It's all good as former Cubs Prior and Brown return to Wrigley

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • LEFT: Los Angeles Dodgers assistant hitting coach Brant Brown. LEFT INSET: Mark Grace greets Cubs teammate Brant Brown at home plate as Brown scores the winning run after a wild pitch at Wrigley Field. RIGHT: Dodgers bullpen coach Mark Prior. RIGHT INSET: Mark Prior pitches for the Cubs against the Cardinals on Aug. 31, 2002.

    LEFT: Los Angeles Dodgers assistant hitting coach Brant Brown. LEFT INSET: Mark Grace greets Cubs teammate Brant Brown at home plate as Brown scores the winning run after a wild pitch at Wrigley Field. RIGHT: Dodgers bullpen coach Mark Prior. RIGHT INSET: Mark Prior pitches for the Cubs against the Cardinals on Aug. 31, 2002. Associated Press photos

 
 
Updated 6/23/2018 6:58 PM

A pair of players with star-crossed Chicago Cubs careers walked into Wrigley Field this past week.

How did each respond to the sights and sounds? By thanking his lucky stars.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Always good feelings," said former pitcher Mark Prior. "I love being here in the summer. A lot of good feelings looking up, seeing the scoreboard, just looking around and seeing the buildings and the familiar sites, the familiar things I used to see all the time, being on the mound pitching, batting practice, the fans being out there for BP.

"It's funny. It's one of the unique places where the stands fill up for BP. There's always fans, but never to the extent to what it's like here. There's always a good energy."

Prior was joined at Wrigley Field by former Cubs outfielder-first baseman Brant Brown. Today both are Los Angeles Dodgers coaches. Prior is the bullpen coach, and Brown is the assistant hitting coach.

Each was a Cubs player whose accomplishments were overshadowed by strange occurences and whose places in franchise lore were in largely defined by those occurences.

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For Prior, it was a series of injuries and an epic collapse in Game 6 of the 2003 National League championship series, a game that began with him on the mound with a chance for the Cubs to go to their first World Series since 1945.

For Brown, it was a dropped flyball near the end of a solid season in 1998. The flyball at Milwaukee's County Stadium didn't cost the Cubs a postseason berth, but the gaffe was made famous -- or infamous -- by the lamentations of radio analyst Ron Santo, who's "Oh, no" might as well have become Brown's middle name.

Brown politely requested that "Milwaukee" not be part of our recent conversation, but he didn't mind joking that he tells people that his hotel later that night had a balcony and that he made a lot of extra money for the Cubs because they hosted a home play-in game against the Giants to get into the playoffs.

Both Brown and Prior insist they look back on their times here with pride and fondness.

"Once I got drafted by the Cubs, I never really saw myself other than being a Cub," said Brown, who later played for the Pirates and Marlins before finishing with the Cubs in 2000. "I can remember taking the train to Wrigley Field. I can remember walking down the street and seeing a family with Cubs ensemble. I would give them tickets just randomly, like, 'Hey, do you want to go to a game? What's your name? Here's for your family.'

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I always did well on those days. I don't know if it was karma or not, but trying to just be involved in the Cubs community and the Cubs family, doing as much as I could with signings and going out. I remember going out with Ron Santo. I remember going out with guys to other places in the suburbs just to be a part of the community.

"It's a huge community. To experience that, it was the best year of my life."

Brant Brown is now the assistant hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Brant Brown is now the assistant hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. - Associated Press
Finally getting his chance:

Brown, 47, was the Cubs' third-round draft pick in 1992. However, his career path at first base was blocked by Mark Grace.

In 1997, Brown saw some time in left field, and the following spring training he told manager Jim Riggleman he could play center field if starter Lance Johnson went down with injury. Brown played both center and left in 1998 while putting up a hitting line of .291/.348/.501 with 14 home runs in 347 at-bats.

The outfield error at Milwaukee on Sept. 23, 1998, notwithstanding, he was a key contributor to the Cubs winning the wild card.

"I was mentally and physically focused," he said. "I ended up playing some games in spring training in center and ended up playing predominantly center field while Lance was out. Being able to contribute the way I did was really, really enjoyable.

"Obviously being on that team and winning for the first time in a little while in Chicago, the electricity that presents with the fan base and the player base, all of Chicago, was definitely something special in my memories."

Former Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Mark Prior says he has "no qualms whatsoever" today and loves being back in the game as a coach.
  Former Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Mark Prior says he has "no qualms whatsoever" today and loves being back in the game as a coach. - John Starks | Staff Photographer/2003 file
Pitching up to the hype:

Prior, now 37, was one of the most hyped draft picks in Cubs history, going second overall behind Joe Mauer in 2001.

