Weekly Wire
NewCityNet State of Grace

With the 2000 Cubs a study in rebuilding, checking in on the team's gold standard, Mark Grace.

By Sam Weller

APRIL 3, 2000:  Mark Grace looks like hell. It's early morning in Mesa, Arizona, where the Chicago Cubs have their spring training facility, HoHoKam Park. The sun is but a few hours old, arriving on the desert horizon in a splash of pink and violet and blue magnificence. Heat shimmers like a swaying belly dancer from the blacktop parking lot of the ballpark. Already, the mercury on the thermometer quivers toward the high 80s. It's gonna be a hot one.

Grace arrives in the Cubby clubhouse wearing a T-shirt, skintight white boxer-briefs and a pair of rubber sports sandals. He walks with the gait and swagger of a cowboy after a whiskey-soaked night in the local saloon. His barroom brawl eyes are swollen and bloodshot. He makes his way back to his locker, nodding and grunting to fellow players along the way, before reaching up to a shelf to grab a pack of Winston cigarettes. He fires up a smoke and sits down, his head hanging like a breaking ball in the dirt. Taking long, satisfying drags on the square, within minutes, Grace undergoes a miraculous morning-after transformation. The eyes brighten. The puffy face relaxes. He starts joking with his locker mates, mostly young, eager players hoping -- praying -- they make the team before the final roster cut. Opening day is but two weeks away. The Cubs will take on the New York Mets in a hype-filled game at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. Quickly, after the cigarette is half-burned away, Grace looks Topps trading card perfect. This is the amazing Grace Cubs fans revere, worship, know and love. To the throngs of Cubby diehards too young to remember Ernie Banks for anything but his retired number flapping on the left field flagpole at Wrigley, Mark Grace is, no question, this generation's Mr. Cub.

Mark Grace arrived on the baseball scene in 1985, more bloop single than Waveland Avenue round tripper. After a monstrous year of ball with the San Diego State University Aztecs, leading his team with a .395 batting average, he was quietly selected by the Chicago Cubs in the twenty-fourth round of the free-agent draft.

To this day, Grace's college baseball manager, Jim Dietz, is dumbfounded as to why Grace sat so long in the draft before getting chosen. Dietz knows the game, he's captained the Aztecs for the last twenty-nine years, managing winning seasons for twenty-two. Jim Dietz is a member of a select club of collegiate head coaches who have garnered more than 1,000 victories during their careers. He has churned out scores of pro ball players, like Tony Gwynn and 1998's National League Rookie-of-the-Year runner-up, Travis Lee. Tallied up, thirty former Dietz proteges are currently in the bigs. Dietz never had a doubt about Grace's superstar potential.

"Half the battle in the major leagues," says Dietz, "is getting in the right organization at the right time that will give a player a shot. The Cubs did that. They gave Mark that shot. I always knew Mark was going to make it. He's an outstanding talent. He can really hit the ball. He's just a natural."

On this day, in the hothouse that is Mesa, there will be no cuts taken in the batting cage, no swings at the plate. Grace, a lifetime .310 hitter, is nursing a fractured middle finger on his right hand. He sustained the injury in a game against the San Francisco Giants. But, in typical Grace fashion, the 35-year-old tough guy played on, finishing the game and even clubbing a home-run ball over the HoHoKam fence. And this is a big part of his appeal in Chicago. Mark Grace is old school. He's a tough guy in a long, storied Windy City line of reliable hard-assed icons: Mike Ditka, Mike Royko, Dick Butkus, Nelson Algren. He seldom misses a game. In the 162-game season that was 1999, he took the field 161 times. He's a slide-head-first-and-dirty-his-uniform-kinda-guy. In the 1989 National League championship playoffs, while the rest of the Cubby batting line-up went the way of the Tidy Bowl Man, Grace's average topped .600.

So does Grace consider himself old school?

"Without a doubt," he says, dragging long and hard on his cigarette. "I don't have earrings, I don't wear batting gloves, I don't wear wrist-bands, I don't have tattoos all over me. The new athlete is not me."

And on the field, Grace even looks old school. In his home field pinstripes, he pulls up his long blue socks knicker-style in a uniformed throwback to yesteryear. Off the field, he still fits the bill. He drinks. He smokes. He frequents watering holes as often as he can. He owns a Jaguar convertible. He likes rock bands like Creed and Metallica, and he's single. He was married for a time to actress/model Michelle Johnson (now married to actor Ray Liotta), a union that had the Chicago Tribune referring to them as "the definitive Lincoln Park Young Urban Professional Couple." But that all crashed and burned, and the days of Grace's wife laying out an expensive suit and tie from Jeraz Ltd. on Oak Street are long gone.

