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Back To The Prior Future, Or Something Like That

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(click on photos to view full-size in new browser window; if you are using IE, you may have to click the lower-right corner of the image to expand it to its full size; in Firefox click anywhere on the image. Photos by Al)

MESA, Arizona -- While most of the rest of you were watching the Cubs come from behind in the bottom of the 9th to beat the Mariners 3-2 at Las Vegas (more anon), I hied myself over to Mesa and Fitch Park to watch Mark Prior make his first appearance in any game action in more than three weeks, against a team of Padres minor-leaguers.

Watching games at Fitch is an interesting experience. If you've never been there, there are four fields, and an observation tower (which looks like a prison guard tower) in the middle from where the brass can view all the fields. Two of the fields are generally used for BP and drills, and in the mornings or afternoons, the other two are used for games.

I got there a bit early, having gotten a sandwich at a nearby deli, and ate in the park awaiting the start of the game. Given the fact that Prior is a star player, and that there are probably a lot of Cub fans in town not only for spring training, I expected possibly a few hundred people to descend on a field where the two sets of bleachers, much like a high-school field, only hold perhaps 100 people total.

I needn't have worried. I counted about 75 people watching Prior. Now, understand that the typical attendance at these games consists of a dozen or so friends and family members of the players. For comparison, the Double-A game on the field behind the one I was watching, had exactly nine people watching.

Before it started, a photographer with a zoom lens about 10 feet long was there taking pictures of some of the Cubs' up-and-coming AA stars, including Felix Pie and Brandon Sing.

While the rest of the Triple-A roster, including players such as Peter Bergeron, Richard Lewis, Robinson Cancel, Dave Fontenot (who looks like he's about 5-foot-9), and Ricky Bell, were wearing pinstripe pants and the usual minor-league spring training royal-blue shirt with names on the back (and thank goodness for that, otherwise I'd never have known who they were), Prior wore gray pants and his navy-blue Cub warmup shirt.

OK, you're saying, get on with it! How did he throw?

Well, I wanted to set the scene for you.

Anyway, he had excellent velocity, but little command. He walked the first batter he faced, got smacked around for a couple of hits in the first inning, which, incidentally, was stopped after 17 pitches, even though there were only two out. He seemed to get stronger as the three-inning, approximately sixty-five pitch (I lost count, but that's pretty close) outing got later. He had three strikeouts and two walks, allowed five runs -- and that'd have been less if he had a better defense behind him. He also allowed two home runs.

I ran into Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald, who seemed to be very happy to have the assignment to cover Prior instead of having to go to Vegas, and we talked about the first couple of innings, and I think his assessment is much the same as mine (incidentally, Bruce, thanks for helping me out with the pitch counts!).

But the best news is that, from all indications, he threw easily, did not appear to be having any discomfort in his elbow whatsoever, and if you look carefully at the photos I've posted here, I'd say his famous "perfect form" is indeed perfect. I suspect the Cubs WILL start him on the DL -- yes, that's right, Chuck from Ivy Chat, you were right about this.

But. This is simply a procedural move. It has not yet been announced, but off what I saw today, I do not see any reason why he won't start the Iowa Cubs' opener on Thursday night at Albuquerque, where the weather will be at least pleasant, and then if all goes well, be activated from the DL on April 11 and start at Wrigley Field against the Padres on April 12, the first time the Cubs will even need a fifth starter.

Yes, maybe I'm overoptimistic, but again, what I saw today with my own eyes contradicts any of the shrill stuff coming out of Chicago talk radio.

Some other stuff I found out at Fitch Park this afternoon: David Kelton has cleared waivers and will be sent outright to Iowa. This is good news for Kelton fans -- he stays in the organization, though to be brought back to the majors someone else will have to be put off the 40-man roster. The Cubs also will apparently soon sign Ben Grieve to a Triple-A contract after he was granted free agency after he failed to make the Pirates out of spring training.

Well, there's 2/3 of the starting outfield at Iowa, and actually, between the two of them and Peter Bergeron, who will likely be the Iowa CF, there are three players with ML experience who could be called up in case of injuries.

Today was "raw baseball". I love the fact that you can sit up close, hear the balls smack loudly into a catcher's glove, hear the umpire shout "Play!" when the game begins or when time is back in after a stoppage, even love the fact that a foul ball from the other field bounced menacingly just next to me (and they asked the guy who picked it up to give it back!) -- not to mention that this is all free of charge.

As for the Cubs' win in Las Vegas, one guy who won't be on the team (Angel Echevarria) and one who we hope will hit as he did in the spring (Henry Blanco, .316 with two homers in 43 AB) hit solo homers off Dan Reichert in the last of the 9th (the Cubs serving as home team today after being the visitors yesterday), for the 3-2 win and a final spring record of 15-17, which is absolutely meaningless. Now, the Cubs turn around tomorrow and return to Phoenix for Opening Day on Monday.

Tomorrow, I'll post my annual predictions and some personal thoughts on the spring just concluded and the season just ahead.

Can't wait for baseball that COUNTS.