Looking back, he says the hype wasn't too much.

"No, it was warranted," he said. "I set the bar high, as it should be. We tell the young kids, 'The players are the ones who set the lineup and make the decisions based on performance.'

"I had very high expectations. I don't think the hype was unwarranted. I definitely would rather have that challenge than the challenge of not having anything expected."

In 2003, Prior was money down the stretch after suffering a shoulder injury during a July 11 baserunning collision with the Braves' Marcus Giles. In August, Prior went 5-0, and in September, he won 5 of 6 starts to help the Cubs win the NL Central. For the regular season, he was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA.

"There was a lot of confidence as a team," he said. "It helped that we were fighting for a playoff spot. It was a daily battle all the way until the end. I think we just came to the yard every day as a group and really just wanted to win a ballgame, however that was, whether it was hitting, pitching, defense.

"I think we all wanted to make sure that we did our job to give the team the best chance to win. But for me personally, it was a run that I never had anything like in the pros."

Prior tossed a complete-game victory over the Braves in Game 3 of the division series and beat the Marlins 12-3 in Game 2 of the championship series, as manager Dusty Baker allowed him to work 7 innings in a blowout.

Things came apart in Game 6, as the Marlins scored 8 runs in the eighth inning to erase a 3-0 deficit. Prior was charged with 5 runs (3 earned) and he took the loss. The Marlins won the series in seven games.

"I don't know that I ever really processed other than, unfortunately, we didn't get it done," Prior said. "Florida had a good team. … I think that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

"Disappointed, for sure. If we would have continued the run, it would have been an easier pill to swallow. We put ourselves in a position to win. Unfortunately, we didn't capitalize on it."

One thing Prior won't do is blame anyone else for the loss, not a fan who touched a foul ball and especially not Baker for not coming out to settle things down.

"No, no," he said. "It's 15 years later. It's definitely time to move on. For me. I think back on a lot of the good memories -- the Braves series, clinching the playoffs, the amount of games we won, the Labor Day series against the Cardinals. Those are the things I think about, how much fun that stuff was."

Injuries, which began hitting Prior in 2004, derailed the rest of his career, and he was done in the big leagues by 2006, going 42-29 with a 3.51 ERA in 106 games, all with the Cubs.

Mark Prior is now the bullpen coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Mark Prior is now the bullpen coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. - Associated Press
Giving back to the game:

Prior and Brown now enjoy their time working with current players. Both have worked their way up through the minor leagues as instructors and coordinators.

A few years ago, the Cubs had Prior speak with prospects during a winter camp.

"Jason McLeod (Cubs scouting and player-development chief) reached out to me," Prior said. "It was humbling. It was a great event. I think for me, and I say this a lot, the guys I came up with, (Jon) Lieber, (Jason) Bere, (Fred) McGriff, Woody (Kerry Wood), all those guys were really good to me.

"One of the things I learned from them was to pay it forward and teach the younger guys, and it's probably why I'm here coaching right now. Whatever knowledge that might be, you want to try to impart at least something to somebody and hopefully that helps them in their career. Hopefully they can push it on to that next generation.

"I do feel that because of my playing experience, the ups, the downs, the in-betweens, I have a lot of unique perspective of the game that can help."

Brown is working as the assistant to Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward.

"I went back to school when I was all done," Brown said. "But you still feel kind of married to the game and the passion that you have. It's really enjoyable now to look at it from the other end and seeing, 'How does the front office work? What do they value? As a coaching staff, what do we value? What do you try to instill? What kind of process do you try to give the kids? How do you help them? When I was feeling bad, what did I really feel I needed?'

"I try to communicate that with the players now. It's just so fun. It does keep you alive. It keeps you young. To be able to be in the major leagues as a coach and coming back here and seeing all these places, as in 'Bull Durham,' these beautiful cathedrals they have built to play this game.

"How could you be upset at any time? It's just a great life."

Before every Dodgers game, Prior heads to the bullpen to work the Dodgers' pitchers, and he is there during games to help relievers get warmed up. As busy as Prior is, there is no time for the what-ifs when it comes to his playing career.

"No, I love where I'm at right now," he said. "The game has been great to me. I have no qualms whatsoever. The game is what it is for everybody. Everybody has a different experience.

"For me, it didn't end the way we all thought it would. But I'm here now loving what I do. I love the fact that I'm very, very fortunate to still be in the game. It's been great. My time here was awesome."

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@BruceMiles2112.

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