Happy 52nd birthday to legendary Cubs first baseman Mark Grace, who was born on June 28, 1964 in North Carolina.
The Cubs drafted Grace out of San Diego State in the 24th round in 1985. He debuted with the Cubs early in 1988 and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, batting .296 with seven home runs and 57 RBIs. He became a star the next season, batting .314 and finishing 14th in MVP voting, but he really shined in the NLCS that year against the Giants. Though the Cubs lost the series four games to one, Grace went 11-for-17 with a home run and eight RBIs. Grace’s performance was overshadowed by that of his first base counterpart on the victorious Giants, Will Clark, who went 13-for-20 with two homers and eight RBIs.
Grace went on to play 13 seasons for the Cubs, making three All-Star teams, winning four Gold Glove Awards for his defense, and finishing in the top 20 in MVP voting four times. Though he played in the shadow of other Cubs legends such as Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, and Sammy Sosa, Grace was a staple of the Cubs throughout the 1990s, becoming just the second player in team history to start Opening Day at the same position for the Cubs every year for an entire decade.
Grace finished first in the majors in both hits and doubles during the decade of the 1990s, the most prodigious offensive era in major league history. Though he played a position often reserved for power hitters, he never hit 20 home runs in a season (his career high was 17 in 1998) and never reached 100 RBIs (he had 98 in 1993). Still, he was known as a solid hitter and a strong defender at first base.
Unfortunately, the Cubs never even won a postseason series while Grace was with the team; the Cubs were swept by the Braves in the 1998 Division Series in the team’s only other postseason appearance during that time. However, Grace’s celebration after he caught Joe Carter‘s popup to clinch the Wild Card tiebreaking game against the Giants that year is one of my favorite Cubs memories.
Grace left as a free agent after the 2000 season and spent the final three years of his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Though it wasn’t with the Cubs, I was so happy to see him get a ring in 2001 on a Diamondbacks team full of veterans. Grace retired after the 2003 season, finishing with 2,445 hits and a .303 batting average. Grace was up for Hall of Fame consideration in 2009 but was dropped from the ballot after receiving just 4.1% of the vote. All other 20th century decades hits leaders, except for the banned Pete Rose, are in the Hall of Fame. Grace just didn’t have the longevity or the power numbers typically required of a first baseman.
After his career, Grace became a broadcaster for the Diamondbacks but left after he was arrested twice for a DUI and spent four months in jail. He now serves as an assistant hitting coach for the Diamondbacks.
Grace is one of my all-time favorite players. I played first base as a kid largely because of him. I also collect his baseball cards and own over 1,000 of them. He wasn’t a flashy player but played hard and with a winning attitude. It was sad to see his off-the-field troubles after he retired, but hopefully he can now continue to have a successful career as a coach.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.