State Of Grace From the unique perspective of first baseman and eternal optimist Mark Grace, an appreciation of the Chicago Cubs' singular season

October 04, 1998

In his final at bat of the final game of spring training, Mark
Grace fouled off a pitch and broke his right big toe. In the
Chicago Cubs' first series of the season, at Florida, Grace was
hit so hard by a fastball that his right arm was mummified, from
forearm to shoulder, on the plane home. An hour and 15 minutes
into the flight the captain announced that "hydraulic problems"
would force a return to Miami International, whose unsettling
three-letter airport designation is MIA. "Hydraulic problems?"
asked Grace, a white-knuckle flyer even in the best of times.
"Isn't that, like, the landing gear and wing flaps?" In short,
the first baseman--a self-described "train wreck" now awaiting a
plane wreck--could scarcely believe his good fortune.

The season was only three days old, but--Grace's personal woes
notwithstanding--things were already looking up for the 2-1 Cubs
even as the Cubs were looking down on the Everglades. For a team
that opened 1997 with a 0-14 record, '98 was, comparatively
speaking, shaping up as a dream season. "The one thing about
being a Cub is, you can't help but be an optimist," Grace
explained. "Every Cub fan is an optimist. Even the media that
cover this team are optimistic, which is rare. So, when everyone
around you says, 'This is our year, this is our year'--when you
hear that day in and day out, year after year--you start to
figure after a while, god, they've got to be right one century
or another."

Who would have guessed that the century in question might be the
20th? In the penultimate year of the millennium, the Chicago
Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908, around the time the
zipper was invented, were poised all summer to return to the
playoffs for the first time in almost a decade, and for most of
the season, only a fool or a Mets fan would have bet against them.

For theirs has been a year full of Biblical portents:
Rightfielder Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs, rookie righthander
Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a single game, and beloved
broadcasters Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse both went to their
eternal rewards, from where they are widely believed to have
puppeteered the team to habitual come-from-behind victories in
September. The season was composed of nothing less than a series
of grace notes, to judge by these Grace notes--the first
baseman's perspective on 1998, compiled from interviews
throughout the season.

"I'm not married," Grace, who is 34, reflected in April. "I don't
have children. I've got a mom and a dad and a brother and a
girlfriend, but my teammates are the guys I spend the bulk of my
time with, day after day for eight months a year. These guys are
my family."

Indeed, the Cubs can quite plausibly be thought of as a nuclear
family of 25 brothers and no sisters who express their affection
for one another with unspeakable insults, as is the case in many
large families consisting entirely of boys.

"This will be the team I remember for the rest of my career, and
the rest of my life," Grace would say as the end of the season
approached. "More so than '89. That team was led by Ryno and
Andre"--Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson--"two Hall of Famers, but
quiet guys. On this team, nothing is sacred: Moms, sisters,
entire families are fair game."

So when Grace appeared in the Chicago clubhouse self-consciously
sporting a new haircut, teammate Kevin Tapani asked with the
feigned concern of a daytime talk-show host, "Did you have to pay
for that?"

"I'm still paying for it," said Grace.

"His barber just didn't care," Tapani continued. "He just wanted
to get it over with. He just wanted to get him out of there."

There must have been times, during his 11 years as a Cub, when
Grace wanted to get out of there. Ask him, "Are there some days
when you...?" and he anticipates the question before you can
finish it. "When you just want to say f--- it?" he suggests.
"Yes. But you have to remember, you're a professional athlete
and they pay you a lot of money to do this."

With that on his mind, Grace mentions that the Cubs have an
option to renew his contract next season. Asked what would
happen if the team chose not to exercise it, he says, "If they
don't pick it up, I'm a free agent. I don't give a s---. My job
is to play baseball."

For someone who is said not to tolerate dissembling--"The one
thing Grace hates most is bull----; he just has no patience for
it," says a member of the Cubs' organization--Grace sounds an
awful lot like a man going through the motions of a contract
negotiation. Grace is, in fact, the unofficial heir to Ernie
Banks's Mr. Cub title. He is the Cub with the longest tenure
(he's been one since '88) and the only current Cub to have
played in the postseason as a Cub (in '89).

