Baseball Toaster Cub Town
Chess Match
2004-08-11 12:03
by alex ciepley

Last night's game was a bummer. Five solo home runs, some flys that gave the heart a flutter in the ninth, and a miserable performance by Mark Prior.

Bruce Froemming was a bit jerky behind the plate, not calling some close ones (and doing an absurd "you're out" wave on strike two to Todd Walker), but that isn't really a good excuse. I'm not someone who can sit in my living room and tell you if something looks wrong with a pitcher -- if his mechanics are off, if it's the curve that's the issue -- but my impression of Prior isn't one of a pitcher who is suffering through a physical injury, but a pitcher who is struggling to be as mentally sharp on the mound as he once was.

I say this as someone who has a healthy case of the doubts when anyone starts to project character or psychological issues on a player when they are struggling on the field. Most of the time I think those arguments are bogus or, at best, undefendable. Just as I know I can't pick apart the finer points of Prior's mechanics, I sure as heck can't get inside his head.

And yet, this is my outsider-among-outsiders impression. Prior, last year, seemed to not only have a physical edge on his opposition, but a mental one as well. He was a chess Grandmaster, a Bobby Fischer type who not only knew the moves but also possessed a killer instinct.

Indulge me for a minute on the Fischer comparison, even if just because I find the now-despicable Bobby a fascinating character in our history. Here's how a great biographical piece on Fischer described his play when he broke onto the chess scene:

What was astounding wasn't simply that a gawky thirteen-year-old kid in blue jeans was suddenly winning chess tournaments. It was the way he was winning. He didn't just beat people--he humiliated them. The thing he relished most was watching his opponents squirm. "I like the moment when I break a man's ego," he once said, during a Dick Cavett interview.

Now, I'm not saying Prior has reached (or will reach) this level of domination as a pitcher, but there was an inkling of it at times last year. A runner gets on base? No matter, Prior would more times than not step it up and shut down the opposition. Going up against Maddux in your first postseason game? No problem, complete game victory. Only in dreaded Game Six of the NLCS did we see Prior unravel.

As a kid, I played chess, and while I was certainly no great shakes, I could hold my own against my peers. It didn't matter how old the competition was or how experienced... if we were comparable players and the game was tight at the end, I felt I would win. I don't know how to describe it, but there was an extra boost of concentration -- a moment of clarity -- that made me believe that I was about to outplay my opponent down the stretch. It didn't always work out, but it often enough did.

I gave up chess when I decided it was an uncool smudge on an already uncool youngster's profile. When I tried playing again a couple years back, I was amazed that I had just lost it. The moves still came to me, but I couldn't close the deal. I was tentative, defensive, and ever-hopeful for a draw.

This is my impression of Prior right now; a guy with all the stuff who's momentarily lost his ability to play a good endgame. When he didn't get that called third strike against Klesko, it was checkmate and all downhill from there. I could continue my comparison to Fischer here, relating how Bobby went off the deep end after becoming World Champion and reemerged years later a shadow of the former player, but I don't think the comparison from this point is at all apt. I just think Prior's lost his groove, but hopefully for just a bit. The Cubs could use his killer instinct in the season's final months.

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