05/23/2002 3:03 pm ET
Prior looks back on debut
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- Yes, that was Mark Prior squatting behind home plate catching ceremonial first pitches on Thursday, the day after his dazzling Major League debut. Every rookie has to do that and the Chicago Cubs pitching phenom is no exception, no matter how many strikeouts he had Wednesday.
That also was Prior signing autographs for early arriving fans at Wrigley Field Thursday around 9:30 a.m. And that was him running around the ballpark shortly after 10 a.m. to get his work in.
And that was Prior in Wrigleyville near the ballpark late Wednesday after his big league debut. He wanted to see what the scene was like after a night game. A lot of people recognized him.
"I got caught in a logjam on Halsted and Clark (streets)," Prior said. "I was driving and they saw me in the car. I didn't sign (autographs) because I was in the middle of traffic. I didn't think it was the safe thing to do."
The safe thing may be to wear dark glasses and a disguise when he's out in public. The 21-year-old right-hander added to his already super-hyped baseball career by striking out 10 over six innings and picking up the win in the Cubs' 7-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before 40,000-plus at Wrigley.
"I know my life's going to change," Prior said. "I was talking about this a little bit with my family. For me, I'm still just a simple guy, kind of low key and like to do things that make me happy. I'll just have to find some restaurants that aren't maybe so high profile.
"This is my job and we're in the spotlight, especially in a town like Chicago with such great fans who have a big following," he said. "You're going to be noticed. It's one of those things you have to put up with. I accept it. I'm glad people like me. I'd rather be liked than not liked. I just go about my business and get my work done as I normally do."
His family - and the Cubs - think he's handled everything just fine.
"I think they were more nervous than I was," Prior said of his family.
Now that the first big league start is out of the way, Prior is focusing on his next outing Monday in Pittsburgh. So is Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"It's one start and it's a good way to get started," Rothschild said about Wednesday's outing. "I thought he made a number of good pitches, 19 out of 30 breaking balls for strikes, which is a high percentage and they were good breaking balls."
Prior threw only three change-ups among his 103 total pitches, relying on his fastball and curve.
"I think obviously when people see me the first time through maybe I won't need three pitches," Prior said, "but when they start getting film of me and studying me and getting reports then I'll have to use it a lot more."
"Most starters in the Major Leagues would be lucky to have two pitches and have the command of them that he does," Rothschild said. "And with his fastball, with the command he has of that, it's not two pitches. You can throw it in, away, you can throw it up, down. You really have four different places to throw it to make it a lot different. It goes back to the same thing and that's having command of the fastball."
Cubs manager Don Baylor agreed.
"Velocity is always a good thing but location is even better," Baylor said. "There's always somebody on the other bench who can hit a 95 mph fastball. They have to be able to pitch and they have to be able to locate that pitch and change speeds."
Which is what Prior has done in a brief pro career that started last June when the Cubs chose him second overall in the 2001 draft.
"I've said since Spring Training that I think his learning curve is here," Rothschild said, "and his education as far as baseball is going to be here."
The only thing Prior would gain by staying in the minors, Rothschild said, is the physical conditioning. He has the right stuff.
"There's still a learning process," Baylor said. "The kid is 21 years old. There's the same expectations as with Kerry (Wood)."
Wood, also a first-round pick, created a stir in his fifth big league start May 6, 1998, when he struck out 20. Every time the right-hander now takes the mound, he's expected to do a repeat performance. That's tough. Prior now has to deal with great expectations.
"Talent-wise, he's still learning," Baylor said of Prior. "He's young. Let him grow. Let him go out and get a little bit deeper into ballgames and get the game day experience of innings."
One thing Prior didn't do is party on Rush Street after his first big league game.
"With a day game (Thursday), I had to go home and go to bed. I was tired," Prior said.
He talked to his family after the game, then packed his bags for a week-long road trip. Has it hit him yet? He's pitching in the Major Leagues.
"It feels like a normal day after a game," Prior said Thursday. "There are a lot of emotions going on that I probably don't realize. It hasn't hit me yet. I was running around this morning on the field and up in the stands and I kind of got a sense about what it was about but it's still a game and it's fun to play."
"I saw him in Spring Training and I knew how good this kid could be," Cubs catcher Joe Girardi said. "We knew it was just a matter of time before he got here."
Carrie Muskat covers the Cubs for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.