Grace fits in perfectly with a franchise that encourages even
posthumous needling. He attended Caray's funeral in February, at
which the announcer's best friend and eulogist, Pete Vonachen,
recalled Harry's saying that he didn't want to be cremated
because he feared that his liver would burn forever, in the
manner of an eternal flame. Caray-like, Grace has been known to
take the occasional postgame libation among Cubs fans at
Murphy's Bleachers Bar on Sheffield Avenue. On the Cubs' first
off day of the season, in New York, Grace visited his friend and
Cubs fan Bill Murray. "We went to the driving range," Grace
said, shrugging, as if everyone's off days resemble Caddyshack.

Catch Grace on a good day, when the wind is blowing out at
Wrigley and the Blue Angels are stunt flying over the bleachers
and a fan is spelling YMCA with his legs while standing on his
head in the grandstand (the M alone is a piece of triple-jointed
genius), and he allows a let's-play-two love of Wrigley Field to
come through. "It's tough to describe what I experience day in
and day out here, the chills of a sellout crowd going crazy--and
that's just for the national anthem," Grace says. "Players who
leave the Cubs tell me, 'Gracie, trust me, you don't want to
leave Chicago. There's no better place to play.'"

At the same time, he cautions, "The wind blows out six times a
year here. The rest of the time, it's howling in off the lake.
We've also got the longest grass in the game, so it's tough to
get a ground ball through the infield. This park is not nearly as
hitter friendly as people think."

Having said that, Grace hit .309 this season, and .327 at
Wrigley. He has finished in the top 10 in the National League
batting race in eight of his 11 seasons--not bad for a junior
college walk-on (Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif.) who
was taken in the 24th round of the 1985 draft. He has come a long
way from North Pole, Alaska--where he played summer ball, fishing
until morning in the midnight sun--to his current spot batting
cleanup, behind Sosa.

Hitting behind Sosa has been like closing for Sinatra. "Twenty
thousand people head for the exits when Grace comes up," says
Grace. "'C'mon, kids. Grace is up, dinner's ready.'"

Still: "Sammy hit 20 home runs in June and didn't get
intentionally walked one time," notes Cubs manager Jim
Riggleman. "Respect for Mark has been great protection for Sammy."

"Sammy absolutely amazes me," says Grace, pointing out that
Wrigley Field offers little context for Sosa's power. "In
Chicago there's no way to tell how far the balls go, because he
hits 'em onto the street and they disappear. Except when he hits
the houses. I don't know if you can print this, but when he hits
'em, he's not f------ around. I am real proud of him."

Sosa returns the compliment. "I don't have nobody hitting behind
me," says Sosa, grinning and knowing the quote will get back to
Grace.

Grace eats it up. "I love 'em," he says of Sosa and the rest of
his teammates. "I love 'em to death."

All of which is to say that when Grace claims he could quite
casually play for a team other than Chicago...well, his mother,
Sharon, simply shakes her head at this transparent fiction.
"Truth be told," she says from her 230-acre farm in Bentonville,
Ark., "Mark would pay the Cubs to play for them."

Grace has lived in Chicago longer than he has lived anywhere
else. His father, Gene, moved 13 times in 25 years as an account
manager for the Union Pacific Railroad. Mark--who has an older
brother, Mike--was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., and lived in
Atlanta, St. Louis, Nashville and Memphis, all before the eighth
grade. "I heard a lot of Johnny Cash growing up," Grace says of
those cities, where he always made friends quickly.

"Mark has never been a stranger," says his mother. "He was never
alone. In a new town he would just walk out and pull someone off
the street to play ball. You can see it now, the way he's always
talking to anyone who goes near first base: the runner, the
umpire, the coach, whoever."

Indeed, on defense, Grace, a four-time Gold Glove winner,
garrulously greets base runners as if each were the first visitor
to Grace's desert island. What does Grace talk about in these
nationally cable-televised colloquies? "Usually, we're just
exchanging pleasantries," he says. "Sometimes, I'm messing with
their head. You know, 'Is that your girl, in the front row, with
the big....'"

Naturally, Grace was the first player to congratulate Mark
McGwire when Big Mac hit his record-breaking 62nd home run
against the Cubs in St. Louis. Grace high-fived his fellow first
baseman and slapped him on the rear end as McGwire rounded
first. The rest of the Cubs' infield served similarly as a
receiving line. "The only time we got caught up in the home run
race was in St. Louis," Grace said three weeks later. "And we
probably made a mistake. Once we got out of there, we got
refocused on the wild-card race."

