Great Expectations: Prior Set for Cubs' Debut

May 22, 2002

With AP Photos

By NANCY ARMOUR
AP Sports Writer

CHICAGO (AP) - If Mark Prior had any doubts about the frenzy awaiting him,they were gone as soon as he walked into the Chicago Cubs clubhouse.

There, taped on a board for everyone to see, was a newspaper headlinescreaming, 'The Can't-Miss Kid.' As if that wasn't enough, pictures of RogerClemens, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson surrounded one of the rookieright-hander.

'I'm not here to try to do anything special,' the 21-year-old Prior saidTuesday. 'Like I said, I got called up to do one thing and that's just do whatI've been doing.'

That's what's causing all the furor, though. Dubbed one of the best collegepitchers ever last year, Prior has had a meteoric rise since the Cubs made himthe No. 2 pick in last June's amateur draft.

After signing a $10.5 million contract with Chicago, he went back toSouthern California and continued working on the business degree he's asemester away from getting.

He came to spring training not having pitched since the College WorldSeries, yet dazzled the Cubs and their opponents with his potential.

'I was impressed by him as any young pitcher I've ever seen,' veteran Cubscatcher Joe Girardi said. 'His stuff, his work ethic, his humility, hisfundamentals - he's very sound. He was very polished.'

Starting the season in Double-A West Tenn, Prior tore through the minorleagues. He went 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in nine games at Double- and Triple-A,striking out 79 while walking only 18.

In his debut at Triple-A Iowa, he struck out 10 and gave up only an unearnedrun. He also homered twice, drawing curtain calls from the fans.

'It's unfair to expect he'll dominate in the major leagues the way he'sdominated in the minor leagues,' Andy MacPhail, the Cubs president and generalmanager, said Saturday after announcing Prior's promotion.

'But it's pretty evident that he's ready, and it's pretty evident that wecan use him here.'

One look at Chicago's record is enough to see that. Despite picking upMoises Alou in the offseason and having Fred McGriff from the start, the Cubsare in their lovable loser mode once more.

They were 15-28 after splitting a doubleheader with the Pirates on Tuesday,11 games out in the NL Central. They snapped a nine-game losing streak - theirlongest since 1997 - on Sunday. And they're 7-15 at Wrigley Field, hardly theFriendly Confines these days.

They're having trouble hitting - Alou is scuffling along at .159 and McGriffat .220 - and their pitching isn't a whole lot better. Defense is a problem,too.

'We're (not) going to roll off 15 in a row just because Prior showed up,'said Kerry Wood, one of the few Cubs not struggling. 'But it gives us - andthe fans - something else to look forward to. And he's got great stuff.'

But for as much as the Cubs try and temper Prior's arrival, the hype isalready huge. Camera crews filmed his every move Tuesday, following him even ashe walked down the steps into the dugout.

The Cubs, after all, haven't won a World Series since 1908, struggling forthe better part of a century. Any sliver of hope is grabbed tight and squeezeduntil it chokes - or leaves for another team.

'If you let it get to that point, it can be,' said Wood, who got a tasteof that suffocating pressure in 1998, when he tied a major league record with20 strikeouts in his fifth start.

'But like I said, when I came up, it was baseball first and everything elsesecond. That's the way I handled it.'

If anyone is equipped to handle it, it's Prior. He acts years older than 21,and has been through the media circus at USC. So he already has an idea of whatto expect and how to handle it.

Prior was 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA last year at USC and won the Golden SpikesAward, given to the top amateur baseball player in the United States.

He doesn't read his clippings, and he still can't help but smile when hetalks about how much fun he's having. His big plans for Tuesday night? Pick uphis girlfriend at the airport.

'I wasn't looking from the outside in when I came up, but it looks likehe's getting quite a bit more attention,' Wood said. 'But he's been gettingit since he got drafted. I think he's gotten to the point where he's used tothe attention. I don't think the pressure is going to get to him.'

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