Mark Grace: Back in the Bigs

A thin trail of steam lifts from a green, coffee-filled Gatorade cup and into Mark Grace’s view. It breaks through his thoughtful stare, a side effect of reminiscing about his favorite teammates from 16 years of Major League Baseball.

The coffee is necessary not only for the pre-game morning workout, but also because Mother Nature was angered that May morning, lowering temperatures into the 30s and whipping rain off the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park, forcing the stadium’s roof closed. Perched above the bench of the visitor’s dugout, hunched, elbows on his knees with both hands warmed by his morning cup, Gracie is back where he belongs, enduring the day-to-day grind of the show. At the ballpark early to work with Diamondback hitters before a Saturday matinee, a uniformed Grace looks, sounds, and is comfortable. His high and tight haircut is simply styled, enough to evidence a morning routine that is further proven by a clean shave, save only for a well-outlined but tightly cropped goatee. Looking out through a classic set of eye frames, Grace cycles through memories of all his teammates, but makes special note of Shawon Dunston, who he called his most memorable colleague.

“I’ll never forget him the rest of my life. … The things he did, the things he said,” Grace said. “Shawon played so hard and wanted to win and wanted to do well so bad, and he’s the guy that there’s just something about him. I’ll forget a lot of my teammates and I’ve forgotten hundreds of ’em already, but Shawon will be the guy I remember all of my life.”

The topic sent sparks through my memory, as it surely does for any Cubs fans reading this recount. Grace, as well as Dunston, are more than names in Chicago Cubs’ historical records. They are, like many before and few since, icons — men who came to Chicago with a bat and glove and left pieces of themselves on Wrigley dirt every summer. Grace’s acknowledgment of guys like Dunston, Brian McRae and Steve Buechele furthers the popular Chicago theory that Gracie gets it. He’s our kinda guy.

Prior to the 1988 draft, though, he was, in many ways, the enemy. A born and raised St. Louis Cardinals fan, Grace grew up hating the Chicago kinda guys like Ryno, Sweet Swinging Billy Williams and Mr. Cub. That all changed, though, when the Cubs selected the first baseman that year in the 26th round. “Obviously my loyalties changed but quick. Soon thereafter, I hated the Cardinals,” he said.

Grace played three seasons with Arizona after thirteen in Chicago, and the Diamondbacks helped the former all-star get back to the Major Leagues after his off-the-field troubles.(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Arizona Diamondbacks)

Grace played three seasons with Arizona after thirteen in Chicago, and the Diamondbacks helped the former all-star get back to the Major Leagues after his off-the-field troubles.(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Arizona Diamondbacks)

And soon thereafter began Chicago’s love affair with Gracie, who debuted in 1988 and helped the Cubs to the National League Wild Card. There were others, of course. Ryne Sandburg, Andre Dawson, and Greg Maddux were awe-inspiring Hall of Famers, while Dunston and Rick Sutcliffe charmed fans with grit and periodic mastery of their craft. But, Grace was the one constant through it all, and his ongoing successes were complemented by a wide grin, youthful face, and endearing habits. Through the next 13 seasons in the Second City, Grace became as much of a part of summer in Chicago as Dan Ryan construction and heat index warnings.

The fan reverence didn’t elude Grace, who said he thinks his genuine nature was refreshing and respected in Chicago. And on a team with a century of losing on its back, there had to be something to cling to. “If you’re a player that gave it your all and put in a hard day’s work and played the game hard, win or lose, they like you,” Grace said of Cubs fans. “All those adored Cubs, they all had one thing in common: They were good players, but they were also good people and they cared about the City of Chicago, not just the Cubs.

“I was a guy who didn’t have a posse, I didn’t have bodyguards. After games, I’d be out among the people and I think they appreciated that. I think Cubs fans looked at me and said, ‘Ya know what, he’s one of us.’ And I look back and yea, I was one of them, and I still am.”

During his tenure in Chicago, Grace lived a mile south of the ballpark. Contrary to current setups, where ballplayers can get all three meals at the park, he said, Grace and other boys of summer hit the streets after weekend day games, looking for a bite of food and nightlife. It was a relatively simple formula. “Finish up eating, find some place to be for another couple hours and then be time to go home for tomorrow’s game,” Grace said.