But the mind will wander in the course of 162 games. Grace
occasionally allows his thoughts to drift to what might have
been. "Letting go of Greg Maddux," he says of the four-time Cy
Young winner who left the Cubs for Atlanta as a free agent in
December 1992. "That whole farce is something Cub fans will
never forgive. Neither will I. You add 20 wins a year and
subtract 20 losses a year--some of those years, that would have
made a lot of difference. The shame of it is, Greg wanted to
stay. I'm the only one here who played with him as a Cub. The
rest of the guys on this team just say, 'He was pretty good
here, wasn't he?' Yeah, no s---." Grace, his voice husky from
the Winstons he smokes, laughs sardonically.

The Braves, of course, have been to the playoffs every year with
Maddux. "Greg wanted to stay here and play here," Grace says
again, just when you think that part of the conversation has
ended.

Given the surreal circus that is the life of a major leaguer,
Grace finds it difficult to stay down in the dumps for long.
Before the Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates in a Sunday
matinee at Three Rivers Stadium in September, the visitors
gathered on the field to watch the pregame entertainment. A
tee-ball game between teams of corporate and sports mascots was
marred, improbably, by a bench-clearing brawl. As the Energizer
Bunny beat Mr. Met unconscious with a drumstick, one didn't
doubt that Grace really would pay the Cubs for the privilege of
playing.

"I'm not going to make the mistake of looking back on my career
and saying, 'I should have had more fun,'" said Grace, some time
after Charlie the Tuna threw a haymaker at the Penn State Nittany
Lion. "I remember my first year like it was yesterday. It's all
gone by so fast. I've told some of my teammates, 'Make sure you
enjoy this.'"

"Fun is overrated," said Riggleman, and if Scrooge had a bumper
sticker, that would be its message. "What I think will really be
fun for Mark is looking back after he's retired at some of his
accomplishments with this team."

Grace knows the grimly serious business on which millions of
Cubs fans pinned their hopes this season. "I've had all the
individual accomplishments I can have," he says. "I've made
All-Star teams, I've been Player of the Week and Player of the
Month, I've got Gold Gloves, I had the playoffs. The only thing
I haven't been around is a World Series. It's really the only
thing I need. I don't want it, I need it. Of course I'll be
disappointed if I don't get there. I'll be extremely
disappointed."

Riggleman won't allow himself to entertain the thought for more
than three seconds. "I hear about it all the time," he said in
early September. "A lot of people want to talk about the parade,
the celebration that this city would have if we...." He could not
bring himself to say World Series. Instead he said, "If we went
deep into the postseason.... " Then Riggleman shook his head and
waved the notion away as if it were a malaria-bearing mosquito.

Which it may well have been. Plagues were all that was missing
from this season of cataclysm. Great records crumbled like stone
tablets. A Streak worthy of Methuselah ended. This baseball
summer was something out of Revelations, which would explain the
success of the Chicago Cubs. "Aside from Sammy and McGwire,"
Grace said late in the season, "the biggest stories of the year
had to be the Yankees, Kerry Wood and the Cubs possibly going to
the playoffs. People want to give credit to Harry and Jack
Brickhouse." He smiled, shrugged and said, "I don't know."

What he does know is that a Cubs appearance in the World Series
will be followed, swiftly, by the end of the world. To which
Grace and a great many people in Chicago say, "Yeah, so?"

All our story needs now is a denouement, which the Oxford
English Dictionary defines as "the final unraveling," a phrase
the Cubs were prepared to take all too literally last week. On
Sept. 23, the first day of autumn, when things begin to die, the
Cubs blew a 7-0 lead in Milwaukee and lost 8-7 in the bottom of
the ninth inning after leftfielder Brant Brown dropped a
"routine" fly ball with two outs and the bases loaded. But then,
"it's never easy," as Grace pointed out, pinching the polyester
of his blue Cubs' road shirt. "Not in this uniform."

Even for a franchise as fortune-challenged as the Cubs, that
epic loss was operatic. Harry Caray, meet hara-kiri. "If he
wasn't already dead," Sosa said of the beloved announcer, "he'd
die again."

So last Friday night the Cubs arrived in Houston tied with the
Mets and one game ahead of the San Francisco Giants in the
wild-card race, and that shadow hanging over the North Siders
looked a lot like Alfred Hitchcock's silhouette. In the second
inning a hideous black bird somehow entered the sealed
sarcophagus of the Astrodome and began endlessly circling
Brown's head in leftfield, its enormous wings flapping wildly in
Brown's face. The game was delayed until the creature--a
vulture? Poe's raven? an albatross, perhaps?--at last alighted
atop the outfield fence. It stayed there, as if perched upon a
bust of Athena, and stared malevolently at Brown. "I would say
Brant is having a tough couple of days," Grace muttered to
himself, having no one else to talk to at first base.

