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Mark Prior reflects 10 years after ‘The Bartman Game’

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 3:  Starting pitcher Mark Prior Chicago Cubs celebrates last out against AtlantBraves during game three National

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 3: Starting pitcher Mark Prior of the Chicago Cubs celebrates the last out against the Atlanta Braves during game three of the National League Division Series October 3, 2003 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Braves 3-1.(Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

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Injuries derailed his career, but former Cubs right-hander Mark Prior has tried comebacks with the Padres (counterclockwise from
Yankees, Red Sox and Reds.

VIDEO: Bartman-Alou play (Cubs vs. Marlins - 2003 NLCS Game 6)
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Updated: November 14, 2013 6:44AM

He was naïve in 2003, he says now, to the complexity of Cubs history, the generations of hopes and frustrations heaped upon those who wore the same pinstriped jersey as his No. 22.

It was probably to his benefit.

After the 2003 All-Star break — the Cubs’ most meaningful second half since, when, 1945? — he allowed 1.5 runs per game. Fans stopped him, knowing his previous performances like their children’s birthdates.

It was so different than how he grew up, paying $6 to sit in a nearly empty, converted football stadium and watch a franchise whose top commodities were Tony Gwynn and a chicken mascot. Here, it was invigorating to capture the city’s imagination. But it was impossible to take that to work with him.

It stayed that way after he packed up and went home to San Diego at the end of the 2003 season.

And it stayed with him 2,000 miles from Chicago that Halloween, when Mark Prior looked around the room and saw three men dressed up like Steve Bartman.

Won’t blame Bartman

This isn’t about the fan who caught the ball or, really, about the man who threw the pitch.

It’s about the season, which ended 10 years ago this week, that was supposed to be the first of many playoff berths that would put the Cubs’ woeful history squarely in the rear-view mirror.

‘‘We planted a seed to where it was a cultural shift,’’ Prior said from San Diego, where he lives with his wife and three children. ‘‘Let’s not just celebrate one good team and go on our way every year. We gave them a taste of what it could be like.’’

The Cubs’ five-game playoff-like series came early in 2003 — on Labor Day. The team hosted a four-day series against the Cardinals. At 69-66, the Cubs trailed the first-place Cardinals by 2½ games and the second-place Astros by 1½ in the National League Central.

‘‘You go in there and you flop, you know your season’s pretty well done,’’ Prior said. ‘‘It was, ‘We can’t beat the Cardinals, we can’t beat the Cardinals,’ and we were able to do it.’’

Prior pitched eight scoreless innings after a 4-hour, 17-minute rain delay to win the first game. The Cubs split a doubleheader the next day, won the fourth and fifth games by one run each and ended the series a half-game behind the Astros. They took 19 of 27 games in September to win the division.

‘‘We kept building momentum,’’ Prior said. ‘‘I didn’t at the time realize what all this was meaning. My main concern was trying to get to the playoffs.’’

He was dominant there, too, earning a complete-game victory against the Braves in the NL Division Series and another against the Marlins in the NL Championship Series. He allowed five runs (three earned) in Game 6 of the NLCS, all after the Bartman incident in the eighth inning.

Manager Dusty Baker has been criticized for not visiting the mound after the Bartman play to calm his usually focused pitcher, but he now says he called out to Prior after contesting the umpire’s ruling of no fan interference. Prior insisted he was fine, and Baker believed him.

Pitch No. 114 was on the way — the exact number Prior had averaged during his starts that season.

Prior maintained left fielder Moises Alou would have caught the ball were it not for Bartman, but he is hesitant to cast blame on the play or the fan. Besides, Prior said, he was confident the Cubs would win Game 7 and do well in 2004 — and beyond. Most everyone connected to the Cubs — fans, players, management — held the same belief.

‘‘Things might have turned out differently if we’d won that game and gone to the World Series, and I still thought we had a chance with [Kerry Wood] going the next night,’’ Baker said. ‘‘But who knows? Sometimes things just aren’t meant to be.’’

Disappointment in 2004

That’s the cruel part of all of this. Despite the sour 2003 finish, even the most spooked Cubs fan had hope.

From 1969 to 2002, the Cubs finished last in their division eight times and second-to-last eight more. They had followed their three previous postseason appearances — in 1984, 1989 and 1998 — with losing seasons.

The Cubs lost 95 games in 2002. But by the end of 2003, they were armed with the 23-year-old Prior, who finished third in Cy Young voting, the 26-year-old Wood and 22-year-old Carlos Zambrano.

‘‘In 2004, we came in and we were expected to win it all,’’ Prior said. ‘‘That’s a pretty big shift in expectations and thought process. . . . I think everybody was confident that, ‘If we stay healthy, we’ll be good.’ It doesn’t cross your mind that you’ll be unhealthy.’’

The Cubs won 89 games — one more than they did in 2003 — but missed the postseason.

‘‘Had we stayed healthy, things would have been different,’’ said Prior, who didn’t pitch until June because of an Achilles tendon injury. ‘‘Would we have won a championship? You can’t say that.’’

Failed comebacks

The 2005 Cubs posted a losing record. Prior had two elbow injuries, one suffered on a comebacker off the bat of the Rockies’ Brad Hawpe. Wood made three trips to the disabled list one year after missing two months with a strained triceps.

The Cubs won 66 games in 2006 but made the playoffs the next two seasons. Prior missed most of 2006 and all of 2007 with shoulder problems and has tried unsuccessful minor-league comebacks since with the Padres, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and, last season, Baker’s Reds.

Some days, he wakes up wanting to throw his first big-league pitch since 2006. Others, he considers coaching or working on TV.

He calls himself a Cubs fan and appreciates 2003, when he and his teammates changed the city’s expectations — albeit temporarily.

‘‘Looking back with more understanding,’’ he said, ‘‘it was pretty cool.’’


Twitter: @patrickfinley

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