Column: Goodbye to Grace

Everybody’s first sports hero goes away eventually. Mine did just a few days ago.

Mark Grace announced his retirement on Friday. For sixteen years, since I was six years old, I have followed his every triumph, double, practical joke and strike out. Yeah. Kind of makes me sound like a stalker.

But that’s the great thing about sports.

It’s the only arena where stalking, while not exactly approved, won’t land you in jail either. A place where having posters of that athlete you adore strewn across your room won’t ever be used as evidence against you.

But now I no longer have my Gracie. Yeah, he’s still alive, but he’s no longer stroking doubles off the right field wall. He’s as good as broadcasting to me now. It’d be like saying you’re a huge Steve Stone fan. Can you even buy a Steve Stone poster?

Sadly, I don’t even have the Mark Grace poster I had as a kid anymore. It was a huge poster of him next to Wrigley Field with the word Graceland in bold above him. I would give his glove a high five before I went to bed every night. Okay. Maybe THAT can be used as evidence. After ten years, the poster gave up the ghost from being moved around too much and diminishing skills and did what all posters do when their time is up…move to the broadcast booth.

Mark Grace and I share more than just a last name, though. We also were given embarrassing middle names. Mark had to deal with Eugene. I had to deal with Michael. Okay, so maybe Michael isn’t that bad. But we did both have a sweet bat swing. Okay, so maybe that was just him too. We both have parents. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I used to tell my classmates he was my uncle when people asked if I was related to him. And they would believe me! My first experience that lying can, in fact, get you farther in life. Well, at least until someone asked if I could prove Grace went to my family reunions and I had to fess up.

The press conference told the story of why Grace was so loved by many, including myself. It was that sense of humor and easy going nature. He was admitting to the world that he no longer has what it takes to be a professional baseball player and he was doing it with a smile.

“I’ve come to tell you guys you’ll no longer see me uglying up a clubhouse anymore as a player,” Grace said.

How many times have I said something similar to that? Well, except I’m typically uglying up a sports bar or a bookstore.

Grace was always known as a practical joker up to the end. During the second to last Diamondbacks homestand, Grace spent his free time trying to light hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s shoe on fire. Now that’s what I call a fun guy. As long as it’s not my shoe.

It was no secret that it was time for Grace to retire. A career .303 hitter, Grace was batting just .189 this season. His 65 mph fastball was more dangerous than his swing this season. It got to the point where Grace was used as a pinch runner against the Giants to give him some playing time. He wound up scoring the game-tying run. When Grace became more valuable for his speed than his bat, it was time to retire. Grace started the press conference with a joke about his skills.

“We’ve agreed to a two-year extension,” Grace joked. “We just want to announce that here. You guys didn’t tell them about that?”

Of course, the best years were those in Chicago. Grace and first base were synonymous in Chicago for thirteen straight years. You couldn’t depend on much with the Cubbies, but you knew Grace would drive in an RBI with runners in scoring position.

Grace left Chicago when they couldn’t agree on a contract, but Chicago and I, a lifetime Cubs fan, wouldn’t hold it against him. Grace will always be a Cub to me and many fans around the world. And I believe Grace still loves Chicago too.

“Chicago, thank you for 13 fabulous years,” Grace said. “If we’re not going to be in it this year, believe me, I’m pullin’ for you guys.”

Grace was a class act if there ever was one. Of is that class clown?
“If I ever played with you, thank you. It was a thrill,” Grace said, “and if I ever played against you, thank you for the competition. I enjoyed every minute of it, and I’ll miss it.”

Grace won’t make the Hall of Fame, at least not as a player. But if there was a Hall of Really, Really Good Guys, he would be there.

Grace won four Gold Gloves and played in three All-Star games. If it wasn’t for that dang J.T. Snow, he would have had many more. What kind of last name is Snow anyway?

His 510 doubles put him 34th in major league history. That may not sound like much, but who out there wouldn’t like to say they would’ve hit more doubles than anyone in baseball if 33 guys had never existed? Grace’s 2,443 hits rank sixth among active players, and his 1,754 hits in the 1990s are more than any other major league player.

“He always came to play,” said teammate Steve Finley at the press conference. “He came to play, and he came to have fun. He knew how to do both at the same time.”

Grace still has plenty left to be happy about.

He has a 3-year-old son and is expecting another child with wife, Tanya who he called “my light” at the press conference.

He has a bright future in either broadcasting or management. He would also be good in the front office as the following shows.

In an interview with MLB.com national writer Mychael Urban on June 25th, he gave some ideas on how to increase attendance around the league. A few of his ideas included both women and men thong nights and TV evangelist night.

“Anyone dressed like a TV evangelist and accompanied by a woman dressed like, um, the kind of women TV evangelists have gotten into trouble with, gets in free,” Grace said.

How can a guy with ideas like that not succeed?

“I don’t think anybody loves the game more than Mark Grace, or respects it more, or got more out of a career,” Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said at the press conference. “He always remembered maybe the most important thing about this game and that is to have fun while you’re doing it.”

There are so many things I remember about Grace.

I remember finding his 1989 Topps rookie card in a fifty cent package of bubblegum cards. I still have the card. The bubblegum is long gone.

I remember how sad I was when he left the Cubs.

I remember blaming management.

I remember when he was used as a relief pitcher last year in a 19-1 loss to the Dodgers. He could have just went out there and pitched normally, but that’s not Grace. He did a great impression of Mike Fetters and his scowl that left the crowd and anyone watching Sports Center the next day in tears from laughing so hard.

I remember when he hit the game winning homerun against the Atlanta Braves to win the National League Championship in 1994.

I remember that just being in Sega’s Tecmo Baseball, but being almost as sweet as the real thing.

I remember watching him in the 2001 World Series. That was great. It wasn’t the Cubs, but it was the next best thing to me.

I remember his home run into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium in Game 4.

I remember Game 7 and Mariana Rivera, the “unhittable”. Rivera was trying to close the game for the New York Yankees. The first batter he faced in the ninth inning, my Grace, led off with a single that began the rally which led to Luis Gonzalez’s dramatic RBI single to win the game.

“We don’t win the World Series without him,” Garagiola said.

I wouldn’t love baseball like I do without him. Thank you Mark Grace.

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