SAN DIEGO — Another Tony Gwynn? That's a big order, but Mark Grace just may have the credentials to fill it.
Grace, 23, followed Gwynn at San Diego State and now appears ready to join the Padres' all-star outfielder in the major leagues as a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs.
Mentioning Grace in the same breath with the best hitter in the National League may seem extreme, but check his minor league statistics. He broke in with a .342 average at Class A Peoria in 1986, then hit .333 at Class AA Pittsfield last year.
Gwynn, with two NL batting titles and a lifetime major-league average of .335, warmed up by hitting .331 at Class-A Walla Walla in 1981 and .328 at Class AAA Hawaii in 1982.
Much has been said about Gwynn's brother, Chris, a rookie Dodger outfielder who was a teammate of Grace at SDSU in 1985. But Grace's minor league numbers have been vastly superior to the younger Gwynn's--.257, .287, .279--and there can be no question at this stage that he is the hotter prospect. So hot, in fact, that Inside Sports magazine has picked him to be the NL rookie of the year.
Unfortunately for Grace, his bid for immediate big-league status contains a rather large hitch. First base at Wrigley Field is occupied by Leon Durham, and until the Cubs manage to unload the Bull and his $1,183,333 salary, Grace will have to wait. If Durham isn't traded by opening day, Grace will start the season with the Cubs' Class AAA Iowa farm club.
"Nobody knows the situation better than I do," Grace said. "If they don't get rid of Durham, I'm in triple-A. They're not going to play me ahead of a guy making about a million and a quarter a year.
"I know they're doing everything they can to trade Durham. Everybody I talk to tells me the same story. They want to make room for me at first base.
"Every night I watch the news, and every morning I look in the paper, hoping I'll find out that I'm the Cubs' first baseman. It's hard to believe some club wouldn't be willing to give up something for a player as good as Durham.
"The Cubs need to trade him to beef up their pitching (they're still in need of a starter despite having acquired reliever Goose Gossage from the Padres Friday night). They finished in last place last year with one of the most awesome offenses in baseball. The trouble is, it's tough to trade a guy with a salary as big as Durham's."
As a superstar with an impeccable attitude, Tony Gwynn has been an ideal role model for Grace. Gwynn has offered tips along the way--both players bat and throw left-handed, and they often work out together--and his presence has given Grace something extra to shoot for. People throughout baseball are convinced he can't miss.
Grace's first-year average of .342 at Peoria led the Midwest League. He also had 15 home runs and 95 runs batted in. His .333 at Pittsfield was embellished by 17 homers and 101 RBIs. He was voted the Eastern League's most valuable player and was named its No. 1 major league prospect by Baseball America, the respected chronicle of the minor leagues.
Hidden among the usual run of statistics is evidence of an uncanny ability to avoid strikeouts. Grace struck out just 28 times in 465 at-bats in 1986 and just 24 times in 453 at-bats last year. This is another similarity with Gwynn, who had 21 and 18 strikeouts in the minors with fewer at-bats.
Beyond all that, Grace has proven himself good with a glove. His coach at San Diego State, Jim Dietz, said, "He's a magician around first base. He makes short hops look easy, and he tags runners exceptionally well."
Jim Essian, the Pittsfield Cubs' manager and a former major league catcher, summed up Grace's talents by saying, "He's just a marvelous ballplayer. He's going to go a long way."
One area in which Grace figures to have an edge over Gwynn is power and run production. At 6-feet 2-inches and 190 pounds, Grace is considered likely to hit 20 or more home runs per season. Gwynn has never hit more than 14.
"I think I'll hit my share," Grace said. "Playing in Wrigley Field, I should hit a lot of home runs there. I figure 20 to 25 is a good possibility."
Being a first baseman, Grace tends to be compared not with so much with Tony Gwynn but with Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez and Wally Joyner.
"I'm very, very flattered when I hear that," Grace said. "We lived in St. Louis when Hernandez was with the Cardinals, and he was my idol then. He's left-handed like me, about the same size and plays good defense, something I've always taken pride in. I even wore his St. Louis number, 37, when I was younger."
Grace's baseball future didn't always look this good. He had an undistinguished career at Tustin High School, then spent two years at Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo and one at San Diego State without exciting major league scouts. He didn't show much power, and scouts prefer first basemen who hit home runs.