January 21, 2010

Mark McGwire made his choice. So did Alex Rodriguez. And Barry Bonds. And Manny Ramirez. And David Ortiz. And Rafael Palmeiro. And Sammy Sosa. And so on and so on. The list of baseball players who have been linked to performance-enhancing substances seems to stretch on like a tape-measure blast into the summer night.

Mark Grace made his choice, too: He opted for a different kind of home run.

In a radio interview last week with Sports Illustrated's Dan Patrick, the former Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman said, "I am a single guy now and I was a single guy then [in the 1990s], and I like my sex life. I want to be able to perform. It's kinda funny, but it's not. That stuff [steroids] will tear you up as far as your manhood's concerned."

To be clear, Grace, who has been married twice, was never exactly a poster boy for clean living. He was the Pied Piper of Wrigleyville during his tenure with the Cubs from 1988 to 2000, fueled by booze, nicotine, his libido and his gregarious nature. But after years of half-truths and outright lies from multitudes of steroids-using players, his remarks to Patrick seem strangely refreshing. No, we're not talking about St. Augustine of Hippo here, but we can at least applaud Grace's strong sense of self. Finally, a man with his priorities in order.

There's no question that Grace the ballplayer would have benefited immensely from steroids. Although he was a career .303 batter and had more hits in the 1990s than any other big-leaguer (1,754), the knock on him was his lack of power. As baseballs were being launched out of stadiums in record numbers, Grace never hit more than 17 homers in a season. He finished his 16-year career in 2003 with 173 home runs, a glaringly puny total for someone who played a power position.

The winter before making his major league debut with the Cubs in 1988, Grace tried the old-fashioned way to chart a more muscular course. The native Californian set up shop in Chicago for a strength-training regimen that was designed by the Cubs to put some pop into his swing. Grace figured it might add a few extra feet to fly balls that died on the warning track.

Conventional measures didn't work; the homers never came in bunches. And it was clear to anyone who spent time in the Cubs' clubhouse in the 1990s that the modestly built Grace didn't resort to unconventional measures. His physique more resembled Joe from Accounting's than that of his hulking teammate, Sosa. Grace was what he was: a fundamentally sound gap hitter who played great defense, then enjoyed a cold beer and a few laughs by his locker after the game.

Still, the pressure on Grace mounted as the 1990s rolled along. He was the constant -- a flagship player -- on a Cubs team that was synonymous with losing. And by the end of the decade, he was barely even that. Sosa dwarfed everyone else in Cubdom after captivating (and in retrospect, duping) the nation during his race with McGwire in 1998 to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Win or lose, sunny or cloudy, the Wrigley Field faithful went home happy as long as the star of the show, Slammin' Sammy, hit a dinger.

On an August day at Wrigley Field in 2000 -- as the Cubs were bumbling their way to a 65--97 record, their fourth losing season in five years -- it was all weighing heavily on Grace. After batting practice, Grace plopped down in the dugout next to retired Cubs outfielder Bobby Dernier, who was in town surveying the wreckage of another summer.

As the two men exchanged pleasantries, Grace fired up a cigarette and took a deep drag off it. He then exhaled and fixed his eyes on the cigarette, studied it morosely as smoke billowed through the dugout. At last, Grace sighed and said to Dernier: "You know, I never smoke these things in the off-season. That's what 13 years of being on the Cubs has done to me."

But this story has a happy ending. After that final stressful season in Chicago, Grace signed as a free agent with Arizona and bid adieu to his Wrigleyville stomping grounds. And finally, he became a winner. Grace was part of the Diamondbacks team that defeated the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series. He even had a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 to spark Arizona's winning rally.

His conscience clear, he retired a couple years later to a life of more fun and games as an announcer for the Diamondbacks. Unlike so many of his peers, Grace came through the Steroid Era with his manhood intact.

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