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We Are Family

Sept. 28, 1992
Sept. 28, 1992

Table of Contents
Sept. 28, 1992

Rams-Dolphins
Los Angeles Dodgers
Washington-Nebraska
Tony Mandarich
Grissom
Horse Racing
Title IX
Point After

We Are Family

Marquis Grissom, baseball's top base stealer, grew up with 14 siblings. Now he's a big part of another happy clan, the fast-improving Expos

"I'll do the boys first," Marquis Grissom says. "Then the girls. Is that all right?"

This is an article from the Sept. 28, 1992 issue Original Layout

"Any way you want," the reporter says.

"Marvin, Richard, Joe, Henry, Phillip, me, Antonio," Marquis Grissom says. "How many is that?"

"Seven."

"I need one more. Did I say Joe?"

"You said Joe."

"Did I say Phillip?"

"You said Phillip."

"What about Michael?"

"No, you didn't say Michael."

"Michael. That's eight. That's the boys. Now the girls. Ernestine, Barbara, Elizabeth. Shirley, Dorothy, Delores, Mary. Is that seven?"

"Seven."

"That's it. Fifteen kids in my family. Sixteen, if you count one child who died at the beginning. I usually don't. Seven brothers, seven sisters and me."

(He is 25 years old and plays centerfield for the Montreal Expos, a surprisingly good young player on a surprisingly good young team, a new story on a new contender. The air surrounding this part of the pennant race has no complications. Simply breathe and play. No contract squabbles. No inflated egos. Everything is fresh, different. Grissom is leading the major leagues in stolen bases for the second straight year, with 73 as of Sunday. The Expos split a two-game midweek series in Pittsburgh and at week's end were just six games behind the Pirates in the National League East.)

"The house was in Red Oak, Georgia, just five minutes from the Atlanta airport," says Marquis (pronounced Mar-KEESE) Grissom. "We weren't well off. We weren't even average. But we always had food. We always had clean clothes. And my mother never let us leave home without a little money in our pockets, just in case we needed to buy something while we were out."

"Where were you in the family?"

"I was next to last. My brother Antonio was three years younger than me. I have a brother who is 44 years old, old enough to be my father. My father worked at the Ford plant. On the assembly line. Twenty-seven years. My mother was home, taking care of everyone, so busy she never even saw television. She always was busy. We had a garden in the back for vegetables. We sometimes had pigs for pork."

"It was a big house?"

"My father built our house. He had some help from some of my older brothers. Even some of my sisters. Seven rooms. I mostly was with Antonio, sharing a room. We had three bathrooms, but we could have used more, that's for sure. But by the time I was in school, a lot of the kids had grown and moved out. There were only four or five kids left by the time I went to high school. The whole family would be together, though, every Sunday. Everyone would come to my folks' house. That's still the way it is. Everyone goes to the house. I have 31 nieces and nephews."

(The new story is so often the nice story: the happy rise to success, the voyage from a vague and unheralded nowhere to this sudden somewhere in the spotlight. The Expos are this kind of story, generally picked to finish last in their division, definitely underfinanced and supposedly undermanned. Grissom is this kind of story, rushing through the Expos' minor league system in two years, now in his third season in the majors. He is a blocky little guy at 5'11", 190 pounds, a compact bullet, a lead character in a low-budget production that is bringing in big returns. He is hitting .282, with 14 home runs. He looks as if he is going to be a star.)

"I always thought I'd wind up playing football," Grissom says. "I was a running back. I started baseball when I was six, football when I was seven. Antonio and I would play baseball all the time at the side of the house, pitching to each other. He's in Albany, Georgia, now, in A ball. He's second in the league in stolen bases."

"How long did you play football?"

