By Sweeny Murti
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There was a time when seeing Mark Prior in the clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field would not have been thought to be a strange sight. After all, it was entirely possible for the heralded young right-hander to pitch his way to All-Star status in Chicago and then sign a huge free agent contract with the Yankees, brought in with a full blown celebratory press conference, Yankee dignitaries throwing verbal bouquets, fans planning which World Series game he would start, and every other baseball fan crying about how the Yankee are ruining baseball.
But there he is, Mark Prior, sitting quietly in the corner of the clubhouse, a corner that once belonged to Bernie Williams, who was active the last time Prior pitched in the majors (2006). He sits in a corner that is roughly 40 feet from CC Sabathia’s locker, but it may as well be 40 miles. While ordinarily reporters would trip over themselves to get the latest breathless comments from Prior about how great it is to be a Yankee, we now stare at each other as he passes by and say, “Is that Mark Prior?” barely recognizing him at all.
The amazing thing is Prior is only 30 years old, almost two months younger than Sabathia. He should be in the prime of a possible Hall of Fame career. But Prior isn’t coming to the Yankees after a whirlwind free agency romance, he’s coming to the Yankees begging for a chance, trying to pitch in the majors for the first time in five years. Barring injuries to others, Prior is most likely slated to start the year at AAA-Scranton.
Its been a long road for Prior, originally drafted by the Yankees in 1998 but ending up at USC before being drafted again by the Cubs in 2001, making the big leagues in 2002, winning 18 games in 2003 and a 3rd place Cy Young finish. Injuries followed after that, many of them. There were freakish ones like the line drive that fractured his elbow in 2005 to the crippling shoulder surgeries in 2007 and 2008 that are the main reasons Prior walks the comeback trail today.
This week I chatted with Prior, sitting in that corner locker, asking him his expectations for spring training, about his health, his outlook after the highs and lows of the last decade, his thoughts on pitch counts and innings limits:
LISTEN: Mark Prior with Sweeny Murti
Mark Prior hasn’t pitched in a major league game since August 10, 2006. The road back actually landed him with the Orange County Flyers of the independent Golden Baseball League last year. As he enters spring training with the Yankees in 2011 he’s actually one of the most anonymous faces in pinstripes. And who would have thought that was possible in 2003?