Diamondbacks give Mark Grace another chance after DUIs

At age 19, Mark Grace was an undiscovered junior college ballplayer headed toward MLB stardom and a World Series championship HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro Hops hitting coach and former Major Leaguer Mark Grace addresses the media during an event last Friday at Hillsboro Ballpark.

Now 49, and after a second DUI derailed his broadcasting career nearly two years ago, Grace is ready to teach young players how to perhaps replicate his success and blossom into big-league hitters.

“Our players are blessed to have him as a hitting coach,” says J.R. House, the former major league catcher who will manage the Class A Hillsboro Hops this season, with Grace and returning pitching coach Doug Drabek by his side.

In the 1990s, Grace led the MLB in hits and doubles, appeared in three All-Star games and won four gold gloves as the starting first baseman for the Chicago Cubs.

He helped the Arizona Diamondbacks win the 2001 Series before retiring in 2003 with a .304 career batting average in 16 seasons.

Grace then settled into the broadcasting booth.

Things were going well, and he was a color commentator for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Fox Sports when, on May 30, 2011, he got a DUI in Scottsdale, Ariz.

On Aug. 23, 2012, Grace was caught driving under the influence again, this time also with a suspended license and without his court-mandated interlocking device.

The Diamondbacks did not renew his contract for 2013, and a January 2013 guilty plea brought Grace a four-month sentence with work-release, plus a couple of years of supervised probation.

Earlier this year, though, the Diamondbacks — Hillsboro’s parent club — gave Grace another shot.

And already, Grace has drawn rave reviews for his work as a hitting coach, both during spring training and with the D-Backs at their season-opening series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Australia.

“Thank God for the Diamondbacks. They didn’t turn their back on me,” Grace said last Friday at Hillsboro Ballpark, where the Hops’ 2014 field staff and management met with media.

Though it was a “crummy couple years,” Grace said he learned his lesson and will hold up his end of the bargain this time.

“I’ve made mistakes,” he said, “and I’ll make mistakes again. I promise you, I will never make that mistake again.

“It’s a blessing in disguise because now I get to do this. I get to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s coach.”

Grace said he has realized that he prefers coaching to broadcasting.

“In broadcasting, you don’t really care who wins or loses,” he said. “You just don’t want extra innings. In coaching, you are living and dying with these guys every day.”

Grace said he is determined to help the Hillsboro players.

“I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get you better,” he plans to tell them, “and you have to believe in it and you have to trust it.”

He doesn’t see himself as just a teacher, either, but as a mentor as well.

“These kids are young, so you are not only a big-brother figure, but a father figure,” he said, adding that “you have to know when to skull them and when to love them.”

He also hopes to ingrain wisdom and anticipation into the players’ brains, teaching skills such as “knowing that this guy is going to throw you this pitch in this situation or knowing what to do with runners on second and third.”

House said he believes the Hops, who open June 13 at Everett, will respect Grace because of his extensive experience.

“One of the things he brings is credibility,” House said. “You have to really force upon the players that you know what you’re talking about, or they just don’t listen to you.”

Grace’s early baseball background could resonate with the Hops players, too.

In 1983, while playing for Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., Grace just hoped to get some eyeballs focused in his direction.

“Look, when I was your age,” he plans to tell his players, “I was toiling around at a junior college just hoping and praying someone would watch me play.”

The Hops are expected to have an assortment of draft picks from the middle rounds on their roster for their second NWL season — and Grace knows what it’s like to break into pro ball at that level. After two years at Saddleback, he transferred to San Diego State, and a year later, in 1985, he was drafted by the Cubs in the 24th round — hardly bonus baby position.

“I didn’t look at it as a slap in the face, I was just happy to play professional baseball,” he said.

For inspiration, Grace said his 2014 Hops players simply have to look him straight in the face.

“I’ve got all these rags-to-riches stories,” he said. “I can bore you with these stories for weeks on end — but I’m going to keep telling them, ‘Look, dummy. Look at me!’ ”

Grace said players who aren’t high draft picks must especially prove themselves immediately.

“If you don’t do well right out of the gate, you aren’t going to be around,” he said. “The motivating factor for me was, I better get busy, I better get hot.”

And that’s exactly what he did.

After earning his shot in the majors in 1988, Grace went 2-for-5 in his first game, scored three runs in his second game and hit his first MLB home run in his third game. After that, he was a mainstay.

In the 2001 World Series, he came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 against the great closer Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees, winners of four of the previous six championships. Grace singled to ignite a comeback that cemented Arizona’s first title.

“They were Godzilla, and we were the first team to show that the Yankees weren’t just some World Series-winning robots, they were actual humans, too,” Grace said.

Grace remembers 2001 as “one of the most irreplaceable years of my life. ... For the rest of my life, I’ll be a World Series champion, and nobody can ever take that away from me.”

While other players in those days were artificially jacking up their bodies and launching balls out of the stadiums, Grace tallied just 173 career home runs.

“I’m a bit ashamed of my era and what the guys did. I’m not ashamed of myself,” Grace said. “I know that every single thing I did was with my natural body.

“Could I have (used steroids)? Yes. That doesn’t make me John Q wonderful guy. I just didn’t do it.”

Grace joked that abstaining had one other benefit: “I always said steroids would be bad for my sex life and I’m already bad enough as it is.”

Grace hopes to move up eventually in the coaching ranks.

“Just like when we wanted to play in the big leagues, we all want to coach in the big leagues,” he said.

However, he said he won’t abandon the Diamondbacks organization that stood by his side.

“As long as they want me around,” he said, “I’ll be loyal to them.”

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