"I played in high school. My mother didn't want me to play, said I'd get hurt. But I loved the game. I had offers to go to college. In my senior year, though, I was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds. They offered me $17,000 to sign—as a pitcher. I wanted to sign. I wanted the money. We talked about it, though, my mother and father and my high school coach and me. We put it to a vote. I voted for the money. Everyone else voted for me to go to college. I was outvoted, so I went to Florida A&M. That was the one school that would give me a scholarship just to play baseball, though they wanted me to play football, too. The coaches came right to my room in the dormitory, trying to get me to play. I just wouldn't do it."

"You did O.K. in baseball?"

"I hit .448. I had 12 home runs. I led the nation in triples. I played two years at A&M, and they were the funnest years in my life. I pitched, too; I won something like 12 or 13 games. The vote was right—college was good for me. I matured a lot. By the time I was drafted again, after my sophomore season, it was time for me to go. The Expos offered $48,000. I had to take that. What else was I going to do in college? Hit .500? I was 21. It was time to get started, to see what I could do. There wasn't even a vote this time. Everyone thought I should lake the money. I took it. I was drafted as a pitcher, but I never pitched. From the first day, I was in the outfield. No one even asked me to pitch."

(He still is raw. Half the Montreal team is raw. More than half. The team hasn't been able to sign free agents since the departure of deep-pocketed owner Charles Bronfman in 1991, and this has provided opportunities for rapid advancement. Join the Expos and learn baseball in the big leagues. Come to the big time in no time. Dan Duquette, the 34-year-old Montreal general manager, who has made a load of changes in one year on the job, says this is not an entirely precarious method. The players who have shot through the system have arrived in Montreal with their minds attuned to the idea of playing for the Expos. Unlike hired-gun free agents, these players feel that this is where they want to be, and they're happy to have reached a goal. Grissom arrived after only 201 minor league games.)

"I was going to quit after the first month in rookie league," he says. "I was in Jamestown, New York. I couldn't get a hit. I think I started my career by going oh for 63. Actually it was 1 for 18. It felt like oh for 63.1 don't even know why they kept me in the lineup. I was totally confused. The pitchers just owned me. I was watching strikes, swinging at balls, doing whatever the pitchers wanted. I remember one day, I was packed and I was ready to go. I never had been so frustrated. I called my girlfriend; I told her I was taking one more road trip and if I didn't start hitting, I'd be home. I'd be back in college."

"What happened?"

"The day after I said that, I went 4 for 5. Everything changed. I think the next month it seemed like there wasn't one game where I didn't get at least two hits. I wound up hitting .323 for the season, eight home runs. I guess I just concentrated more. I don't know exactly. I'd been using all kinds of excuses, talking about the change from the aluminum bat to the wooden bat, things like that. I had to stop blaming everything else and look at myself. That was the final answer. I did that, and I was fine."

"And you were in Montreal by the end of the next season."

"It's funny. I started the season in Double A by going something like oh for 17. Same thing. Then I started hitting, and I was all right. I was promoted to Triple A. Struggled there, too. Then I was all right. Every level seemed to need an adjustment. In September I went to Montreal, and I didn't have any of those problems. I already was hitting in Triple A, and I kept hitting in Montreal. I've been here since."

"Along with a lot of guys you met in the minors."

"That's the nice part," Grissom says. "We're growing up together. Delino DeShields. Larry Walker. Bret Barberie. Chris Nabholz. We're all going through this. Everybody picked us to finish last? Good. We're just going from there, rolling along and seeing what we can do. People have said they don't like to play in Montreal, that the money is different, the language is different, that there are all kinds of hassles going through customs. Well, if going through customs is part of playing in the majors, then that's fine. Thank the man, take your bag and play baseball."

(In May the Expos were, as predicted, challenging for last place. That was when Duquette made a major move, firing drill sergeant manager Tom Runnells and replacing him with 57-year-old Felipe Alou. Under Alou's much softer hand the young Expos were 65-47. Alou looks amazingly like the man who played Bill Cosby's father in The Cosby Show, and acts accordingly. The young players obviously have responded. Walker made the National League All-Star team this season. DeShields and Grissom have been baserunning dervishes, using the teachings of coach Tommy Harper. The young pitchers have surprised everyone. The team actually reached first place late in July and still hangs close in the chase. With two games scheduled to be played against the Pirates this week, who knows?)