The sleep-deprived do that, talk to themselves. Grace hadn't
slept for six consecutive hours in more than a month. After games
he would return to his home or the team hotel and retrieve his
messages. Most nights there would be one from Bill Murray, left
immediately at the conclusion of the evening's game. Murray's
messages were neither funny nor instructive, just an unburdening
of one Cubs fan's enthusiasm. "Two words," went a recent voice
mail. "Gary Gaetti!" Then the actor hung up.

Grace insists he was in bed by midnight most nights, but he
simply could not will himself to sleep. George Burns's
line--"Say good night, Gracie"--didn't work with him. Rather
than REM-lessly replaying the game just concluded, he would tend
to preplay the next day's game. Five minutes after the Cubs lost
6-2 to Houston last Friday, they saw the Mets lose to Atlanta on
a clubhouse television. "Yeah!" said Cubs outfielder Glenallen
Hill. "Thank you very much!" In Denver, one time zone to the
west, the Giants were opening a large canister of Whup-Ass on
the Colorado Rockies, which would mean a three-way wild-card tie
with two games to play. "Tonight," said Grace, resigned to
studying the ceiling of his room at the Westin, "I'll be
thinking about regathering ourselves to face Shane Reynolds
tomorrow.

"You know, we've already beaten Reynolds this year," he added,
matter-of-factly, referring to the Astros' 19-game winner.
"Two-to-nothing at Wrigley."

"Is that so?" a reporter asked.

"Yeah," said Grace, his smile spreading now like outfield ivy.
"Kerry struck out 20 Astros that day. But we have beaten him."

Alas, Wood would be out of the Cubs' rotation for at least
another week with soreness in his throwing elbow. Asked how much
he and the Cubs missed the righthander, "Well, he's a s---head,"
said Grace, just in case the unfailingly polite rookie was within
earshot. "But the boy can pitch. I miss that golden arm in the
lineup."

As Grace spoke, he was taking in the odd sight of 7-foot Toronto
Raptors center Kevin Willis accepting a signed bat from Sosa,
who'd hit his 66th home run earlier in the evening. Sammy and
Willis, who had never before met, gave each other a bear hug by
way of parting because, while strangers, they are both
celebrities, and that's what celebrities do. For a team that
just lost for the fifth time in six games, the Cubs were showing
all the urgency of a post-office window attendant.

"There's no urgency," Grace said. "Hell, this is what we live
for. You don't think I'm enjoying this? I have basically played
for pride for the last 9 1/2 years. Now we're playing games that
matter."

All our story needs now is a denouement--still. The Cubs were
working on one. Honest. They like to write macabre,
unconventional endings. The Cubs are O. Henry. "It never ends
normal for us," Grace said last Saturday, after his team's
bizarre 3-2 victory over the Astros. The game concluded with the
hair-raising (and hair-risen) closer Rod Beck, whom the Cubs
call Shooter, fielding Dave Clark's dribbler, missing the tag as
Clark ran past and then hitting him in the back with the throw
to first. The play would have brought home the tying run.

"Rod Beck has 50 of the coolest saves you can imagine," continued
Grace, who'd sprinted to the clubhouse after home plate umpire
Eric Gregg brazenly ruled Clark out for leaving the baseline. "I
said to Shooter earlier this year, 'I thought Mitch Williams
retired.'"

The Mets lost and the Giants won, so a one-game playoff would be
played at Wrigley Field on Monday--if both the Cubs and Giants
won on Sunday. Or if all three teams lost. So last Saturday, for
the first time all year, the immediacy of another trip to the
postseason seemed to hit Grace full in the face. "If we win
tomorrow," he said, "even if it's for a one-game playoff, you
will see a very emotional first baseman out there."

But predictions were pointless this September: On Sunday,
baseball's unlikeliest season concluded its regular schedule
with a man hitting his 70th home run. After Cubs castoff Maddux
euthanized the Mets in Atlanta, only Chicago and San Francisco
were left fighting for the dubious honor of playing the Braves
in the Division Series. The Cubs promptly went out and soiled
the bed, losing 4-3 in 11 innings. While trudging up the tunnel
to the clubhouse, they learned that the Giants had just lost
9-8, even though they'd led 7-0.

Funny: A 162-game schedule that began with hydraulic problems
over Florida ended six months later with the Cubs still up in the
air.