"Am I out doin' drugs and stayin' out late every night?" Grace asks. "No. Do I like to have fun? Absolutely. Do I visit some local taverns? Sure."

Yet even with a bit of the party animal mystique, Mark Grace is unquestionably the team leader. He is a team captain. He is often the last one at the ballpark, still working out and practicing after everyone else has gone home. Grace is also conscientious with his approach and advice to young ball players.

"There's a time to be an ass-kicker and there's a time to be a big brother or the father figure," says Grace. "You have to understand the personalities of your teammates. You're gonna get the best out of some guys when you get in their face and challenge them. Then there are some guys if you do that they're gonna crawl right back in their shell."

But more than anything, what makes Mark Grace a timeless ball player are his stats. He puts up solid numbers year in, year out. He is as constant as the game of baseball itself. And this makes him different. He is far more Charlie Hustle than Neon Deion.

Just compare Grace's crapulent entrance into the Cub clubhouse to the arrival of supernova superstar Sammy Sosa. Sammy appears in the locker room shortly after Grace, walking in with verve and gusto. Sammy is pumped, taut, smiling and greeting everyone with the glee of a presidential candidate. The bedraggled lot of baseball beat writers tag behind him, pads and pens in hand, like "Star Trek" conventioneers in the wake of George Takei. A massive, shiny CD player sits at the foot of Sammy's locker as he pops a Montell Jordan disk in, cranks up the soulful, grooving jams and begins to dance.

"As long as players have respect for the game, they can do what they want," says Grace over the din of the thumping tunes. "But if they start carrying themselves like an asshole or start thinking like they have all the answers when they don't, that's when I'll pull them aside and say 'Hey, this is what needs to be done.'"

Grace adds that, so far, the 2000 Cubby line-up, while young, seem to have their priorities straight. While, undeniably there are new-era ball players on the team, new manager, Don Baylor is an old school baseball man like Grace. Baylor's mandate for the team is straight out of the old timer's book: mustaches are acceptable, beards are not recommended; haircuts must be neat and clean (no Rod Becks, please); and no earrings, damn it. This is the way Baylor wants to run his show, and it's the way Grace likes it.

While Grace suits up for early morning warm-ups -- a round of gym-class-style calisthenics and a run through of fielding fundamentals -- the grounds crew at HoHoKam prep the field for an afternoon game against divisional rivals the Milwaukee Brewers. One man lays down a sharp, straight line of chalk on the path between third base and home plate. Several ushers, perched in the stands, survey the field. Ushers at HoHoKam look like a bunch of cloned retirees. They are almost all seniors, gray hair and UV leathered skin. They all wear the same, goofy Southwest style get up: Crayola brick-red knit shirt with a silver bolo tie and a straw hat to protect them from the brutal desert sun that waxes more intense with each passing minute.

HoHoKam Park opened in 1997 with a strong sense of deja vu floating about along with the smell of peanuts and beer. The 12,500-seat stadium is a miniature twin to Wrigley Field, 1,435 miles away. The sight lines are the same. The grandstands are laid out the same. It's just a good bit smaller and the bleachers are replaced by a sloping hill of velvety green grass that stands in sharp contrast to the parched mountains that loom around Mesa. In the off season, Grace calls this landscape of dust, cacti and interchangeable strip malls home, renting a place in nearby Scottsdale.

From the air, Mesa, just a ten-minute drive from Phoenix, looks like a barren moonscape. Save for the occasional terra cotta tiled roof and gleaming chlorine blue swimming pool, Mesa is all lunar gray and over-crowded by fast food restaurants and fast moving freeways. With more than 390,000 residents, it is the third largest city in the Grand Canyon State. On average, the sun shines 320 days a year, heating the rows and rows of stucco ranch-style homes like pottery inside a kiln. At night, Mesa becomes a ghost town, lighted up along its main drags by old 1950s motel neon flashing "vacancy," "air-conditioned comfort" or "kitchenettes." Palm trees sway in the balmy midnight breeze and the three Denny's restaurants in town stay open late serving up grand slam breakfasts. Mark Grace likes Arizona enough to hibernate out his winters.

"You can have Chicago in December and January," he says. Yet he still owns and maintains a home in Lincoln Park. "I love Chicago. I'm a big city guy, and I love all it has to offer."

