"This is something a kid dreams about all his life," Grace said on his first day in Chicago. "And then it finally happens."
Don Zimmer, then the Cubs manager, made it clear Grace had the job.
"I told this man, 'You're the first baseman,'" Zimmer said.
Grace had been scuffling a little in the Minors and Jim Frey, then the Cubs general manager, had a chat with the slender first baseman. Turns out, Grace was trying to hit home runs.
"I was trying to jerk the ball," Grace said at the time. "That's what got me in trouble in the first place. I realized after hitting about .170 the first couple weeks that wasn't the answer."
"I'll take a double down the left-field line," Zimmer said. "I'll take a ball up the middle, like I saw him hit all spring. Home runs will come."
Those doubles added up. Grace delivered one after another and plenty of singles and eventually became the Major League hits leader of the 1990s with 1,754 knocks. And the glib first baseman, who played 16 seasons, will now see if all those hits were enough to get him into the Hall of Fame.
He's on the ballot for the first time, and if Grace could garner votes for being able to answer any question, he'd be a shoo-in for Cooperstown.
A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9 percent) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9 percent) standing as the top three returning vote-getters.
Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 American League MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295), stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190).
Live coverage of the Hall of Fame's announcement on Jan. 12 can be seen on MLB.com.
All of the 20th century decade hits leaders have been elected to the Hall, with the exception of Pete Rose. Grace has 2,445 career hits and never finished a season with more strikeouts than walks. But even a fan Web site, MarkGrace.com, acknowledges it will be tough for the "amazing" left-handed hitter to get into Cooperstown.
Of the 18 first basemen in the Hall of Fame, the Web site points out nine were voted in by the Baseball Writers' Association of America and nine were inducted by the Veterans Committee. Grace played in 2,245 games in his career, more than the average of all the Hall of Fame first basemen.
He does have more doubles (511) and the best fielding percentage (.990) but falls way short in home runs (173) compared to the average numbers of all BBWAA-selected first basemen. The nine BBWAA-elected Hall of Famers averaged 399 home runs each.
In Grace's first season in the big leagues in 1988, he hit one homer in Spring Training and that was during a pre-Cactus League exhibition game against Mesa Community College. His first big league blast came May 5, just three days after his debut, and it helped the Cubs complete a three-game sweep of the Padres. It was in the sixth inning, a solo shot, off lefty Keith Comstock in a 6-3 Chicago win.
In his 16 seasons, all but the last three with the Cubs, Grace posted a .303 average, hit 173 homers, 511 doubles and drove in 1,146 runs. Grace is the last Cubs player to hit for the cycle, doing so May 9, 1993, against San Diego. In that game, he went 4-for-5 with three RBIs.
He got things started in the first with a double to left with two outs off San Diego's Greg Harris. Grace singled to center with a man on in the third and made his only out when he lined out to right leading off the fifth. With two outs in the seventh, Grace tripled to left.
Harris was lifted in the eighth with a 5-1 lead. In the Chicago ninth, Rick Wilkins singled to lead off and pinch-hitter Rey Sanchez popped up. Dwight Smith flied out to left and Jose Vizcaino then singled to center. Rich Rodriguez replaced Roger Mason, and Grace homered, a three-run shot to pull within 5-4. Gene Harris then came into the game and got Ryne Sandberg to line out to shortstop to end the game.
There were 30,062 at Wrigley Field who witnessed Grace's feat.
"I should get the game film, because I'll never do that again," Grace quipped after the game. "I don't hit too many triples. I hit fewer triples than I hit home runs, and that's saying something."
He was old school. You knew it was a cold day at Wrigley Field if Grace was wearing batting gloves. He played baseball to pass the time at Saddleback Junior College and was spotted by big league scouts while at San Diego State University. They were actually there to look at Tony Gwynn's brother, Chris.
"They'd come to see Chris and go, 'Oh, by the way, that first baseman's not bad either,'" Grace told the Chicago Tribune in 1995.
A three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, Grace never finished in the top 10 in the National League Most Valuable Player balloting. But Grace does have one thing other longtime Cubs don't have: a World Series ring. He signed a two-year contract with Arizona in December 2000 and helped the D-backs beat the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series. He also came through with a home run in that series, connecting in Game 4. Grace got things started in the pivotal ninth inning of Game 7 with a single off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
He even pitched an inning in relief on Sept. 2, 2002, during a 19-1 loss to the Dodgers and gave up one run on catcher David Ross' first career home run.
"That poor kid is going to get his first home run ball and it's off [Mark Grace]," Grace said. "I didn't have a scouting report on him. Obviously, he can hit 65-mph fastballs."
That won't get him into Cooperstown, though. One of the most popular Cubs ever, Grace's No. 17 jersey is still worn by fans in Wrigleyville. In Grace's last game in Chicago in September 2000, he went 0-for-4, but the fans knew he was not going to be re-signed and received a standing ovation before his last at-bat.
It was a terrific tribute to a terrific player.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.