"Felipe came in, and the first thing he told us was that he would take the blame for all losses," Grissom says. "He said if we lost 10 in a row, he might be fired, but none of us would lose our jobs. He stopped all of that military stuff. It never bothered me, the military stuff, but it bothered some guys. It's much nicer now. You make a mistake, you know it's a mistake. No one has to tell you. That's what Felipe knows. That's how he treats us."

"And Harper helps?"

"Tommy Harper is like a second father to me. We talk about everything, not just baseball. He knows so much. I learn things every day from him about stealing bases. About situations, when it's best to steal. About pitchers, about moves. There's just so much I didn't know. We talk about every pitcher we're going to see. Tommy, for instance, spotted something that Bud Black of San Francisco was doing. I don't want to say what it was. But I stole three bases in one game against Bud Black. That's the challenge. Figuring things out. Tommy always says that the best base stealers are the ones who can steal the base when it's really needed, late in the game, when everyone is looking for it. I go along with that. No cheapies. I used to get really mad when I was thrown out. He's convinced me that there are times when you get thrown out and you can't do anything about it. The other team just makes a perfect play. You just have to tip your hat to them and try again."

"Can you stay in this race?"

"We have to learn how to win games that we shouldn't win, to manufacture wins," he says. "That is what the Pirates do very well. They take games they shouldn't. You look at the end and say, How did they do that? They just did. We're getting better at it, but we still have a ways to go."

"What about yourself? What goals do you have?"

"I don't have goals. People always ask how many bases I think I can steal. I don't think about numbers. I just think about winning games. If I get better every year I play, then I'm doing fine. If I steal one more base than I did last year, that's fine. I'm still learning. I suppose I wouldn't mind being Kirby Puckett. Doing the things he does."

"Are there any goals outside of baseball?"

"I wanted to buy my parents a house. That was my first goal when I signed a contract. I did it. My mother now lives back in the country, where she grew up, less than a block from where she went to school. My father's retired. All of the kids are gone. I just want my parents to sit down and enjoy themselves. They earned it. Everyone still goes to my folks' house on Sundays and holidays and just about anytime. There's always somebody visiting. And when we play in Atlanta? It's like a family holiday. I need as many tickets as I can find. I get up at the plate in Atlanta, and I hear my family cheering. That's how many there are."

"It's quite a family."

"My grandmother's alive. She just turned 91, in terrific health. She always called me 'my special child.' Now she can hold my son. He's five months old. His name is D'Monte."

(There will be other stories in the future, no doubt. Stories about Grissom. About the Expos. None will be nicer than this one, because this is the beginning. Everything is clean. Everything is new. How are you? Who are you? There is no dance like the first dance. The sad truth is that this year's surprise invariably becomes next year's favorite, and life becomes far more complex. Especially in the 1990s in professional sports. Especially in baseball. The additions of money and fame are subtractions of innocence. This is the Expos' time. This is Grissom's time. They are this year's freshest faces. Enjoy them now. They can never be the same again.)

"I don't know why my mother named me Marquis," Grissom says. "I guess she had used up all the familiar names by the time she got to me. I guess she had to move to French. I'm going to have to ask her the next time I see her."

"You've never asked?"

"I'm going to have to now. People want to know."

PHOTOJOHN IACONOGrissoms on hand recently in Atlanta were Marquis's mom (glasses), dad (blue cap) and assorted sibs, nieces and nephews.PHOTOJOHN IACONOThough he doesn't think thefts, Grissom gives opposing pitchers much to ponder.PHOTOPAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESSGrissom's 73 steals this season include this stand-up swipe of home against Cincinnati.