Mark Grace was, in his own words, “a professional hitter,” and it is hard to argue with the longtime Cubs, and later Diamondbacks, first baseman. The left-handed-hitting Grace batted .303/.383/.442, from 1988-2003, pounding out 2,445 hits, including 511 two-baggers and 173 home runs. A three-time All-Star who won a World Series ring with Arizona in 2001, Grace currently serves as a color analyst on Diamondbacks broadcasts.
David Laurila: Why were you a good hitter?
Mark Grace: It was God-given ability, mostly. I certainly wasn’t the most talented baseball player out there, but I do consider myself to have been one of the smarter baseball players. I had been an avid follower of the game as a young player and an avid fan of the game as a young player. I think that I also have to give a lot of credit to the way I was coached in high school, college, and in the minor leagues. We were taught how to play the game situationally. The game is different now; it’s arena baseball. It’s sitting back and waiting for three-run homers and you can strike out as much as you want. It wasn’t that way when I was being taught the game.
We were taught the finer points of baseball. We were taught the importance of moving runners over, hitting behind the runner, executing the hit and run, getting bunts down, defending—and how important that is—base running. I think that a lot of the fundamentals now are not as focused upon because of the three-run homer. Who needs fundamentals if you can hit three-run homers?
DL: If I’m remembering correctly, both you and Rafael Palmeiro had people questioning your ability to hit for power when you first came up.
MG: Well, Rafael has plenty of power; he hit over 500 home runs.
DL: Palmeiro obviously developed power, but he didn’t hit many home runs early in his career. You never did turn into a home-run hitter.
MG: No, but I also didn’t use steroids. That’s a big difference. That’s something I’m very proud of. I also played in a ballpark that was very difficult for a left-handed hitter to hit home runs, because when the wind blew out, it blew out from the right-field foul pole to the left-field foul pole. Right-handed hitters had a big advantage if they could pull the ball there. Or, if you were a left-handed hitter who could drive the ball the other way, you had a pretty good opportunity. But most of the home runs I hit in my career, I had to pull. That was a little bit of a detriment for me, home run-wise, but I don’t look back at my career and say, “Man, I should have hit more home runs.” I hit as many home runs as I possibly could have and I’m proud of the fact that I still drove the ball into the gaps for over 500 doubles. I don’t consider myself to have been a singles hitter; I consider myself to have been a singles and doubles hitter.
DL: Wrigley Field wasn’t a good place for you to hit home runs, but was it a good hitting environment for you overall?
MG: It was tough. It had really long grass, so ground balls didn’t get through. But I loved playing there. It had a great batting eye. I loved day games. It was the only home ballpark I had for 13 years and I wasn’t about to be one of those guys who allowed a ballpark to get in my head and maybe lose confidence in a place where I was going to play half of my games. You just had to be mentally ready for any elements that Wrigley Field brought you. I’ve never seen a ballpark where the weather has such an effect on the game like Wrigley Field does. The weather has much more of an effect at Wrigley Field than it does in any other ballpark. If the wind is blowing out you’re going to have a high-scoring game, and if the wind is blowing in it is going be 2-1. And it’s almost blatantly cut and dried like that.
DL: Where did you love to hit?
MG; How about if I tell you where I didn’t love to hit? I felt that I was pretty good just about everywhere, but I hated domes. I stunk in domes. In Montreal, I might just as well have mailed my 0-for-4 in and stayed at the hotel. In the Astrodome, I struggled. I didn’t play but a few games in the Metrodome, but in any dome, I had problems. They just felt dark to me. I just didn’t feel like I could see the ball clearly. It just felt dark.
DL: What do you remember about hitting in Cincinnati?
MG: I loved hitting there. I had a lot of success in Cincinnati. Maybe I just matched up well with their pitchers, or whatever it was. But I just felt like that was a place…and it’s all confidence. When you go to a place where, early in your career, you had a couple of good games, all of a sudden you tell yourself, “Man, I love hitting in this park.” The old Philadelphia ballpark was like that for me. I loved hitting there, because I’d had success.
DL: You referred to yourself as a “singles and doubles hitter.” How would you describe your hitting approach?
MG: I looked at myself as a professional hitter. I was a professional hitter. If the situation called for a lead-off walk, I could do it. If there was a guy on second and there were two out, and we need a base hit to score a run, I could do it. If the situation called for a gapper to drive in a couple of runs, I could do it. I could also pull the ball on the ground to move a guy over. I was just a professional hitter; I was a situational professional hitter.
DL: What you’re saying is that you went to the plate looking to do different things in different at bats?
MG: Absolutely. Different times of the ballgame call for different situations. If you’re up there with nobody on and two outs, why not try to take a shot? Why not try to hit the ball in the seats in that situation? Or try to get in scoring position. Now, if I get up there with a runner on third and less than two outs, all I’m going to need is a ground ball to the second baseman and that run is going to score, so why try to hit it into the seats in that situation? First of all, when you’re a player like me, your odds of hitting it into the seats are not all that great, so don’t try. Whatever the situation called for, that’s what I tried to do.
DL: Did you look for certain pitches in certain zones?
MG: I wasn’t really a guess hitter. I was an old-fashioned look-for-a-fastball-and-adjust hitter. Teams now have so much information. They almost have too much information that they give to these players, like “This guy throws this pitch 49 percent of the time in this situation,” or “He throws 23 percent in this situation.” Our scouting reports were…I’d say to Ryne Sandberg, “Ryno, what’s he throwing?” That was our scouting report, and because of that, I didn’t get caught guessing wrong on a 2-2 pitch with the bases loaded because it said, “Hey, he throws a changeup 63 percent of the time” and all of a sudden you take a fastball down the middle. I didn’t get caught up in that, and we didn’t have to worry about that, because we didn’t have that information overload.
DL: Bill James once wrote that you should have hit second in the lineup, and Sandberg third.
MG: Yeah, but Bill James didn’t do his homework, because if he had, he would have known that Ryne Sandberg refused to hit third. He only wanted to hit second, so Bill James needs to do his homework.
DL: Did you care where you hit in the lineup?
MG: They could have hit me eighth if they wanted to; I didn’t care. As long as I was in the lineup, I was happy.
DL: What do most young hitters not understand about hitting?
MG: I think that it goes back to what I was saying about information overload. I think that a lot of times, if young hitters can just keep the game simple, and take what these pitchers give you—these pitchers are the best pitchers in the world, so it‘s not easy, man. It‘s tough. You might go an entire game and maybe get one good pitch to hit. The rest of them might be strikes, but there is such a thing as unhittable strikes. I think that you have to be, even in this baseball world of “You have to be great now or you’re going to be sent out to Triple-A”—the patience level now is a lot less than it was back when I was playing. Young players aren’t allowed to struggle for two, three weeks. They’re not allowed to start their career 5-for-40. They’re going to get sent down and replaced. Ryne Sandberg—here’s a Hall of Famer—started out his career 0 for his first 42. 0 for his first [expletive] 42, yet they kept running him out there every day and he ended up being a Hall of Famer. I don’t think you’d see that in this day and age.
DL: You put up some pretty good numbers over your 16 big-league seasons. Which of them mean the most to you?
MG: For me, I guess the best thing I did, as far as credentials go, was having the most hits and the most doubles in the decade of the ‘90s. That’s something that’s a pretty good feather in my cap. Having nearly 2,500 hits, I’m proud of that. The four Gold Gloves, I’m proud of that, because I felt like I could beat you on both sides of the baseball. And then, the most important thing is that World Series in ‘01. When they put me six feet under, the one thing that the baseball world will have to call me is a world champion. I was a world champion.