Chicago Cubs prospect Mark Prior delivered one of the most memorable minor-league debuts 20 years ago
The concourse of Principal Park is full of banners with pictures of the best players in Iowa Cubs franchise history.
Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo and Kris Bryant are among the greats recognized at the stadium for the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Hanging along the first base line, between a banner of Damon Berryhill and Micah Hoffpauir, is one of the biggest names to come through Des Moines.
Two decades ago, he was one of the biggest names in baseball.
The right-handed pitcher was a highly prized prospect for the Cubs when he made his Triple-A debut with the Iowa Cubs back in 2002. Prior, a first-round pick by the Chicago Cubs a year before, was a rock star everywhere he pitched. Fans flocked to minor league stadiums across the country to see him before he got called up to Chicago.
“Everybody says it: No matter what you do, in your profession or life, things just happen fast, and you go back and you wonder where the time went,” Prior said in an April interview with The Register. “But, yeah, 20 years ago, it was pretty crazy.”
Before there was Kyle Hendricks, Chicago's steady right-hander of recent years, there was Prior. Before there was Bryant, a can't-miss first round pick, there was Prior. Before there was Javier Baez, one of the guys who ended the Cubs' World Series curse, there was Prior.
Even as a minor leaguer, Prior was a must-see baseball attraction in 2002.
And 20 years ago this week, he delivered one of the most memorable performances in Iowa Cubs history with a dominant debut on the hill and at the plate on May 7, 2002 at Sec Taylor Stadium — now known as Principal Park — in Des Moines. Prior’s performance put him on the fast-track to the big leagues and to what many thought was going to be a Hall of Fame career.
Prior's star continued to rise after he left Des Moines. Early in his career, he finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting and nearly guided the Cubs to the World Series in 2003.
Like his short time in Des Moines, Prior's MLB career was a quick flash of greatness.
“It really was one of the most impressive things I had seen on a baseball field up until that point,” former Iowa catcher Mike Mahoney said.
Rapidly rising Prior arrives at Principal Park and plays a memorable catch
The hype behind Prior started before he even became a Cub.
The hard-throwing right-hander out of USC was built like a prototypical pitcher and threw like one too. He had what were thought to be flawless mechanics and owned a mid-90s fastball to go along with a knee-buckling curveball and changeup. Prior took USC to the College World Series and was selected by the Cubs with the second overall pick in the 2001 draft behind only Joe Mauer, the former Minnesota Twins catcher who will likely be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 2024.
Even before Prior threw a pitch, there were historic expectations heaped upon the powerfully built hurler. He was expected to be the next Roger Clemens and lead the Cubs to greatness.
"When Prior came up, Prior was arguably the best pitching prospect in draft history," MLB.com senior writer Jim Callis said.
Prior played like it. He rapidly rose through the minor leagues. He made his professional debut in 2002 with the Double-A West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. That wasn't much of a challenge for Prior, who mowed down hitters at a remarkable rate. He went 4-1 with a 2.60 ERA in six starts and struck out 55 hitters in 34.2 innings before the Cubs decided they had seen enough and promoted him to Triple-A Iowa.
It was big news in Des Moines. Sam Bernabe, Iowa's current president and general manager, said the phones at the park rang over and over as fans tried to grab tickets to watch Prior's debut.
Prior got to Des Moines as quickly as he could. He actually arrived at the park the night before his first start. He was the only player there, since his new Iowa teammates were finishing up a road trip and hadn't gotten back to Des Moines yet.
But Prior still showed up to get some work in ... even though his luggage hadn't arrived.
So, Jeff Lantz, the team's media relations director at the time, found shorts, shoes and a shirt in the clubhouse lost-and-found for Prior. One of the few things Prior had was his glove, which he stored in his carry-on bag. Lantz offered to play catch with Prior, who needed to get in light throwing the night before his Triple-A debut.
Lantz was the first in Des Moines to see just how great Prior stuff was. They ventured to the outfield of the empty park that night and played catch. As Prior unloaded throw after throw, Lantz stood across from him hoping the pitcher wouldn't start spinning sliders or anything that may miss his mitt. Every Prior throw was perfectly placed.
"He was great," Lantz said. "Obviously, pretty much every throw he made was right at my chest.
"You could probably catch them with a pair of plyers if you had to."
Part of Lantz's job at the time was to help chronicle the history of the club. As he stood in the outfield and threw with Prior, Lantz understood the historical significance of the pitcher's arrival. The level of hype around Prior was something that had been rarely seen in MiLB. If Prior was indeed as good as experts thought he could be, the pitcher could change the Cubs forever.
The Cubs and the World Series drought — that was arguably the greatest sports crusade of the time. So, when they finished playing catch, Lantz kept the ball.
A Babe Ruth-like performance from Prior
The buzz for Prior's Triple-A debut was electric.
Fans, reporters and players understood how big of a name Prior was. An announced crowd of 8,243 fans packed into the park on a Tuesday night. It wasn't a sellout, but was far from a typical Tuesday crowd.
Lantz estimates around 20 media members, some from Chicago, were credentialed. Mahoney says Prior's teammates knew how big of a deal his debut was. They had heard stories about how dominant he was in college and how good he could be in the pros.
"He was a superstar coming out of college," Mahoney said.
