Well, come on, now. Who did you THINK was going to write this profile?
Profile by BCB reader cubbiejulie
Standing in line at the Cubs Convention, I became instantly mortified upon realizing that it was hot, really hot, in the room. Even though I was wearing short sleeves, I started to panic. Was I sweating? Was my mascara going to run? My eyeliner smudge? Were my curls going to (gasp!) droop? I whipped out my mirror and gave myself the once-over. Everything still seemed okay, except that I needed more lipgloss, stat. Okay, that's better. Satisfied that I didn't look like Phyllis Diller on a bad day, I put my compact away. Suddenly, I was ashamed. What was I doing, touching up my makeup at a baseball convention? I was in line for an autograph, for crying out loud, not at a kissing booth. I sheepishly looked around, hoping no one saw me, especially none of the BCB guys. Gawd, I'd never live it down. It was then that I realized that 75% of the line behind me was made up of women, and they were all doing exactly the same thing.
If you were a bobbysoxer in the 1940s, chances are you went gaga for Ol' Blue Eyes. If you grew up in the 1950s, you swooned over Elvis and his hips. In the 1960s, girls fainted at the mere mention of John, Paul, and the rest of the Fab Four. And if you were a young female Cubs fan in the late 1980s and 1990s, you went weak at the knees and listened to sappy love songs over Mark Grace. There really was no helping it; we were all in the same boat. I suppose it was inevitable; green eyes, blond hair, and a smile that could light up a room while still suggesting that there was something more mischevious at work underneath was a deadly combination for most of us. I kissed my poster of him goodnight so many times that his head eventually fell off (because, you see, his head on the poster was smaller than my lips and ... oh, nevermind).
Born on June 28, 1964 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (ha! I didn't have to look it up! I still remember it!) Mark was the second son of Gene and Sharon Grace. As a youngster, Mark and his family moved 13 times in 25 years. Mark has sometimes been referred to as "a phony", with disgruntled former teammates and Cubs front office staff commenting that he can turn his outgoing, happy-go-lucky personality off and on like a lamp. I think the constant moving around that Mark did as a child almost certainly accounts for a large part of this. Perhaps when you move from school to school and town to town as often as Mark did, on average more than once every two years, you learn to dispense with the shyness pretty quickly.
After living briefly in St. Louis, where Mark became (shudder) a Cardinals fan and idolized Redbirds' first baseman Keith Hernandez, the Graces moved to Southern California. Mark attended Tustin High School near Los Angeles, where he played both varsity baseball and basketball. He moved on to Saddleback Junior College where he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 15th round of the 1984 draft at the end of his sophomore year. For whatever reason, call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, Mark declined to sign with the Twins and transferred to San Diego State University.
It was at San Diego State that Mark finally started to make his ... uh ... "mark" on baseball. In his first year as an Aztec, he hit .395 and had a .465 OBP, leading the team in average, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, triples, sac flies, RBIs, and game-winning RBIs. Despite a year in which he set the Western Athletic Conference on fire, the scouts weren't willing to take a chance on a player who had refused to sign the previous year, and Mark fell to the 24th round of the June, 1985 draft. I don't know who it was in the Cubs organization that decided to give Mark a shot, but I'm certain that he has the undying gratitude of the female portion of Cubs Nation and probably reserved seating in heaven somewhere near the right hand of the Father.
It was in a game against my Beloit Brewers in 1986 or so that I got my first look at Mark and was instantly smitten. I spent the rest of the game trying to catch a glimpse of him in the dugout and highlighting all the remaining Peoria/Beloit games on my pocket schedule. Unfortunately for me, Mark didn't last long in A ball and was soon playing AA ball at Pittsfield, where he finished the 1987 season with a .333 average and a slugging percentage of .545. My access to my new-found love suddenly restricted, there was nothing more to do than wait and hope and pray that his stint in the minors was a short one. And it was. After being promoted to AAA in 1988, Mark played only 21 games for Iowa before he was called up to the majors.
Mark played his first game for the Chicago Cubs on May 2, 1988, where he promptly went two for five (batting seventh, and wearing uniform #28, rather than the #17 which later became so familiar) and collected the first of many multi-hit games against San Diego. Mark was inserted into the lineup again the next day, where he scored three runs and recorded his first walk and first extra-base hit. The following day, May 4, Mark hit his first major league homerun off Keith Comstock. Within three weeks of Mark's being called up, the Cubs traded fan favorite Leon Durham and Mark was handed the job as the starting first baseman. Mark would finish the year with a .296 average and second to (Mr. Whatever Happened To?) Chris Sabo in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. I remember being really mad about this, as Chris Sabo was so, so much uglier than our angelic Mark, who looked like Apollo next to Sabo and his stupid Rec Specs. Luckily for sportswriters everywhere, Mark was named Rookie of the Year by the Sporting News, or I would have been forced to lay some teenage smack down all around.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on the "Boys of Zimmer" panel at the convention this year, and it reminded me what a special year 1989 was. The panel consisted of Mark, Jerome Walton, Dwight Smith, Mike Bielecki, Les Lancaster, Ryno, and Doug Dascenzo. While they all had great tales to tell, Mark stole the spotlight with his beautifully-crafted stories, gentle ribbing of his teammates, and hilariously honest statements, such as "Mitch Williams wasn't ... all that bright. In fact, he wasn't very bright at all." Mark reiterated was how tight that team was; that when one player went out, the rest of the ball club went with him, the way Don Zimmer ruled with an iron fist, often resorting to the manager version of the parental refrain "because I said so": "Because I'm the manager!" Mark once marched into Zimmer's office and asked why he wasn't in the lineup. Zimmer's reply? "Son, because I'm trying to win out there."
