Piniella seems both perplexed and slightly beside himself at all of the attention the situation is receiving.
"What makes it tough on him, tough on everybody, is that he was so good," Piniella said. "Everybody expects him to be back there overnight. And it's just not going to happen.
"Be patient with him."
Though he often looks uncertain and lost on the mound, Prior swears that he has retained his confidence. Says he fully believes he again can become the pitcher that controlled opposing hitters as if they were marionettes in '03.
"For everybody, it's not a gravy boat all the way here," he said. "I struggled some in high school. I was 4-8 with a 5-something ERA my freshman year of college. I've gone through stretches where things weren't working out."
Among other things, he says, he needs to do a better job of leaving his work at the ballpark so that it doesn't cloud his mind.
"Everyone says don't take your work home, but my work is home -- it's on the TV," Prior says. "When things are good, this is the best job in the world. When things are not so good, it's not the best job in the world."
He is far enough behind that Piniella pretty much is not counting on him for the open fifth starter's slot behind Zambrano, Lilly, Marquis and Hill. Miller likely will open the season there, with Angel Guzman still having an outside chance.
What the Cubs hope is that Rothschild can help spit-shine Prior to the point where the right-hander again can achieve liftoff and come back strong at some point this summer.
They are not holding their breath.
Among the 50 or 60 people in the stands watching early Friday morning was a boy hoping to have a Prior figurine autographed. A lady wearing a "Field of Dreams" sweatshirt walked toward the spot where Prior was signing autographs when he was finished. Dreams is right.
"I've done the big picture," Prior had said a day earlier. "It ends up biting you in the butt. I'm trying not to get ahead of my skis."
On this morning, someone asked him whether he was resigned to not being ready for opening day.
"We're still two weeks away," said Prior, who likely will open the season either at extended spring training or in the minor leagues. "That can be an eternity, or it can be short.
"It depends on how you view it."
The echoes of those Wrigley Field October nights in '03 have never seemed so far away.