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Once a ballplayer, always a ballplayer

On Sports


Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Hops hitting coach Mark Grace keeps the game fun, and he has lots of wisdom to impart on the Northwest League teams young, Single-A players.HILLSBORO — Mark Grace would just as soon not be working in Class A baseball next season, but it’s nothing against the Hillsboro Hops or living in the Portland area.

“If it were up to me, I’d go be the greatest coach in the big leagues,” says Grace, the first-year batting coach of the Northwest League Hops. “It’s not up to me. But I know this: I like it here, and if (the Arizona Diamondbacks) send me back up here next year, they’ll get no argument. I love it up here.

“We all strive to move to a higher level. At the same time, there are a lot worse places to be than in Hillsboro, Oregon, in the summertime.”

Grace, 50, shares an Orenco Station apartment with his girlfriend, Laura Joiner, like Grace a Phoenix resident during his offseason.

“We have something in common,” Grace says with a laugh. “We’re both members of the Saddleback (College) Sports Hall of Fame — me for baseball, her for softball.”

Grace and Joiner, both from the junior college in Mission Viejo, Calif., have ventured into downtown Portland only a handful of times.

“Every time I go down there, I get lost,” he says, laughing again. “I hadn’t spent any time in the Northwest until this year. I can tell you this: I can’t imagine spending a summer any place nicer. This place is incredible. I love the area. We don’t get much green stuff down in Phoenix. It’s 116 degrees down there right now.

“And I didn’t realize the passion for baseball in this area. There are a lot of diehard fans. I figured this to be football country, because of Oregon, Oregon State and the Seahawks. I was surprised to see the amount of love for the game of baseball.”

Grace is in his first year of coaching after spending nine years in the broadcast booth as television analyst for the Diamondbacks as well as some national work for Fox Sports. The D-backs let him go in 2012 after his second DUI arrest over a 15-month span.

It was the toughest period in the mostly charmed life of Grace, one of the best first basemen in the major leagues through his 16-year career — the first 13 with the Chicago Cubs, the last three in Arizona. A three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, Grace owns a career batting average of .303 with 2,445 regular-season hits. A 24th-round pick out of San Diego State by the Cubs in the 1985 draft, the Dustin, Calif., native batted .329 in 96 postseason at-bats and was a member of the D-backs’ 2001 world champions.

So a four-month jail stint under a work-release program — mandatory in Arizona after a second DUI — gave him pause.

An opportunity by the D-backs to return to the organization as a coach gave him gratitude, though he doesn’t look at it as a chance to redeem himself after his fall from grace, so to speak.

“It wasn’t an atrocity,” he says. “I did it to myself. It got me out of broadcasting, but the Diamondbacks had my back and offered me this job.

“I’m not looking for redemption. I don’t begrudge the club for letting me go as a broadcaster. They didn’t do anything wrong; I did. If you make a mistake and you man up about it, if you take responsibility, show remorse and you don’t do it again, America is very forgiving.

“The good thing is, it’s over with. I have paid my debt to society. I’m officially out of trouble. If it takes a rough couple of years to get me back into the game, maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be.”

That’s what Arizona general manager Kevin Towers thinks. Grace, Towers says, is not paying penance for his sins as a coach in the lower minor leagues.

“That’s what’s crazy,” says Towers, a Medford native. “A lot of people think that, but I think he is where he has always belonged — as a coach. His heart was always being back in uniform.

“ ‘Gracie’ is old school. You start at the bottom and work yourself up to the big leagues. He needs to take the necessary steps. He wouldn’t do it any differently.”

Grace says that’s exactly the way he feels. Coaching at minor league’s lowest rung, he says, is not beneath him.

“I’m here because I want to be,” he says. “It’s not demeaning at all. It’s refreshing. I’m really enjoying this. You actually instruct at this level. You can make a difference with young, open minds.

“I enjoyed broadcasting. But as a broadcaster, you don’t get that adrenaline. You tell people what’s going on and try to make it as entertaining as possible. You don’t care who wins or loses; you just don’t want the game to go extra innings. But as a coach, I’m living and dying with every pitch. At this level, you get mistakes, and the only thing you can hope is the young man learns from it.”

Hillsboro’s players are ages 19 to 24. Most of them will never make the major leagues. All of them think they will, though. Grace’s job is to help the club’s non-pitchers get there.

“Truly, Mark loves working with young kids,” Towers says. “With his personality, it’s the perfect level for him. He keeps the kids loose. It brings him back to his days coming out of San Diego State. He enjoys this level more than any of them. It’s where he belongs right now. It’s the way he probably would want it. He’ll be a big-league manager or coach in the near future. For now, he’s back in uniform. He looked good doing the TV, but this where his heart’s at.”

Grace spent spring training with the major-league club in Arizona. In early June, he ventured north with the Single-A Hops, helping them win the Northwest League’s South Division first-half title.

“The major leagues is where we all dream of being, but to be a hitting coach at that level and at this level are two very different things,” Grace says. Major-leaguers “are the best players in the world. For the most part, their hitters know what they’re doing. They have their routine. They know what does and what doesn’t work for them.