In between eating at “1,000” Chicago restaurants and being a man of the people, Gracie was a hallmark of consistency in between the foul lines. His plate song was “Taking Care of Business.” During his 13 years in Chicago, he was a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover, while sporting a .308 batting average and .386 on-base percentage to go with 2,201 hits, 148 homers, 456 doubles and 1,004 RBI.

After the 1999 season, he joined an exclusive club, one with only 13 members—one for each decade baseball stats have been counted. Grace’s 1,754 hits in the ’90s were the most in that span (so were his 364 doubles). Every retired member of that club, from Cap Anson of the 1880s to Robin Yount of the 1980s, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame—except Mark Grace.
“I guess the biggest feather in my cap—the Gold Gloves, I’m very proud of—but I guess what I’m most proud of is having more hits than any other player in the decade of the ’90s, including Hall-of-Famers and what not,” he said. “That’s probably something I take a lot of pride in. Every player to ever do that is in the Hall of Fame, but me. So, at least I did something Hall of Famers did.”

That had to bug him, but already wearing a smile, Grace just wrinkled his face and shook his head.

“Not any more. I was on the ballot and only got about 4 percent of the votes so I’m off the ballot. Once again, I’m at peace with that. No problem. I don’t really think about it any more. Being in the Hall of Fame, sure it would be great, but it’s not going to make or break what I thought of my career. I’m very proud of what I did. My kids are very proud of what I did. My parents are very proud of what I did. Cooperstown, I can go visit any time I want.”

Simple, authentic, self-aware. The attributes made Grace a lovable Cub. That love made the breakup that much harder prior to the 2001 season, especially because the Cubs looked like villains for not offering Grace arbitration; though, at 36, the former star was in the twilight of his career. It was difficult to watch Gracie trot around in another uniform, but satisfying to see him succeed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, with whom he competed for three seasons, winning a World Series in 2001. In that series, Grace homered at Yankee Stadium and knocked a leadoff double in the seventh inning of the Diamondbacks’ comeback victory in Game 7.

The ring gave Grace plenty to love about Arizona, where he resides and raises his children. Though at the time in 2001 he didn’t want to leave Chicago, any grudge was squashed long ago.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t leave on the greatest terms, but it doesn’t change the fact I’ll never have any ill will toward Chicago Cub fans and the city,” he said. “I’ll always have great memories of my 13 years there. The two years that we went to the playoffs were unbelievable. It didn’t end as well as we would have liked. … As it turns out, it worked out really well for me, it worked out really well for the Cubs and at the end of the day, both sides ended up very well off.”

Twilight quickly turned to dusk for Gracie, who said the he knew he “wasn’t any good any more” when he retired in 2004. In his career’s afterglow, Grace’s demeanor and personality were ideal for the pressbox, in which he colored the TV broadcasts for the Diamondbacks, while also guesting for Fox Saturday Baseball. The calling became a second career as

Gracie again charmed baseball fans with his unusually honest and casual presentation. He upgraded, signing a deal with Fox in 2007. His style in the booth was like an extension of his career, fun and success at a high level.
“I was very at peace when I retired. I understood. The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be,” he said. “So it wasn’t hard to just watch. What I had to remind myself up in the booth was, the game looks easy from up there. Pitchers don’t look like they’re throwing hard, balls don’t look like they’re hit hard, guys aren’t running very fast; it looks easy. This is a very difficult game to play at this level, and there is no higher level. … I had to remind myself that, ‘Mark, you popped up those same pitches up. You made errors at first base. You made base-running mistakes.”

Grace called games with Fox through the 2011 season, but still covered Diamondbacks games through the following season. He hadn’t retired this time. Instead, this time, Grace’s off-the-field actions weren’t so much charming as they were illegal. The baseball star with the all-in-good-fun reputation logged two DUI arrests in 14 months — one in June 2011 and another in August 2012. Before the sentence was announced, Grace was dropped by Fox and the Diamondbacks. The legal consequence saw Grace, who pleaded guilty to lesser crimes, spend four months in jail—though he left each day on a work-release permit, only to return at night—followed by two years probation.

