When it comes to Cubs' curses, the goat gets most of the attention, alongside a mention of a black cat. But 10 years ago, a duck played a role in extending the heartache for Cubs fans, as pitching phenom Mark Prior couldn't go the distance at the Just Ducky Too store in Naperville.
The Cubs' faithful couldn't contain their giddiness in the spring of 2004 after Sports Illustrated, with a cover reading "Hell Freezes Over," predicted the Cubs would win the World Series for the first time since 1908. Much of that hope was riding on the strong right arm of young pitching phenom Mark Prior, who had won 18 games the season before.
Prior pitched that infamous 2003 playoff game against the Marlins when the Cubs were just five outs from the World Series. He issued a costly walk, threw a wild pitch, gave up three earned runs in that fateful inning and got the loss. But most of the blame went to a fan sitting down the left field line and to a shortstop who booted a grounder.
When Prior landed on the disabled list for the start of the 2004 season, arm problems were rumored before the Cubs blamed an Achilles tendon injury. On a Thursday night before his first start of the season that June, Prior was booked to sign autographs during an appearance at the Just Ducky Too gift store in Naperville.
"Watching a Mark Prior 'meet and greet' in Naperville Thursday was a lot like watching him pitch the infamous Game 6 in last fall's National League championship series," began the Daily Herald story about the appearance. "What started out as a joyous, once-in-a-lifetime occasion for some fans soon gave way to frustration, disbelief and mounds of confusion."
Kids were crying. Prior was upset. Media were turned away. The store owners promised buyers time with Prior, something he never agreed to in the contract. In the chaos, Prior left without signing all the replicas he had agreed to autograph. Allegations were made. Lawsuits were filed. And wary Cubs fans, attuned to recognizing bad omens, had a feeling this was a sign that Prior wasn't the "just ducky" hurler they had hoped.
Prior logged only 18 more Major League wins, all with the Cubs, during the rest of his baseball career known mostly for injuries that dogged his minor league comeback attempts with the Padres, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, Reds and independent league teams. This is the first spring Prior hasn't been trying to make some baseball team, as he announced his retirement in December.
Prior's former teammate Kerry Wood, the sweet retired-Cub yang to Prior's sour yin, remains a fan favorite even though he never had a season where he won more than 14 games. Prior doesn't enjoy that fan love.
"Is it karma?" says Beverly Donofrio, 67, a member of the family that still owns the Just Ducky stores and was there the night in 2004 when the Prior event turned ugly. "Certainly, we didn't wish him anything bad."
Will County Circuit Judge Herman Haase ordered Prior to pay back $30,900 of his $69.800 fee for the event for not following through on signing all the $299 miniature porcelain replicas of Wrigley Field mentioned in the agreement. But the judge also said Prior was misled about the event and that "the court did not hear any substantial evidence that he was behaving badly."
Prior, who pitched well the next day in a 2-1 Cubs loss, never enjoyed the same success or fan appreciation after the Just Ducky Too debacle.
"I was very disappointed in how he acted that evening, He just didn't treat people the way he should have," Donofrio remembers. "Do we hold any bad feelings? No. You have to move on, but it wasn't a good thing."
The Naperville store closed a few years later and moved into smaller stores in Plainfield and Burr Ridge. Even the miniature replicas that Prior did autograph before he left that night didn't sell.
"We had to reduce them," says Donofrio, who notes that the stores eventually sold them at a loss and have shied away from the sports market since that ill-fated night.
"Everybody was disappointed," she concludes.
But she doesn't believe in any Just Ducky curse, doesn't believe that night had anything to do with Prior's disappointing career and doesn't spend any time agonizing about the Cubs' late-season, wild-card-blowing collapse in 2004 or dreaming about what might have been.
"No," Donofrio says. "I'm a White Sox fan."