"This is a very, very emotional time for me," Grace said. "I
think of Cubs fans who've been suffering for a long time. You
almost have to be from Chicago or a member of this organization
to understand, but Chicago is a Cubs town."

After Sunday's game Grace was asked if this was a fitting end to
the oddest season on record, and he pointed out: "It's not over.
We have one more day to put on the hard hats, pick up the lunch
pail and punch in."

Fitting imagery, for Chicago is a swirl-cone of blue collars and
baseball, of Sandburg (Carl) and Sandberg (Ryno). What had all
his ex-teammates told him when they ended up in other big league
burgs? There's no better place to play, Gracie. On Sunday,
Grace--adopted Chicagoan, self-described "long-suffering Cubs
fan"--thought of all the ivy and Bleacher Bums and happy Harry
Caray mojo at the corner of Clark and Addison, and he couldn't
help but smile.

"I can't wait," he said. "Tomorrow is probably the biggest game
for me in 11 years." With that, he left to board one more flight,
into one more sleepless night.

He wept, of course. When Grace caught the final out of Chicago's
5-3 win on Monday night, he fell to his knees on the first base
line, weeping. The last time the Cubs clinched anything at
Wrigley Field had been 1938, and Grace was now a Vesuvius of
emotion. One inning earlier, when his teammate of nine years,
Shawon Dunston--cruelly shipped out of Chicago just last
summer--arrived on first base with a pinch-hit single for San
Francisco, Grace told him, "Whatever happens, I want you to
know--I love you, buddy."

Now we know: The Giants never really stood a chance. From the
ceremonial first pitch, thrown by a tall, thin recluse in a Sosa
replica jersey--Michael Jordan is a Cubs fan, and he played for
the White Sox--Wrigley Field was delirious. "They're starving
for a winner," Grace had said of these fans, but on Monday
night, they looked not so much hungry as (ahem) thirsty.

Why not? They were sozzled by the second inning, when the
helium-filled head of Harry Caray slowly rose from the leftfield
bleachers like a friendly ghost from the grave. "I saw it,"
Grace said of the 40-foot balloon. "I saw everything tonight.
I'm sorry Harry wasn't here. I'm sorry about Shawon. I'm sorry
about Jack Brickhouse."

Tears and beers commingled all night. When Gary Gaetti--two
words: Gary Gaetti!--broke a scoreless tie with a two-run homer
in the fifth inning, the game was held up while the bleachers
belched forth all manner of garbage, much as one might at an
exorcism.

In the seventh inning, Murray appeared at Caray's old press box
window, like the Pope above St. Peter's, and led the crowd in
Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

Afterward, the comedian's friend said softly: "I have never been
so proud to be a Cub. God bless this club."

He looked very much like a man at peace. Say good night, Gracie.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN GREEN Headliner Grace rubbed Sosa the right way after Sammy hit his 62nd home run, against the Brewers. [Mark Grace putting hand on Sammy Sosa's head in dugout] COLOR PHOTO: RON VESELY Triple threat Grace does it all--hits for average (.309), has a golden glove and gets all worked up about sliding home safely. [Mark Grace batting in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--diving for baseball in game] COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [Mark Grace shouting at home plate] COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN Loose clubhouse Unspeakable insults are favored for releasing tension by new Cubs like Mickey Morandini and old ones like Grace. [Mickey Morandini and Mark Grace in locker room] COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN Cursed bird Brown, whose inexplicable error cost the Cubs a key game last Friday, was attacked by an avenging bird in Houston. [Brant Brown in outfield throwing cap at bird] COLOR PHOTO: RON VESELY Marks twain Nobody who arrives at first is a stranger to the garrulous Grace, especially the game's new homer king. [Mark Grace talking with Mark McGwire at first base in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Free at last After the Cubs' 5-3 win over the Giants, an exultant Grace was headed for the postseason. [Mark Grace wearing "Wild Card" T-shirt and celebrating on field]

"Players who leave the Cubs tell me, 'Gracie, trust me, you
don't want to leave Chicago. There's no better place to play.'"

"I'm not married. I don't have children. My teammates are the
guys I spend the bulk of my time with. These guys are my family."

After Brant Brown dropped a "routine" fly to lose a game, Grace
pointed out, "It's never easy. Not in this uniform."

"I'm not going to make the mistake of looking back on my career
and saying, 'I should have had more fun,'" says Grace.

"When everyone around you says, 'This is our year, this is our
year,' you figure, god, they've got to be right one century or
another."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)