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Cubs Classics: Mark Grace’s Opening Day heroics

6 months agoBruce Levine

There have been quite a few thrilling victories on Opening Day in the Cubs’ 144 year history.

But on April 1, 1996, it was the first baseman and fan favorite Mark Grace’s time to write his name into the franchises history books. Thirty eight thousand, seven hundred thirty four fans were on hand to witness the exciting 5-4 10-inning victory.

1996 was the same year Bill Clinton was re-elected for a second term as president of the U.S. and Fox News debuted. The summer Olympics were held in Atlanta, Ga. And the New York Yankees won the World Series for the first time in 18 years.

Baseball was starting its first full 162 game season after a strike/lockout by the players and owners caused the loss of 50 games and the World Series in 1994. The work stoppage continued with 18 games missed off of the schedule before the 1995 season began in late April.

A 10-inning game lasting 2 hours, 52 minutes ended when the San Diego Padres’ future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman surrendered a bases-loaded single to the man who had more base hits than any player in baseball from 1990-2000.

Grace and his teammates gave Cubs fans an Opening Day memory for the ages in 1996.

The Cubs were led by second-year manager Jim Riggleman who had also managed the Padres before getting hired by GM Ed Lynch in the fall of 1994. Bruce Bochy — who managed 10 years in San Diego before taking over the San Francisco Giants job in 2003 — was the Padres manager in the other dugout. A return of future Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg after a 22-month retirement was the most talked-about aspect of spring training and Opening Day.

The Padres lineup featured three MVPs: Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn and Ken Caminiti batting first, third and cleanup in the batting order. Jamie Navarro and Andy Ashby were the aces of their respective clubs and mound opponents. Both pitched good ballgames, but did not factor in the decision.

Navarro threw two wild pitches in the 2nd inning, allowing Wally Joyner to score on a groundout by Andújar Cedeño.

That was all the scoring until the 5th inning. An Ashby squeeze bunt scored Cedeño for the second run. The Cubs tied it in the bottom of the inning when light-hitting SS Rey Sanchez hit a two-out home run to the left-field bleachers that scored José Hernández, who had walked ahead of him. In the top of the 7th, Sammy Sosa singled and scored on another improbable home run by Scott Servais.

With a two-run lead, Navarro threw his third wild pitch of the game, allowing Jody Reed to score in the 8th. Cubs closer Doug Jones blew the save in the 9th, giving up a single to Caminiti and a run-scoring double to Wally Joyner.

Jones and the Cubs escaped a scary 10th inning. With men on first and second with one out, Bob Patterson came on in relief of Jones and induced a groundout to first with Reed moving to second and Henderson to third. After intentionally walking Tony Gwynn, Caminiti took a called Strike 3 to end the threat.

The stage was set against the best closer in the National League as Hoffman came on to pitch the bottom of the 10th. The first batter, Sanchez, poked a single to left. Patterson struck out trying to bunt. Brain McRae singled on a 2-2 count and Sandberg, playing in his first game since June 10, 1994, walked on a 3-2 pitch. 

Enter the would-be hero: Grace. The 31-year-old veteran worked the count to 2-2 before ending the contest with a hard single down the third-base line that scored Sanchez with the thrilling game-winner.

Grace, now a special contributor for Marquee Sports Network, played for the Cubs through the 2000 season. He amassed 2,201 hits as a Cub, 5th most in franchise history.

Some parts of irony occurred in the only game he ever pitched in late September 2002. Grace, a member of Arizona Diamondbacks and winding down his career, talked manager Bob Brenly into letting him pitch the 9th inning of a game the Los Angeles Dodgers were winning 18-0. After getting two outs, the left-handed Grace faced a rookie in the fourth game of his career. His name was David Ross.

“He was yelling at me, ‘come on, man you stole my thunder!'” the new manager of the Cubs said, reflecting back on the day of his first big league hit and later his first home run (which came off Grace). “He was laying it in there with 70 mph fastball to the other guys. I said to myself, ‘if he throws that to me, I hope I can get some wood on it.’ After that, when he retired, he was always kidding that I was the best hitter on the Dodgers when he broadcast our games with the Diamondbacks.”

Bruce Levine is a contributor to Marquee Sports Network and a baseball analyst for 670 The Score.

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