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Cubs pitchers share clubhouse, not same burdens

MESA, Ariz. -- They are on the same team, but not from the same baseball generation. Greg Maddux is three weeks shy of the big four-O and has the beginnings of crow's feet at the corner of each eye. Mark Prior is 25 and still looks as if someone from USC just handed him his diploma.

And yet, neither Maddux nor Prior acts his age. Maddux is Delta House's Eric "Otter" Stratton. He's the pseudo-suave, fearless smart-ass who's sort of damn glad to meet you. He is the master of the Chicago Cubs' golf pools, of the perfectly executed clubhouse prank. He's the kind of guy who would chat up Dean Wormer's old lady in the veggie section of the grocery store -- just to show the rookies how it's done.

Most of all, he's the guy good for 200-plus innings each year, double-digit wins, and another Gold Glove acceptance speech. The day he hangs up his signature shrug and smirk -- and we're at 318 victories and still counting -- is the day you begin the Cooperstown Countdown to first-ballot induction.

Prior -- at least, the Prior I've seen during the last several years -- shares Maddux's on-field intensity, but not his off-field playfulness. Then again, Maddux wasn't the second overall draft pick in 2001, wasn't the losing pitcher in the Cubs' Game 6 meltdown in the 2003 NLCS (forever known as "The Bartman Game"), and hasn't been on the disabled list in each of his first four seasons, with another DL visit likely to come soon.

Once again, Prior has been forced to shut down until a body part cooperates. This time a strained right shoulder muscle is the reason the Cubs will begin a third consecutive season without Prior in the starting rotation. No Curse of the Billy Goat, eh?

If nothing else, the Chicago Tribune isn't resurrecting "Prior Watch," the daily injury update box it ran during the first few months of the 2004 season. For now, Prior has been spared that indignity.

Our "interview" in the HoHoKam Park clubhouse lasted about as long as it takes to spit a stream of tobacco juice. I pitched my column idea to him: that few players in recent years have undergone more scrutiny than he has, and that, well, he doesn't seem to be having much fun these days.

"I have fun every day," he said.

"Really?" I said, as I uncapped my freebie Marriott pen.

There was a brief, awkward pause as Prior decided if he wanted to continue.

"Would you be offended if I said 'no'?" he said politely. "I'm just going to lie low."

Offended? Not offended, but disappointed.

"I'm still gonna have to rip you," I said.

"You did it with Duke," he said.

Ah, the "I Hate Duke" column. Turns out Prior is a closet ACC and Big East hoops junkie. His brother played tennis at Villanova, so that explains the Big East jones. The ACC thing? No idea.

We talked NCAA Tournament for a few minutes, shook hands, and then I did the Walk of Shame to the corner of the clubhouse. That's when I noticed Maddux.

Maddux doesn't hold court. That's not his style. Instead, he sits in front of his locker and takes in the scene. He is 39 going on Little League. He appreciates the subtle and simple joys of his job, even something as basic as watching a clubhouse come to life in the early hours of a spring training morning.

Maddux and Prior have some important things in common. They are devoted to their craft. They would prefer someone probe their nasal passages with a rusty Phillips head screwdriver than make a mistake on the mound. And they don't take crap from anybody, especially hitters.

But Maddux seems like he enjoys the game more. Maybe it's because he's nearing the end of his Hall of Fame-to-be career, while Prior is only five years removed from draft day. Maybe it's because he never had his right elbow fractured by a line drive, like Prior, or been forced to the DL because of a collision on the basepaths, like Prior. Or maybe it's because Maddux understands how fleeting the game can be.

"It's a good life," he had said in a group interview a few days earlier. "Mentally, I don't want to give it up."

And then, after almost everyone had left, Maddux became a kid again, which is what he is anyway. He gushed about a recent early-morning throwing session, when it was just him, a mound, a backstop, a catcher, a couple of Cubs batters and pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

You should have heard him. Maddux owns a World Series ring, four Cy Young awards, 15 Gold Gloves, and yet he still gets geeked about a glorified session of catch? That's Maddux. He is able to recognize the purity of a moment and somehow connect the baseball dots from his childhood to what will be his 21st big-league season.

I hope Prior gets the same chance. He deserves it. Cubs fans deserve it.

But first he has to get healthy and then stay that way. He has to win, because that's what franchise centerpieces are supposed to do. And if all that happens, if the Billy Goat cuts him some slack, maybe Prior can finally quit acting Maddux's age and start acting his own.

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