Mark Grace and number 17

This is a true story:

I was picking my daughter up at school one day last spring, probably sometime in May, when I spotted a kid on her school playground. This kid, who looked like a fourth or a fifth grader, had a blue shirt on, with a number 17 on the back. I said to myself “Huh. What do you know about that? An old Mark Grace shirt.”

It wasn’t until I got closer, on my way back to our car, that I saw the name on the back of his shirt wasn’t “Grace” but “Lim,” and the team on the front of the shirt wasn’t the Chicago Cubs, but the New York Knicks. It turns out that the shirt wasn’t as old as I thought it was.

Mark Grace wore number 17 for over a decade for the Cubs. I bring that up because I came in at number 17 on the listing of fan blogs for the month of June. Anybody who came to my blog in June looking for baseball content probably went away disappointed, as my baseball writing has fallen off considerably. The little bit of it that I do now is typically sent to ThroughtheFenceBaseball, instead. I love baseball, and I always will, but writing tales from my life, past and present, has crowded it out, at least when it comes to this space.

Mark Grace was a very good player–among the best in the game–for several years in Chicago. He had more hits, and more doubles, than any other big leaguer in the 1990s. He hit an astonishing .647 in the National League playoffs in 1989, and he gave Kerry Wood a congratulatory hug on the day that Wood struck out 20 batters in 1998. He was, perhaps, the face of the Cubs franchise in the late 1990s, at least until Sammy Sosa started doing his home run thing.

But then, after the 2000 season, he went to Arizona. And he did what he never had been able to do in Chicago, and that’s win a World Series title. He started the ninth inning, championship-winning rally off the most automatic closer the game has ever seen, Mariano Rivera. Not a single Cubs fan could deny him the excitement and the glory he felt in that moment. The sad part was that it didn’t happen for him–and for all us Cubs fans–as he was wearing a blue uniform and a red C on his cap. But at least he got there, so good for him.

I see Mark Grace doing baseball commentary sometimes, but I can’t really think about him as a Cub. He won a World Series, he got his ring, and he wouldn’t give that up for all of his years in Chicago, I’m sure. I wouldn’t either. But it makes him, somehow, not a full Cub, at least in my mind. Perhaps that’s a bad way to look at it, but that’s how it seems to me.

Mark Grace had such an impact on me, when he played with the Cubs, that every player who wears #17 after him–baseball and basketball, apparently–reminds me of him.  The Cubs will never retire Grace’s number, because he didn’t reach the Hall of Fame, and that’s probably just as well. It means that his memory will be preserved, every time a different #17 takes the field, for as long as those of us who were around in the 1990s are following the team. And that could be more years than Jeremy Lin will ever get.

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