“But you get down here, these young hitters are wanting to learn. They don’t have all the answers yet. They’re sponges. They’re eager to learn. They can’t wait to practice and try different things. When you get a kid and he does it a certain way and it’s not working, and after hours and hours of work and cage time you finally start to see some results, that’s when you really feel good. It does your heart good to know you did something to help this young man get better.”

Hillsboro’s hitters regard Grace with a bit of awe, but plenty of appreciation.

“To have someone who had so much success as a hitter in the big leagues — and he was a lefty and I’m a lefty — I couldn’t ask for more,” says Hillsboro’s top hitter, rookie outfielder Grant Heyman. “He works on minor adjustments here and there, but he hasn’t changed anything about my swing, which I like. He works with me a lot on the approach side of hitting. I’ve learned a lot.”

Even so, the difference between the charter flights and five-star hotels of the major leagues to the bus rides and less comely accommodations of Single-A baseball can’t be overstated. If it bothers Grace, he hides it well.

“Our longest trip is seven hours to Boise,” he says. “It’s not easy as a coach, but try doing it as a player. They have to play the game. We stop outside of Pendleton to find a gut grenade for them. Once we get to Boise, they strap it on and go play.

“But Northwest League travel is actually pretty easy. I played in the Midwest League. The old Texas League had an El Paso to Jackson, Miss., trip. Our Missoula affiliate has a 16-hour bus ride to Grand Junction, Colo.”

Hillsboro’s full-time coaching crew includes manager J.R. House and pitching coach Doug Drabek, the latter a former Cy Young Award winner for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I love working for J.R.” Grace says. “He’s a great manager. Doug is a guy I played against for years in the big leagues. We have a good crew. Everybody gets along well, and we have a good baseball club.”

House says he has enjoyed working with Grace and appreciates that he carries anything but a condescending attitude to those around him.

“Mark’s an awesome person,” House says. “He works really hard, is very passionate about these kids. He keeps them accountable. It’s great to have him on staff. The credibility he brings — the best hitter in the decade of the 90s — I mean, who better to have as a hitting coach? He has hit all his life.

“But his celebrity status never gets in the way of him busting his butt and doing what he can to help these kids live out their dream.”

As a player and broadcaster, Grace was life-of-the-party funny in the clubhouse and in the booth. He’s that way as a coach, too.

“He’s hilarious — a great story-teller,” House says.

“He’s a goofball,” Heyman says. “He always has funny stories and a good joke. He’s really fun to be around.”

“He’s fun, period,” Towers says. “He has incredible stories about the game, about teams he has been a part of. And he is very smart to how the game should be played. All those years playing, he studied managers and managed games through nine innings even while he was playing. He knows hitting and has great people skills.

“Gracie has the type of personality who relates to today’s players. Some of the old-school guys don’t. If you spend an hour or two hanging with him, you wind up with belly laughs and cramps. The game needs more Mark Graces.”

House says he admires the way Grace has rebounded from his DUI arrests.

“It’s been tremendous,” House says. “He has overcome that time in his life and moved on from it. He is totally invested in the Diamondbacks and player development and making the most of this opportunity.”

Towers is watching Grace with more than a touch of admiration, too.

“To go from base hits in the World Series to the police blotter — that’s tough,” Towers says. “Sometimes players think they’re invincible. He got caught. We’ve all (driven after drinking) at times. A lot of people say, ‘It could happen to me.’ He’s the one who had to go through it.

“It’s a lesson for all of us in pro sports. We’re role models and public figures and need to watch what we do. He spent four months in jail. That’ll wake you up. As tough as it was, you’re putting things in perspective in your life and career. It’s a great lesson for him. It was difficult, but it’s something that will make him grow as a person.”

Grace has cut out all alcohol from his life.

“I don’t know if it will be forever,” he says, adding with a smile, “if we win the league championship, I might celebrate with a glass of champagne with the guys.”

Grace isn’t sure that Towers’ prediction of managing in the majors will hold true.

“I just turned 50,” Grace says. “Managers are getting younger. Sure, we’d all love to wear that manager’s hat, But if that doesn’t happen because of my age, coaching in the big leagues is something I’d love to do. It’s the game I love.”

Grace pauses, looking from the Hops’ dugout to the field on a glorious late summer afternoon.

“I’ve been pretty much in the major leagues as a player or broadcaster since I was 22 years old,” he says. “This is all I know. I can’t sing, dance or play a musical instrument.

“I’m a ballplayer. My knowledge of baseball is probably in the 98th percentile. I know a whole lot about this game. I’m trying to help the younger guys. I’m not always right, but I’m not always wrong, either. It gives me a good feeling to help these guys, shaking their hands after a game, seeing how good they feel. Being a part of their celebration in Eugene when we won the first half — there’s no amount of money that replaces that.”

But Grace has a special talent in the broadcast booth, too. If an opportunity were to arise again there ...

“I think I’ve called my last game, unless an offer knocks my socks off,” he says, shaking his head.

He fingers the “Hops” stitched onto his jersey.

“There’s something about wearing this uniform,” he says. “It’s what a ballplayer needs to do. It just feels right.”

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