Question Prior's shoulder; don't question his heart

CHICAGO -- Last May, as Albert Pujols was single-handedly destroying our ozone layer with home run after home run, I flew to Kansas City for a Saturday evening game between the Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols hit a three-run dinger, the Cardinals won the game and both clubhouses genuflected in the direction of the Cards' first baseman.

But the postgame conversation I remember best had nothing to do with Pujols and everything to do with Chicago Cubs starter Mark Prior. Royals backup catcher Paul Bako, who spent two seasons with the Cubs, motioned me over to his locker.

"What's going on with Prior?" he said.

"He's hurt -- again," I said. "And you know how it is in there. I think some guys on that team think he's a wuss."

Bako was behind the plate the Oct. 14, 2003, night that Prior and the Cubs spectacularly unraveled in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series … you know, The Bartman Game. He was there in 2004, when Prior began his slow but full-fledged descent into disabled list hell. But last May, Bako was just like you and me: a Cubs outsider who wondered what had happened to the late, great career of Prior.

"You can say what you want about him," Bako said, "but when he got on the mound, he was a bulldog. A bulldog."

Turns out he was more than that. He was hurt. But nobody, including Prior, knew that his Calfzilla body was eroding slowly with each injury. Something, he told friends late in the 2004 season, "wasn't right," but he kept pitching. That was one of the constants about Prior: There was always so much mystery and intrigue associated with his injuries. You could never get a straight answer because there was none.

All that mercifully ended Tuesday -- or at least it should have -- when orthopedist Dr. James Andrews made his first incision into Prior's right shoulder. The arthroscopic surgery to repair the injured labrum was similar to the procedure performed by Andrews on NFL quarterback Drew Brees' throwing shoulder in 2006. And that turned out pretty well.

Prior will miss the entire 2007 season. What else is new? He made only nine starts a year ago, was a disabled list regular since being drafted No. 2 overall by the Cubs in 2001, and, if not for teammate Kerry Wood, he'd lead the team in Most Minor League Rehab Appearances. But there were times -- and no one can dispute this -- that Prior was the most dominant right-hander in the game.

Now, who knows? Baseball and the throwing shoulder were never meant for each other. Add surgery and Prior's rotten luck to the equation and you're left hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

"What I'm most pleased about is that we've identified the problem now," said Tom House, a former big league pitcher who has worked with Prior since Prior's freshman year of high school. "As far as I know, he had the best surgery available, he'll have the best rehab available, and the prognosis is he'll return and have a productive career. There's absolutely no reason he can't return to pre-injury form."

This must be a weird time for Prior. Imagine being hurt for the past several years, but no specialist or MRI (and there were dozens and dozens of them done) can explain exactly what's wrong. You see so many doctors that you ought to have your own show: "Prior's Anatomy." Mendoza Line hitters, the kind you used to baffle in three pitches, are getting base knocks. Then come those whispers when you hit the DL: You're not a gamer ... you might be jaking it.

Tuesday's surgery offers vindication and relief. But that doesn't mean Prior is whole again. His shoulder isn't the only thing recovering. His reputation is going to need time to heal.

"He's been judged when he's had a flat tire," said House, a close Prior friend who holds a doctorate in psychology and is co-founder of the San Diego-based National Pitching Association. "He's supposed to be a Ferrari. He's gone out with all the appearances of a Ferrari. But he couldn't perform like a Ferrari."

He did in 2003, when he won 18 games in his first full season and helped lead the Cubs to within five outs of their first World Series appearance since 1945. But then the Ferrari started having some engine problems.

"This is what happens in the game," House said. "When you can't find an answer, what do you do? You criticize the problem. Everybody wanted him to be healthy and productive. When it doesn't happen, what does everybody do?"

In this case, they slowly turned on Prior and his supposed physical frailty. That's why House said, "I think that it's probably time to clear up a bunch of stuff now that we have a resolution what is wrong."

According to the NPA's efficiency model, which is based on motion-analysis cameras that break down a pitcher's delivery to 600-1,000 frames per second, Prior's mechanics were "among the best who have ever thrown the ball," House said. And his conditioning program was "state of the art."

So if his pitching mechanics were nearly flawless, and his conditioning regimen was top-shelf, then what was the problem?

"The only other piece, it's got to be pitch totals," House said.

House emphasized that he's not "pointing fingers," but instead simply discussing science and the numbers. Prior threw 167 2/3 innings during his first season of pro ball, followed by 211 1/3 innings in 2003. He was a strikeout pitcher, which meant he often worked long and deep into pitch counts.

"This guy, everybody has had an opinion about," House said. "He's done everything possible ... to get healthy and pitch for the Chicago Cubs. You put personalities aside, all those things that don't matter, the only thing that a finger can be pointed at is pitch totals."

But if you're questioning Prior's workload, you're also questioning then-manager Dusty Baker (now an analyst for ESPN), and pitching coach Larry Rothschild and, to a lesser extent, general manager Jim Hendry. Prior threw 1,126 pitches in his last nine starts of 2003 (an average of 125 per game), including four outings with more than 130 pitches. But the Cubs were trying to win their first World Series title since 1908, and Prior won seven of those starts.

"Anything that comes out of my mouth ... this isn't sour grapes," House said. "I'm not trying to defend myself, not trying to defend Mark. I'm telling you this is what baseball does."

Baseball Prospectus, which publishes what amounts to an annual statistical research bible, details the effects of PAP -- Pitcher Abuse Point. Yeah, it's a seamhead thing, but in layman's terms, PAP is a way of predicting whether your arm is going to fall off if you keep putting up high pitch totals. It mostly shows short-term risk, but there's also a relationship between inflated pitch numbers and long-term risk.

So I called one of the co-authors of PAP research, Keith Woolner, a contributing writer for Baseball Prospectus. He looked up the 2003 PAP numbers. Kerry Wood had the second-highest PAP totals in the majors, Prior the fourth-highest.

"That's a pretty high load for a guy," Woolner said. "At a very young age, [Prior] was worked harder than almost every other pitcher in the baseball. He and Wood were two of the four most heavily worked pitchers in 2003. And almost immediately after that, [Prior] started experiencing problems."

Did Baker, who was in a no-win situation, contribute to derailing Prior's career? Some have written, or at least hinted, at that. Woolner won't go that far because the research isn't conclusive. The July 11, 2003, collision with Atlanta Braves infielder Marcus Giles might have contributed to the shoulder problems. And Prior was a workhorse at USC even before he got to the Cubs (he threw 357 college innings).

Nobody knows for sure.

But put it this way: The workload couldn't have helped. And another Baseball Prospectus contributor wrote recently that Prior's superb mechanics probably protected his shoulder from additional damage.

Prior is signed through 2007. If I were the Cubs, I'd try to re-sign him. If I were Prior, I'd agree to the deal. I don't know whether he'll ever be the Prior of 2003, but if House and Andrews are right, he also won't be the Prior of 2004, '05, '06 and '07 -- the Disabled Years.

Maybe he can do what Brees did: Start fresh (a new manager in Lou Piniella) and finish strong (the playoffs). It's the kind of happy ending a bulldog deserves.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.