12/09/2000

I can’t let this stupid move by the Cubs go. And I thought the Royals could do some stupid things. But the Royals never let George Brett walk away. The Greatest Ever flirted with following Whitey Herzog over to the Cardinals in the early 1980s, so the Royals locked him up with a long-term contract and the promise of a front-office position after he retired. The result: Brett had some great years and some not-so-great years, but no matter how he was hitting and how his team was playing, people flocked to Royals Stadium just to see him.

Mark Grace is the closest thing baseball has to a George Brett today. He hits left handed and has a sweet swing. And he’s been playing first base for the Cubs since the Harding administration. OK, since 1988. And he was near and dear to every true Cub fan’s heart.

I remember when I first saw him play. Leon Durham had pretty much played himself out of a job as the Cubs’ first baseman. My dad and I thought Rafael Palmeiro was the Cubs’ first baseman of the future. Then I saw Mark Grace play in a spring training game. Wow! He had gold glove written all over him. If the ball was in the same time zone as him, he grabbed it. And at the plate, he reminded me a little of Brett. Solid contact hitter, good for lots of doubles and the occasional homer.

Within two years, Grace was a clubhouse leader. In the 1990s, he led the majors in hits and doubles. Without a doubt, he was the Mr. Cub of the 90s. He had offers to go elsewhere. But he wanted to be one of The Rare Ones. He wanted to be like Brooks Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski and George Brett, who spent the entirety of their long careers with one team, and spend his whole career with the Cubs. He wanted that more than a World Series ring (good thing, because the Cubs won’t be headed there any time soon). A class act. Loyalty was more important than glory.

But now there’s another young left-handed-hitting first baseman coming up, and he’ll play for less money, and Grace had an injury-plagued season, so now he’s Leon Durham. Only instead of being banished to Cincy, he’s banished to Arizona.

Getting rid of Grace makes good business sense. He’s expensive. He doesn’t hit for as much power as you’d like from a corner infielder. He may never hit .330 again–if you can’t get 40 homers from your first baseman, it’s nice to get 200 hits. The fans will miss Grace, but they’ll come out to see the Cubs regardless of who’s on the field. They could replace Mark Grace with Leon Durham and Sammy Sosa with Keith Moreland and the fans would still come. Cubs fans are like that. And management knows it.

You can replace Grace’s bat, and you can live without his glove. But you can’t replace the man. That was true of a lot of the men the Cubs have let go over the years: Bill Buckner. Andre Dawson. Rick Sutcliffe. Greg Maddux. Joe Girardi. Rafael Palmeiro. And now, Mark Grace. These are the kind of men whose presence makes the other eight guys on the field play better. The Cubs never understood that. Never will.

And that, I submit, is the reason the Cubs are perennial losers. They manage to keep the occasional outstanding individual in a Cub uniform (Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg), but for the most part they treat players as commodities, and with a few rare exceptions, field a team of forgettable players day in and day out.

The Cubs didn’t deserve Mark Grace. The real tragedy is it took Mark Grace 13 years to figure that out. Good luck in Arizona, Mark. Go get that World Series ring you were willing to deny yourself. Then head back to Wrigley Field and ask your old boss Andy MacPhail if he wants to touch it.

Thanks for all of the birthday well-wishes. Lunch was good. Dinner was good. The homemade peanut brittle from my aunt was even better. She always sends me peanut brittle for my birthday, it’s always great, and it always lasts me about three days. At about 10 p.m. I was carrying on about how I had about 45 minutes of youth left. I was born around 10:45, you see, and a long time ago I set 26 as the age when you become old. So, speak up sonny, I can’t hear you. But don’t torque me off; I’m apt to hit you with me cane.

And thanks to Al… for the greeting, for the page, and for the hits. I had a spike yesterday. Eighth wonder of the Wintel world I seriously doubt (both because I’m not that good, and because neither half of Wintel would claim me: I do a lot of Microsoft-baiting and probably even more Intel-baiting, mostly because I just can’t stand Andy Grove), but I appreciate the sentiment.

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