Former Chicago Cubs ace Mark Prior has heard the stories from players who gave up too soon and wished they had one final shot at returning to the major leagues.
He didn't want that to be his story.
On Tuesday, Prior, 29, pitched a scoreless inning in relief for the Orange County Flyers of the independent Golden Baseball League. Goodwin Field in Fullerton is a long way from the hallowed confines of Wrigley Field.
"It's not the problem of reinventing myself," Prior said Friday after practice. "I never got over the first hump."
In five seasons with the Cubs beginning in 2002, Prior won 42 games. In 2003 he went 18-6 and had a 2.43 earned-run average. He made the National League All-Star team and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
An Achilles' tendon injury caused the right-hander to miss the first two months of the 2004 season. By 2006, Prior, who once starred at USC, was dealing with shoulder problems. He had pitched 657 major league innings, 211 of them in 2003. Prior didn't pitch in the majors in 2007 after shoulder surgery and was cut loose by the Cubs that December.
Prior has been out of baseball since last summer, when the San Diego Padres released him from his minor league contract. He had already undergone two shoulder surgeries by that time -- most recently in January 2009 for a torn anterior capsule -- and was struggling.
The initial injury might have been the result of an on-field collision in . But one thing became clear: Prior always seemed to be walking off the field with a trainer at his side.
Those days might be behind him. After nine months of training under the watchful eyes of USC pitching coach Tom House, Prior is throwing in the 90s again. He said he sees pitching as a middle reliever as his ticket back to the major leagues.
House, who mentored Prior early in his pitching career, is confident that Fullerton is only a stopover.
"He's doing this to show people he can be durable and can continue to pitch," House said. "My guess is he'll get to the big leagues real quick."
Not long ago, though, a simple game of catch brought pain to Prior's right shoulder as he began yet another rehabilitation, this time working with House. He trained in a small gym near the left-field line at USC's Dedeaux Field, pushed by the hope that he could get his shoulder working again. On June 30, about 20 scouts showed up at USC to watch him pitch, but no offers came.
"It was a way for me to get word out that I'm still here, I'm still trying to pitch," Prior said of the workout. So he signed with the Flyers.
Flyers Manager Paul Abbott said he was excited to "see the pleasure in [Prior's] face after the four years he's gone through."
Mike Gillespie, who was the baseball coach at USC when Prior starred there and now coaches at UC Irvine, said the San Diego native never missed a pitch, let alone a start.
"What I expect -- and I hope it's not just wishful thinking -- I hope someone sees that he can be on a major league staff," Gillespie said. "I just really hope someone sees that and gives him a chance."
Prior concedes that there have been times when he wanted to quit baseball, to end the cycle of shoulder pain, to not have to endure another rehabilitation.
"I'm not going to lie and say I've never wanted to say I've had enough," Prior said after throwing 30 pitches in practice. "I've been at the highest point, I've been at the lowest point. Now I'm kind of trying out the middle."