If spring training is a time for optimism and limitless possibilities, we might as well go for the ultimate baseball fantasy.
Mark Grace has spent 10 years in a Chicago Cub uniform, enough time to absorb almost 800 losses. Yet he’s still in Chicago and still has visions of winning a championship.
“I could have made more money elsewhere,” Grace said on a recent weekday morning. “But I’ve got a dream of winning, and I’ve got a dream of winning here.
“I want to be part of it. Chicago will be the greatest city in the world the day that happens, believe me. I can’t even begin to imagine [what would happen]. But I want to be part of it and I want to be involved in that party, that’s for sure.”
When the Bulls won their second NBA championship in 1992, fans poured out of the cluster of bars on Rush and Division and partied in the streets. They danced on taxicabs and tipped a couple of them over. It’s one lingering memory of that championship and it certainly stuck in the minds of cab drivers. When the Bulls had a chance to clinch a championship the next year, you couldn’t find a cab anywhere in Chicago that day.
Will fans be taxi-dancing again if the Cubs win it all?
“I will,” Grace said. “I can’t promise the other people won’t. I will. I’ll be out there on top of [the cabs].
“I can guarantee you this: If we won a championship, it would be much crazier in Chicago than if the Bulls won another championship. That is a fact.”
Cub fans are starting to talk about fate, that this is the year the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908, how broadcaster Harry Caray’s death was some type of omen.
If we stick to the field, not the announcer’s booth or the heavens above, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Cubs will have their best team of the 1990s.
They won’t have the old mainstays, Ryne Sandberg and Shawon Dunston, in the middle of the infield, but newcomers Jeff Blauser and Mickey Morandini have been productive players.
Henry Rodriguez joins the outfield and adds another power source. Rod Beck gives the Cubs the closing pitcher they thought they got in Mel Rojas last year, before he flunked out and was traded to the Mets.
Grace, having seen what can happen to the Cubs whenever the perpetual “next year” comes around, keeps using the phrase “cautiously optimistic.”
“Hopes are higher, that’s for sure,” Grace said. “We look around, we see a quality group of veteran guys, along with some good young players. It’s a pretty good mix. We feel like we’re going to go further this year than certainly we did at this time last year.”
Caray, having just been laid to rest, and Sandberg having retired--permanently this time, he says--Grace has become the most identifiable Cub.
He has been loved by Wrigley Field fans, but he isn’t beloved. More fans wore Sandberg’s No. 23 jersey than Grace’s No. 17. There was a Shawon-o-meter, not a Grace-o-meter. Fans don’t bow to Grace, as they did to Andre Dawson.
Nevertheless, Grace has carved a niche for himself.
“I think I’ve got a nice little shtick going now,” said Grace, who was part of a Cub contingent that left spring training to return to Chicago for Caray’s memorial services Friday. “I think the fans enjoy what I bring to the ballpark every day. They enjoy what I do.”
What he does is play with a consistency that has seen few peers throughout the past decade. He has finished among the National League’s top 10 hitters eight times and won four Gold Gloves at first base. It’s the lack of power numbers--no 20-home run or 100-RBI seasons--that has kept him from ranking among the game’s elite players.
But he never has lacked for enthusiasm, candor or desire.
“I love what I do,” Grace said. “I love playing for the Cubs. I love the game. I love going out and competing day in and day out with the best players in the world. How could you not love it?”
What’s not to love about his office at 1060 W. Addison St.? That’s why 30,000 people always come to Wrigley Field, no matter what the team’s record.
“It’s a great place to come and watch a game,” Grace said. “It’s kind of a party. It’s a great way to spend a day, hopefully with a quality team out there to make them enjoy it a little bit more.”
Now that the host and ringleader is gone, the party won’t be the same. For a change, the Cubs have an alternative attraction--the chance for a winning team.
A World Series in Wrigleyville? As Caray used to say, it might be, it could be . . .