It didn't take Prior long to realize how big the occasion was, too. The team's clubhouse, located in left field, has a door on the fence that players walk through to get to the field. As soon as Prior walked out, he saw fans crowded around the left field foul line trying to grab an autograph, snap a photo or just get any type of glimpse of him that they could.
"It felt different, for sure," Prior said.
Iowa was playing the Tucson Sidewinders that night. The actual game didn't matter. Most fans didn't care about Tucson or the majority of the Cubs lineup, frankly. All they cared about was Prior and how he looked.
And he looked great.
"Don't think we'll get two starts out of him," Cubs fan Dave Souders told Register sports columnist Sean Keeler that night.
It became apparent why right away. Prior, whose fastball sat in the mid-90s throughout the evening, controlled the game from start to finish. He struck out the side in the first inning and again in the third inning. He got standing ovations both times.
"He had really good carry on his fastball," said Micah Franklin, who hit fifth for Tucson that night.
The most memorable parts of Prior's debut actually happened at the plate. He smashed a home run in the fifth inning. Two innings later, he crushed another to dead centerfield. As Prior rounded the bases following the second shot, fans in the stands joked that after touching home, he'd head straight for Chicago.
Prior gave the crowd curtain calls following both homers. It was a performance that players like Baez, Bryant and even Kerry Wood, as great as they were, never matched with the Iowa Cubs.
And the reaction from the crowd was unlike any other the park had seen.
Lantz, who went on to work for the Baltimore Orioles and then MiLB and now Major League Baseball, still can't believe the response from the fans.
"That's one thing that I've never ever seen in my life is a curtain call at a Minor League Baseball game," Lantz said. "That just doesn't happen."
Mahoney joked it was humbling to see how easy the game appeared to come for Prior, who touched 94 miles per hour in the first and in the eighth innings. No one could keep up with it either. Prior stuck out 10 in 7.2 innings and allowed just three hits and one unearned run to get the win. It was close to flawless.
"I don't think Babe Ruth could have done hardly better than Mark did on that night," Bruce Kimm, Iowa's manager at the time, recently told The Register.
The expectations for Prior only grew from there. He continued to be a must-see attraction. The phone kept ringing at the park as fans tried to buy tickets to see another start. The Cubs sold autographs baseballs that went out of stock quickly.
News operations across the country wanted to write about the next boy wonder, who happened to be playing in Iowa. The Los Angeles Times wrote about Prior. So did the Associated Press. Fans in Chicago kept close tabs on his progress and anxiously awaited his arrival with reports in their city papers and TV stations.
The attention grew so much that Iowa team officials had to find special ways to sneak Prior in and out of the park. He was even allowed to skip one of Minor League Baseball's most interesting traditions of charting games in the stands. Pitchers from both teams would sit in the stands so they could get a better view and more accurate radar gun reading. Veteran pitcher Alan Benes, who was with Iowa at the time, knew Prior wouldn't be able to get his work done if he sat among fans.
Prior said after his successful debut, there was nowhere else for him to go but down. But he was nearly as good in his second outing on May 12, 2002, when he stuck out 10 more hitters in 4.2 innings of work. Prior delivered at the plate again with a triple.
And like that first night, fans followed his every move.
"I only remember my hitting," Prior said with a laugh. "I don't remember my pitching."
Prior thanks the fans in Iowa with a full-page ad
Prior's stint in Iowa was short-lived.
He appeared in just three games with Iowa before being called up to the majors on. Before leaving, he took out a full-page ad in The Register thanking the fans for their support.
"I don't know that I've ever had anybody take out an ad in the paper to thank the fans," Bernabe said.
In his Chicago debut, Prior was brilliant again, striking out 10 and allowing only two earned runs in six innings against Pittsburgh on May 22, 2002. His rookie season, like that debut in Des Moines, suggested Prior was a superstar-in-the-making: a 3.32 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 116.2 big-league innings.
The next year, Prior was a budding superstar in Chicago and won 18 games. He was an All-Star and led the Cubs to the National League Championship Series. Prior took the hill in Game 6 of the series with a chance to clinch a spot in the World Series.
That greatness attached to him as a prospect seemed oh so close ...
And things unraveled.
The infamous Steve Bartman play occurred. Alex Gonzalez booted a grounder and the Cubs let a late lead slip away to lose. The Cubs then fell in Game 7.
For years, that team, just like its young star pitcher, became an ultimate sports "What if?" story.
Prior never did lead the Cubs to a World Series and he never became the superstar like Clemens. Instead, a host of injuries — to his hamstring, shoulder, elbow and oblique — derailed his career.
He made other appearances later in his career at Principal Park, for rehab assignments.
Whenever Prior returned, fans again packed the stands like they had a few years earlier. Prior went on to win 42 games in his big league career. He pitched in the Independent League and bounced around the minors before retiring in 2013.
Prior, now the pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is still a legend around Des Moines and in the Cubs organization.
What if Prior stayed healthy? Could he have helped break the curse before the Cubs' World Series title in 2016? Would he have gone on to a Hall of Fame career?
For one night in Iowa, it certainly looked like he was destined for baseball greatness.
That's why Lantz still has the ball from his catch with Prior and got it signed. That's why Prior's banner hangs at Principal Park. And that's why anyone who was at the park that evening for his Triple-A debut will likely never forget it.
"We'll never know," Callis said. "And that's the sad part about pitching."
Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch .
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Chicago Cubs prospect Mark Prior delivered one of the most memorable minor-league debuts 20 years ago