon for jokes, even now?)...completely out of left field?—occurs completely unbidden, unplanned, undesigned, and before you know it, the game is changed, tainted by something outside its boundary lines.

I suppose it’s the sort of reminder that is not so useless, especially in the friendly form of the Holiday Bowl as Texas regained its footing, ensuring that the reminder’s force did not leave much of a sting. Sports enthrall us because they are drama. They capture and release in moments of catharsis the emotions encircling the struggles by which humankind identifies itself. These emotions and the events that inspire them are not always positive, and more, they are definitely not always within our control.

For what it’s worth though, as I think about it now given this reminder, if I find myself at another Cubs Game with only a few outs separating my team from the World Series, I’ll do my darndest to squelch the doubt left by Game 6. I’ll go all in, all over again. I’ll believe, as fully as I did that evening over 4 years ago.

The wound never exactly heals, and its lesson is a wise one, but when the time comes—as I believe it will this season—I’ll ignore them both as entirely as I possibly can, because as Mr. Jessie’s experience also reminds us, Relief is not the best emotional prize for which we invest ourselves in sports.

* * *
Fare thee well, Mark Prior.

Reports came through this week that as expected, Prior signed with the Padres.

It’s a shame for a lot of reasons. It’s a shame Prior was not able to finish Game 6, but I’m done thinking about that one for now, other than to say it’s a shame he’ll never be able to vanquish that memory with a Cubs victory on the same stage. It’s a shame that a guy who completed a season at 18-6 has yet to complete another season. It’s a shame Prior ran into Marcus Giles on the basepath, and a shame they let him throw another pitch that game. It’s a shame that a comebacker line drive caught him on the arm. It’s a shame he was not able to regain his 95mph 4-seam fastball without requiring shoulder surgery (and it will be a shame if he never again regains it).

It’s also a shame he wasn’t willing to accept a contract with an option for a team that invested heavily in him and his rehab.

It’s also the way things had to go, though, or at least that’s what it seems like. My friend BMK, who covered Prior as a college sportswriter back in their undergraduate days, summarized it for us as we speculated about Prior’s future several weeks ago: If he stays with the Cubs, he’ll never amount to anything. If he goes somewhere else he probably wins a Cy Young. Whaddya gonna do? Can you blame the guy for wanting to allow himself the possibility of testing the limits of the free agent market if he completes a successful comeback? Especially knowing firsthand and better than most how tenuous one’s status as an athlete can be?

Although, the Cubs have a history of doing right by their players, of making good with new contracts and contract extensions at a generous price when the time came. (Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, and Kerry Wood spring immediately to mind.) I think Prior could have trusted the Cubs not to leave him high and dry for 2009 and beyond if he comes back healthy and productive sometime in 2008, had it been with them.

But nothing is certain, especially for a team whose sale is impending, and we certainly can’t fault the Cubs in all of this. And we probably can’t fault Prior too much either. Prior took a deal with his hometown team, laden with incentives he’s unlikely to see—since he’s not projected to be healthy enough to reach the 30-start or 25-man-roster targets included as conditional provisions. He’s where he wants to be. He’s where he wants—and just maybe, needs—his story to continue.

It’s with no small measure of disappointment that we see him leave. I can’t remember a prospect ever to join the Cubs touted as highly as Prior. More than that, he delivered. For a brief time, we saw an elite pitcher, the kind of player who could provide ballast for a dynasty.

It didn’t work out, to understate. But I’m not going to hold a grudge against Prior. He gave us some great moments, and in no small part he helped renew the conviction of our hope that eventually the Cubs will win the World Series. The hope perseveres, rekindled yet again in 2007, and thriving as we approach 2008.

If anything, perhaps with Prior gone another reminder of how close we came—and, how close we didn’t come—leaves with him. The Mark Prior era never existed, and for the Cubs, it looks like it never will. Disappointing, sure, but on the other hand, it’s time for a different era to arrive.

And just maybe, it already has.
Posted Saturday, December 29, 2007 by JCB

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