Book excerpt: The heavyweight matchup, Peavy vs. Prior

“Never a Bad Game,” which chronicled the first 50 years of the Southern League, has been updated and re-released. (Ordering information below). Over the coming weeks, I’ll present excerpts from 10 of my favorites of the 50 stories told in the book.

It was the kind of hype rarely seen in the minor leagues, where typically stardom is something yet to be achieved. But on late morning of April 17, 2002, in Mobile, the stars were aligned. It wasn’t the Mobile BayBears vs. the WestTenn DiamondJaxx.  It was one of those games you could imagine in the bold, unique font of a boxing promotional poster:

Peavy

vs.

Prior.

If there was ever a heavyweight pitching bout in the Southern League, this was it.

In one corner, Mobile’s pride and joy, Jake Peavy, the righthander from St. Paul’s Episcopal School, already on a fast track to the majors.

In the other corner, Mark Prior, the can’t-miss prospect with the fireplug calves and 95-mph fastball, the second overall pick in the previous year’s draft.

They weren’t yet acquainted when this main event rolled around, an occasion for which The Mobile Press-Register promised, “The eyes of the baseball world will be on Mobile today.” Perhaps the world would be watching. But with this 11:35 a.m. start, only 2,479 were watching at Hank Aaron Stadium.

Peavy grew up as an Alabama fan but Crimson Tide coach Jim Wells “broke my heart” and didn’t offer him a baseball scholarship.  Instead, Hal Baird at Auburn “treated me like royalty” on a visit and Jake committed. “I wanted to go to Auburn and beat Alabama.” But the Padres drafted him in the 15th round after his senior year at St. Paul’s and ponied up more than the usual 15th-round bonus. Peavy was off to pro baseball – and soon back home in Mobile.

This was only the third professional start for Prior, who began his college career at Vanderbilt, then transferred to Southern California where he was All-America and named the top college player of the year in 2001.

On the eve of their matchup, Prior said, “I’m looking forward to a good, old-fashioned pitching duel.”

It was far from that. Though Mobile columnist Tommy Hicks rightly called it “one of those ‘I was there’ moments.”  Peavy gave up a homer in the second, then loaded the bases in the fourth before Prior, a .242 hitter in limited college experience, flew out to deep left-center. After two walks in the fifth, he ceded control to the bullpen, which let things grow worse. Peavy’s line was four innings, five hits, three runs, two walks, five strikeouts.

“He pitched better than I did,” Peavy would say years later. “It was a big matchup for both of us. We were both prospects. He was Mark Prior — the biggest thing in baseball.”

Prior pitched seven strong innings, allowing only two hits and striking out eight. But, as Hicks wrote, “Those are the stats. The reality is he would blow away a hitter with his 95-mph fastball on one pitch, stymie the hitter with an 88-mph curveball on the next pitch and leave the batter motionless with a 76-mph change-up on the next pitch. There was a lot of guessing in the batter’s box, only a couple of them being correct.”

Peavy was promoted to the majors on June 22 of that season. Two years later, he’d win the National League ERA title and in 2007 was the unanimous Cy Young Award winner.

Prior would be in the majors exactly a month earlier than Peavy, having gone 4-1 in six starts at West Tenn, 1-1 in a three appearances at Class AAA Iowa. He finished 6-6 in Chicago and by the time he was 18-6 the next year, he was indeed on the verge of becoming the biggest thing in baseball.

But Peavy vs. Prior II wouldn’t happen. They had 494 combined appearances, but never faced each other in the majors.

To order a personalized copy of Never a Bad Game, email markfmccarter@gmail.com and provide an address, and we’ll bill $22 via PayPal or Venmo (postage included). Or send check or cash to me at 604 Vance Road SW, Huntsville, AL 35801.

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