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Mark Prior and The Heartbreak Club

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There were two eye-opening bits of news here in this story about Mark Prior retiring.

1. I honestly thought he retired five years ago.

2. Mark Prior is still only 33 years old.

The second of those bits is even more shocking than the first. He is STILL only 33? If Mark Prior had stayed healthy, he would only now be signing a seven-year, $190 million deal with the Mariners or somebody. Baseball can be an extremely cruel game.

Prior probably should have won the Cy Young Award in 2003, when he was just 22 years old. The award went to Eric Gagne because it was one of those periodic years when the voters fall in love with relief pitching all over again. Gagne had a superb year for a closer … but not markedly different from John Smoltz that same year, Trevor Hoffman in 1998 or Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland this year. Prior pitched more than twice as many innings and was significantly more valuable.

Anyway, people had to figure Prior would win plenty of Cy Young Awards. Here are the greatest pitching performances since World War II for pitchers 22 or younger:

1. Dwight Gooden, 1985, 24-4, 1.53 ERA, league-leading 276 Ks.
2. Bert Blyleven, 1973, 20-17, 9 shutouts, 325 innings pitched.
3. Mark Fidrych, 1976, 19-9, league leading 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games.
4. Vida Blue, 1971, 24-8, league-leading 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts, Cy and MVP winner.
5. Larry Dierker, 1969, 20-13, 2.33 ERA, 305 innings, 20 complete games.
6. Sudden Sam McDowell, 1965, 17-11, league-leading 2.18 ERA, 325 strikeouts.
7. Mark Prior, 2003, 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts.
8. Frank Tanana, 1975, 16-9, 2.62 ERA, league-leading 269 strikeouts.
9. Bret Saberhagen, 1985, 20-6, 2.87 ERA, Cy Young winner.
10. Frank Tanana, 1976, 19-10, 2.43 ERA, 261 strikeouts.

Of this list, only Blyleven went on to a Hall of Fame career. Tanana, who is on the list twice, blew out his arm and reinvented himself as a soft-tossing lefty. Dwight Gooden, Sam McDowell and Vida Blue all dealt with various demons and fell a few steps short of greatness. Larry Dierker had an up and down career, and Bret Saberhagen was alternately brilliant and injured.

Then, Mark Fidrych and Mark Prior belong to the same club, the heartbreak club. They each had one glorious year in the Major Leagues. Their bodies would not hold up for another. Fidrych felt his arm go dead in the middle of the next season. Prior had trouble with his achilles tendon the next year — people would always suspect it was his elbow and the Cubs just didn’t want to admit it. In 2005 he was pitching quite well and he got hit by a batted ball that smashed his elbow. In 2006 the Cubs announced that he had a “loose shoulder,” which does not seem like a medical term but Mark Prior was never even a decent Major League pitcher again.

Lots of people blame overwork for the fall of both Fidrych and Prior, and that does make some sense. Fidrych in particular was abused — from May 15 to August 29 that year he made 22 starts and pitched 198 innings. Quick math will tell you, he AVERAGED nine innings for those 22 starts. This is in part because he pitched 11 innings four times during the stretch and 10 innings once. It was pretty close to criminal.

Prior’s overuse was not nearly as pronounced, but people did notice even at the time that Dusty Baker was having Prior (and fellow phenom Kerry Wood) throw a lot of pitches. In September of 2003, during the pennant run, Prior threw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131 and 133 pitches in his six starts. It’s interesting: None of those were complete games. Even now, there is much disagreement about pitch counts and how best to protect young pitcher’s arms and so on. I guess the infuriating part with the Cubs was that there seemed no visible effort whatsoever to protect Prior’s arm. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, but you sort of wished they would have at least made a show of it.

When Prior was young and right, he was all but unhittable. He had a fastball he could pump up into the high 90s and his better pitch was a curveball that was like setting the phaser to stun. His curve would just leave Major League hitters frozen — sometimes it seemed like they were still standing at the plate long after Prior had reached the dugout. He walked just 50 batters in his amazing season.

His effort to come back has been both touching and sad. Anyone can understand: He was destined to become one of the best pitchers in baseball history, and he had it taken away from him, and he had trouble accepting it. From Tennessee to Iowa, from Orange County to Oklahoma City, from Tampa to Scranton to Pawtucket to Louisville he chased ghosts, hoping against hope for some part of himself to return. I imagine that at times he snapped off the old curveball or fired a fastball that hopped a bit, and he found himself believing that he would come all the way back. Then there would be more pain.

The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday had a three paragraph note acknowledging Prior’s official retirement. The first few words were “Former Cubs Phenom Mark Prior.” And sadly, those are the last words too.

Trevor May joins eSports team Luminosity

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 04: Trevor May #65 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Cleveland Indians in the sixth inning at Progressive Field on August 4, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Twins 9-2.  (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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When he’s not throwing baseballs, Twins pitcher Trevor May is an active gamer. He streams on Twitch, a very popular video game streaming site, fairly regularly and now he’s officially on an eSports team. Luminosity Gaming announced the organization added May last Friday. It appears he’ll be streaming and commentating on Overwatch, a multiplayer first-person shooter made by Blizzard Entertainment.

May is the only current athlete to be an active member of an eSports team. Former NBA player Rick Fox owns Echo Fox, an eSports team that sports players in games including League of Legends, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Street Fighter V, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Mortal Kombat X. Jazz forward Gordon Hayward is also a known advocate of eSports.

The NBA in particular has been very active on the eSports front. Kings co-owners Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov launched NRG eSports in November 2015. Shortly thereafter, Grizzlies co-owner Stephen Kaplan invested in the Immortals eSports team. Almost a year later, the 76ers acquired controlling stakes in Team Dignitas and Team Apex. The same month, the Wizards’ and Warriors’ owners launched a group called Axiomatic, which purchased a controlling stake in Team Liquid, a long-time Starcraft: Brood War website which has since branched out into other games. And also in September 2016, Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko bought team Renegades, moving them to a group house in Detroit. In December 2016, the Bucks submitted a deal to Riot Games in order to purchase Cloud9’s Challenger league spot for $2.5 million. The Rockets that month hired someone specifically for eSports development, focusing on strategy and investment. Last month, the Heat acquired a controlling stake in team Misfits.

Once an afterthought, eSports has grown considerably in recent years and now it should be considered a competitor to traditional sports. League of Legends, in particular, is quite popular, reaching nearly 15 million concurrent viewers at its peak in the most recent League of Legends World Championship. That championship featured a prize purse of $6.7 million with $2 million of it being split among winner SK Telecom T1’s members.

Orioles re-sign Michael Bourn to a minor league deal

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04:  Michael Bourn #1 of the Baltimore Orioles hits a single in the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the American League Wild Card game at Rogers Centre on October 4, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
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The Orioles have re-signed outfielder Michael Bourn to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports.

Bourn, 34, joined the Orioles last year in a trade from the Diamondbacks on August 31. Though he compiled a meager .669 OPS with the Diamondbacks, Bourn hit a solid .283/.358/.435 in 55 plate appearances with the O’s through the end of the season.

Bourn, a non-roster invitee to camp, will try to play his way onto the Orioles’ 25-man roster. If he does make the roster, Bourn will receive a $2 million salary, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports points out.