"Chicago still has a little bit of blue collar in it," says Steve Stone, longtime television commentator for the Cubs. Stone has watched Grace's entire career from his vantage point high up in the broadcast booth.

"People respect a player who comes to the park every day and does their job, " he adds. "He has done that and he has become a local hero. To a generation of fans, Mark has been the one constant in a state of flux and motion. He has stayed and remained a Cub, and the fans really respect that. Cub fans are very loyal people and they love how hard Mark has tried for them."

Grace has insisted that he wants to retire in a Cubs jersey. Yet he has also made noise that if the team doesn't become a contender, he would consider packing his bags. Last August, he signed a one-year contract extension worth, as reported by ESPN, $5.3 million.

"I'm all about winning," he says, lighting a second cigarette and nodding hello to catcher Joe Girardi.

Grace cuts through the typically fluffy, non-committal, sports jock sound bites, adding that if the Cubs organization doesn't share his attitude toward winning, he would have to leave.

Still, Stone says that Grace's future, both as a player and after retirement, lies in Chicago.

"We've heard noises during the winter," says Stone, "that he's going here or going there. The usual signing, negotiating horseshit that comes about. Mark will play as long as he feels like he can play." And then, Stone adds with a sarcastic bent, "after that he'll probably take my job in the booth." Stone adds that Grace has a fruitful future in Chicago sports radio if he wants it.

Grace admits that after he packs up his gear for good, broadcasting is something he will seriously examine. But he doesn't expect that time to come very soon.

"I felt like last year was my most productive year," he says. "There hasn't been any drop off in my production. As long as I'm a good player, I'll keep playin'.

And the numbers prove his point. In 1999, the three-time All-Star and four-time recipient of the Gold Glove put up some of his best numbers ever. His batting average was .309. He batted in ninety-one runs. He hit sixteen home runs, just one shy of his career high.

"I don't want to hang around and pinch hit the last couple of years in my career," he says. "That's when I'll quit."

For now, the statistics indicate Grace still has several years left of very productive hardball. Four or five years, as he sees it.

As Grace and his teammates take to the pristine HoHoKam field, he stands behind the batters cage and watches the younger players take some practice cuts, occasionally lending advice. But this does not mean Grace has any post-player coaching aspirations.

"I wouldn't want to be a manager," he says. "Managing has become kind of like babysitting twenty-five grown men."

Still, watching Grace move around the field, the high noon sun now blistering down, he has a way with the other players. And he gets their respect too. From the young kids to the million-dollar stars.

"Mark is a great player," says Sammy Sosa, seated in the shadowy dugout, sheltered from the blazing sunshine. "He's a great teammate. He's one of those guys who have worked very hard and he likes to have a good time. He gets all of my respect."

Grace doesn't know quite how to respond to the flattery bestowed upon him by his fellow players or from his legions of fans or from giddy journalists.

"I've been fortunate to play with what I believe are three future hall of famers," he says, naming Greg Maddux, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg.

And when asked about the likelihood of his own eventual induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, all Grace can say, with a sheepish shrug, is: "Shit."

"Mark has become in a lot of ways," says Cubs General Manager, Ed Lynch, as he takes a seat in the dugout, "Mr. Cub of Generation X. The fact that he has been with the Cubs for his entire career. The fact that he has had great seasons with this club. The fact that even in down seasons, he maintains a high level of performance. The consecutive years of service in the Cubs uniform. Because of all of this, he is huge in Chicago. People could not imagine him in another uniform."

He's old school. Like his own baseball heroes, George Brett and Keith Hernandez, Mark Grace is loyal to his franchise and to his city. He may live a few months of each year in Mesa, but he understands and appreciates the honor of putting on the pinstripes and walking out onto the grass of Wrigley Field. Mark Grace is Chicago.

"There's a lot history with the Cubs," he says. "A lot great people have played in a Cubs uniform. We play in the oldest ballpark in the national league. Babe Ruth played in Wrigley Field. The famous called shot was in Wrigley," he says, referring to the now legendary story of Babe Ruth in the third game of the 1932 World Series, pointing to a spot in the right field bleachers and then planting a home-run ball in that precise location.

So has Grace, the old school, old time ball player ever thought of just once, stepping up to home plate at Wrigley and repeating Ruth's feat?

"I might call a shot for a base hit up the middle or somethin'," he says with a chuckle. "But I don't know... if you go up there and call a shot, you'll get one in your earhole."

But an old school guy like Grace, of course, would just play through the pain.

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