But I digress. In 1989 Mark played a key role in the Cubs' Eastern Division championship season, no easy task in a lineup that included Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson. That season, Mark hit .314, finished with an OBP of .405, and committed only 6 errors (which is all the more impressive when you remember that Shawon "Just Throw It As Hard As You Can In The General Direction Of First Base" Dunston was throwing to him). The "Sandberg to Dunston to Grace" double-play combo was a giant killer that year, and I know I'm not the only Cubs fan to be grateful that we had Grace and Sandberg to balance out Dunston and his uncanny knack for throwing the ball into the opposing team's dugout. The Cubs ran away with the division that year, finishing with a 93-69 record.
If Mark was great during the 1989 regular season, he was spectacular in the NLCS, where the media played up the Mark "Amazing" Grace vs. Will "The Thrill" Clark angle. All Cubs fans remember the epic Game One battle between Mark and Scott Garrelts of the Giants. Mark fouled off something like 13 pitches and ran the count to 3-2 before knocking one into the bleachers to score Sandberg. I still remember Vin Scully's single comment after listening silently to the crowd at Wrigley going nuts for a good one to two minutes: "Boy, he is amazing." It's too painful to go into how that playoff series ended for the Cubs, so let's just talk about Mark's performance, which was nothing short of brilliant. He went 11 for 17, had a .647 average for the series, with 5 extra-base hits and 8 RBIs. There were a lot of Cubs players who didn't really show up for that series (cough! Dawson! cough!), but Mark Grace wasn't one of them.
After the memorable '89 team, Mark went on to play for a whole lot of forgettable Cubs teams. Even with Sammy Sosa joining the team in 1992, the Cubs in the 1990s went on a dismal slide that included EIGHT YEARS of never fishing above .500. Through it all, Mark never complained publicly, never asked for a trade, and always maintained that he wanted to play his entire career with the Cubs. In six of those eight seasons, Mark hit over .300. He won four Gold Gloves. He represented the Cubs in the All-Star Game three times. In 1996, Mark batted .326, hit 51 doubles (leading the NL), and finished 13th in NL MVP voting.
The Cubs would return to the playoffs in 1998, in large part due to Sammy's bat and Mark's veteran leadership. After a one-game playoff with the Giants due to identical regular-season records, wherein Mark had two hits and a walk -- and caught Joe Carter's foul popup for the last out, the only time the Cubs have won a winner-take-all game at Wrigley Field -- the Cubs limped through a lackluster NLDS against the Braves, getting swept.
By the end of the 2000 season, Mark's relationship with the Cubs' front office was starting to sour. Though he always maintained that he wanted to finish his career with the Cubs, the front office began to let it be known to the media that they were tired of Mark's constant bickering with their emerging superstar, Sammy Sosa, and complained that his pack-a-day smoking habits and late nights carousing at Yak-zies, The Cubby Bear, and Hi-Tops were a bad influence on young players like Kerry Wood and Kyle Farnsworth. Following the 2000 season, the Cubs let it be known that they would not be offering Mark a contract for the following year and, by all accounts, never even made a phone call to him or his agent. After 13 years with the Cubs, during which time his average never dipped below .273 or his OBP below .346, Mark Grace was kicked out the back door without so much as a "thank you." I and many other Cubs fans will never forgive Andy McPhail for that.
We know the rest of the story. Mark went on to play for the Diamondbacks in 2001. Of course, there was the infamous "slumpbuster" comment. And of course, he helped the Diamondbacks win the 2001 World Series, starting the winning rally with a single in the ninth inning of Game Seven. Immediately following the game, Mark made the comment, "What I really feel good about is I wasn't good enough to play first base for the Chicago Cubs, but I was good enough to play first base for the World Champions, and that feels really good." Ouch, Mark. That hurt.
Mark had one more signature moment with the Diamondbacks. In perhaps the funniest single incident of the 2002 season, Mark pitched the 9th inning of a 19-1 loss to the Dodgers on September 2. After getting the first two men out, he served up a 69-mph "'fastball" to rookie David Ross, which was promptly relocated to the right field bleachers.
Now twice divorced with two little boys, Mark lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where he works as a color commentator for the Diamondbacks during the season and, as is required of all retired sports stars, spends the rest of the year on the golf course. And yes, it's true, his broadcasting leaves a lot to be desired. After listening to him at the Cubs Convention this year, where he was so engaging and funny and had the audience rolling in the aisles, I can't help but think that, if he could bring more of that into his broadcasting, he could be something pretty special someday.
What goes around comes around, and if what Mark Grace gave to Cubs fans was 13 years of loyal devotion, it came back to him in spades at the Cubs convention this year. After appearing at Wrigley on August 3, 2006, to sing a really horrible rendition of "Take Me Out to The Ballgame," to the absolute delight of the crowd, Mark returned to Cubs Nation this off-season. While everyone knew he was going to get a big reaction from the throngs of adoring fans, I don't think even he was prepared for the outpouring of love that awaited him. Every panel he spoke at was interrupted by yells of "We love you Gracie!" every few minutes. He got enormous ovations everywhere he went. The line for his photo booth started forming 3 hours before he arrived. And, by all appearances, his teammates were as happy to see him as the fans were. I was lucky enough to be positioned in just the right spot to see a fierce bear hug between him and Ryno when the two met behind the autograph stage.
And, in my favorite moment of the 2007 Cubs Convention, when I finally made it up to the dais to get my autograph, curls bouncy, mascara looking good, lipgloss firmly in place, I told him we were happy he was back, and he looked up me, with the green eyes that can still make my heart do somersaults, and said, "You know what? It's really great to come home."