WASHINGTON — Former Cubs phenom Mark Prior has absolved Dusty Baker of contributing to his injury shortened career.
Once dubbed Wrigley’s savior as Chicago’s first-round draft pick in 2001, Prior never came close to living up to expectations heaped upon him during his five seasons with the Cubs. He showed flashes of greatness — with 757 strikeouts and a 3.51 career ERA — but could not remain healthy and, after spending parts of seven seasons trying to work his way back to the big leagues, finally called it a career in Dec. 2013.
Cubs fans and sportswriters have long held Baker to blame for Prior’s repeated arm injuries, with the charge being Baker overworked the pitcher (and Kerry Wood, too, for that matter), allowing Prior to rack up heavy pitch counts. Those extra pitches, compounded over five years, never allowed Prior to reach his potential, the narrative goes.
In a lengthy career retrospective written for Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron, Prior dispelled as a myth the notion that Baker was to blame for his injury marred career.
“Some people pointed to problems with my delivery and arm action,” Prior wrote.
“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,” he continued. “No matter how many pitches I threw, I never asked to come out of a game — doing so would have been unthinkable.”
Overuse of his Cubs pitching staff was one of the first criticisms to come up when Baker landed the Nationals’ job.
Baker handled those critics stiffly: “Those guys don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“The people that are talking stuff about I ruin arms,” he said, “After 20 years, how many people don’t have somebody that’s had an arm operation? The last two years, there have been more Tommy Johns than anybody in the history of the game, and I wasn’t even in the game, so they can’t blame me for those.”
Prior, now a pitching coordinator in San Diego’s minor league system, asserts Baker 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.”
Prior added one other counter to the overused narrative:
“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.”
Prior goes on to write of how he often mismanaged the hype, which he admits earned him a reputation with media as being “standoffish,” and allowed him to lose sight of the importance of building comradery with his Cubs teammates.
He also thanked Baker for bestowing upon him a sage piece of advice. Without it, he says, he may not have a post-playing career in baseball.
“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.”
Baker has said he gave this same piece of advice to another former player: Matt Williams, when Williams was contemplating whether to take another job in baseball or spend some time away from the game after being fired by the Nationals in 2015. He returned as Arizona’s third base coach.
Prior’s highly compelling retrospective is worth a fuller read.