'Prior' experience helps former catcher

BY JOSH HOLMAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published May 31, 2004

LANSING — Less than a year ago, former Wolverine
catcher Jake Fox made the decision to forgo his senior year at
Michigan to accept a contract from the Chicago Cubs and try his
luck in the Minor Leagues. If you would have told him he’d be
catching for the Cubs’ pitching ace Mark Prior a year later,
he may have called you crazy.

Ryan Nowak
Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Prior stretches in the dugout. (AP PHOTO)
Ryan Nowak
Former Michigan catcher Jake Fox celebrates after a 9-3 win last season. (ELISE BERGMAN/Daily)

“I wouldn’t have believed (you) right away,”
Fox said. “Even if I got to work with Mark Prior, it would
take a two- to three-year span to work my way through the system as
a catcher. If you told me that a year ago, I would have said
‘I’m not that good.’ ”

Sure enough, Fox got his chance on May 20. But Fox hadn’t
been promoted that quickly to the Major Leagues — the
scenario he may have preferred to catch Prior in. Instead, the
Majors came to him. The Cubs assigned Prior — who is
recovering from an inflamed right Achilles and a sore elbow —
to a pair of rehab starts for Fox’s current team, the
Single-A Lansing Lugnuts.  

“Working with Prior, I learned so much from him,”
Fox said. “From the baseball aspect of it, it helped me out a
lot with dealing with my pitchers. So when (other players) ask me
‘how do I compare to him,’ it’s really not that
much different. They just make more mistakes than him and leave
more balls out over the plate.”

Those nuggets of education straight from the top level of
baseball have helped Fox assess what he needs in order to make it
to the Cubs. Fox faced major league pitching during spring
training, allowing him to gauge how close he is. Surprisingly,
Fox’s ability to hit pitchers as good as Prior is one of the
last things he needs to concentrate on. The Cubs had a whole list
of concerns for Fox when he arrived.

“They told me that, number one, we want you to get used to
playing every day because that’s the hardest thing for guys
to get used to,” Fox said. “And number two, we want you
to worry about being a catcher first and a hitter second.
I’ve been doing real well on both those things, but I
didn’t quite believe them on the every day thing.”

That ‘every day thing’ is one of the adjustments
that college athletes face when going pro. Baseball isn’t
just that thing after class anymore — it’s a full-time
job.

The minor league season is only two months old, but Fox is
already starting to show signs of fatigue.

During Prior’s second rehab start, Lansing manager Julio
Garcia gave Fox the day off. After Prior pitched 4.1 innings
— allowing just one run off two hits — the game against
the West Michigan Whitecaps ended up going 11 innings. The late
innings had plenty of high pressure opportunities that Fox would
have loved to be a part of, but he spent most of the night watching
down the right field line, filling the role of bullpen catcher.

But that is just part of dealing with life in the minors and,
luckily for Fox, he’s been able to make the professional
transition just up the road in Lansing, a short trip from Ann Arbor
and within driving distance of his home in Greenfield, IN.

“There was a possibility of me going to Daytona Beach and
playing high A ball, but I wouldn’t want it now,” Fox
said. “I got a chance to go back to (Michigan) and watch the
Wolverines play a game against Western Michigan. I got a chance to
talk to coach (Rich) Maloney and (volunteer) coach (Scott)
Mallernee. It kind of gave me a second wind.”

Fox is going to need that boost.

Prior did his work in Lansing and is set to make his first start
for the Cubs on Friday. If Fox wants to catch him again, he’s
going to have to take that long road through the minors and reunite
with Prior at Wrigley Field.