But Gracie didn’t pack it in. He got up, dusted himself off and got back in the game, with plenty of assistance from the Diamondbacks, who employed Grace as a spring instructor so he could get his work-release permit. Grace stopped drinking, saying he hasn’t touched alcohol since beginning his sentence. The Diamondbacks found another spot for Grace in late 2013, setting him up with a small, single-A affiliate, painfully and ironically named the Hillsboro Hops. It was a long way from the Major Leagues, but it was in the ballpark. At the low level, Grace worked with talent, but very raw talent — kids who are used to being the big fish, but were now in the biggest pond, or foreign ballplayers who did not speak English. As irritating as it seems, Grace made it sound exhilarating. “It’s really refreshing down there because you’re actually teaching these kids how to hit, you’re actually teaching them some different aspects of hitting and what to think about and you’re actually teaching them an approach,” he said.

One year in Hillsboro and the Diamondbacks were convinced Gracie could handle being back in the majors, elevating him to assistant hitting coach behind Turner Ward. Now, he’s instructing pros, who are already at the highest level for a reason—and he doesn’t want to mess that up.

With the major leaguers, Gracie said he’s more of a mental health professional, helping them work out of slumps, manage the eight-month grind, and keep a level head. “Their mechanics are their mechanics. And those mechanics are what got them here. So, I’m not going to change their mechanics,” Grace said. “What you’re doing mostly up here is you’re a psychologist, you’re talking them off a ledge, you’re giving more metal tutoring than physical tutoring.”

And it’s especially a pleasure for Gracie to work with the All-Stars like Paul Goldschmidt, the 27-year-old three-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate. In MLB, it doesn’t get much better than Goldie. Like Grace, Goldschmidt is a Gold Glove first baseman. But Grace laughed off any similarities, humbly ignoring how common ground the two share could help him coach Goldie.

“The way I coach Paul Goldschmidt is: ‘You just go out there and be great and let me know if you want cream and sugar in your coffee,” Grace said. “Gosh, if every coach could have a Paul Goldschmidt, they’d be really, really good coaches. Trust me. He’s a superstar player that doesn’t act like it, which is rare these days.”

Goldie’s No. 44 is the top jersey seen at Arizona’s Chase Field. Back in Chicago, the most popular jersey at Wrigley is difficult to determine. At any given game, you’ll see new favorites like Anthony Rizzo (44), Jon Lester (34) and Starlin Castro (13), entangled with old classics like Sandberg (23), Dawson (8) and Maddux (31). Then, there’s the number 17. Wearing the digits on the field this year was super rookie Kris Bryant, or the second coming himself, the man who is pre-destined to spearhead a curse-smashing Cubs run to the World Series. But, in the stands, for the most part, the number doesn’t represent Mr. Bryant. That number is quasi-sacred. It belongs to Mark Grace.

Cubs fans have an infatuation for Gracie, for his heroism and his humanism. But it may be going away; it’s at least weakening. The fans that really appreciated Gracie aren’t getting any younger. Grace looks out over his coffee and onto the diamond at Miller Park, saying he’s flattered that the fans still pull on No. 17 before home games, but he knows those days are numbered.

“Cubs fans are different now then those die-hard Cubs fans that I and Ryno and Hawk [Dawson] and Shawon played in front of,” he said. “I hate for that era of fan to die off, but that’s the way life is. I was a Chicagoan. I lived in Chicago while I played, even in the wintertime, and yea, I dug my car out of the snow and I had to learn to parallel park and all those things you have to learn how to do in Chicago. I hope today’s Cub fan, certainly takes a little bit of yesterday’s Cub fan with them every time they go to the ballpark and just appreciates the players that are out their now, living, dying, and sweating for them on a daily basis.”

The dynamic at the Friendly Confines may have changed, but the pieces that Gracie left on the infield dirt have sunk too deep for any rake to drag away. He’s a part of Chicago’s fabric. Ask any Cubs fan of a decent age about Gracie and they have to smile. They remember roped doubles down the line, slick picks at the line, and, well, as for those rumors you’ve heard about Gracie, those stories that complete his lore—he never smoked in the dugout, that was against the rules; the clubhouse walkway, though, that’s another story— he’s got a message for you:

“They’re probably true. They’re probably true. Without knowing exactly, they’ve probably been embellished a little bit, but they’re true for the most part.”

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About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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  • Marc October 19, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    Good article, i enjoyed it thoroughly.