I've enjoyed doing these articles for you. But with Spring Training drawing to a close and my schedule crushing the very essence of my soul, I've got to throttle back the BCB workload. So this is the last planned "Fan Favorite." For the subject, I'm dipping into my very own past.
Growing up, baseball was my world. In the first known picture of me standing up, I'm holding a bat and ball. My dad has an affinity for doing things the "right way." So I learned to play team sports the team way, maximizing whatever I had to offer to help the team.
That mentality was extra important because I was always the smallest boy in my class. So I never focused on learning to hit -- I focused on learning to walk to make the most of my excessively small strike zone. I wasn't the fastest, but I learned to run the bases well. I focused on playing defense. As a first baseman, I caught and scooped most everything, though presenting a small target for infielders. I became a pitcher in part because I could throw strikes and out-think young hitters.
I had just turned 11 when Mark Grace debuted for the Cubs in 1988. The idolization was immediate. A sweet swing. A smart swing. A great glove. And a guy who looked like he was having fun playing ball.
The Cubs had picked Grace in the 24th round of the 1985 amateur draft out of San Diego State University. The lefty put up just silly numbers in only two full minor league seasons. Seriously. Look at the numbers. In 1133 minor league PA, he struck out 56 times. That's almost comical. He was scuffling a little bit in an early trial in Triple-A in 1988, but the Cubs brought him up May 2 anyway. He went 2-for-5 that first day against the Padres and never really stopped hitting.
All told, Grace would play 16 major league seasons, the first 13 for the Cubs before moving on to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He made three All-Star teams and won four Gold Gloves. He amassed 2445 career hits (111th all-time), including 511 doubles (51st all-time). Career walks: 1075. Career strikeouts: just 642. His career slash line: .303/.383/.442 with an OPS+ of 119 worth 45.6 WAR (oddly enough, at least to me, Grace's defensive value is a much more mixed bag than I would have thought). The knock on Grace was he didn't hit for enough power as a first baseman, belting "just" 173 career homers and knocking in 1146 runs.
Look at that OBP. How much would the Cubs love to have a .383 OBP in their line-up now (Welington Castillo was tops among Cub regulars at .349 last year)? In 13 years as a Cub, Grace's OBP was .370 or higher every season but one (.346 in 1991, driven down by a .273 BABIP). They're not the same type of player and it'll take him between four and five seasons to surpass Grace's strikeout total, but I think you'd have to love it if Anthony Rizzo had Mark Grace's career.
In Grace's second season, the Cubs went on their magical run to the 1989 playoffs. In what would be a heart wrenching series result, Grace tortured the San Francisco Giants. He had 11 hits in 17 AB, putting up a silly .647/.682/1.118 line with one homer and eight RBI in the five-game set.
Conversely, he had an awful 1-for-12 series when the Cubs were easily swept by the Atlanta Braves in 1998. He had two nice series for Arizona including a nice little World Series set in an eventual win over the New York Yankees.
His best overall season with the bat was probably 1995 when he put up a .326/.395/.516 season that resulted in a wRC+ of 137 and 4.7 WAR. He'd hit a career best .342 the next year.
In Mark Grace, I saw a player who played the "right way", maximizing his abilities and just being solid. I didn't learn about any of Grace's off the field challenges until later on. I don't know how that would have affected my younger self. The modern day version of me hopes Grace can get himself in order. In my mind, he'll always be "Amazin'."
I've enjoyed doing this series for you. I hope you've enjoyed it, too.
But I know I'll stick to my childhood memories of watching Grace have great ABs that often led to doubles while seemingly saving his infield teammates about a thousand errors a year (looking at you, Shawon Dunston).