Archive for Saturday, December 9, 2000

Grace signs with Diamondbacks

First baseman leaves Cubs after 13 seasons; Chicago makes room for prospects

December 9, 2000

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— After 13 years with the Chicago Cubs, Mark Grace is an Arizona Diamondback.

The first baseman agreed to a two-year, $6 million deal with the Diamondbacks on Friday, less than 24 hours after the Cubs declined to offer him arbitration.

The deal also includes a mutual $3 million option for a third year.

"I felt bad for Mark about the Chicago thing, but it's a great fit for him," Grace's agent, Barry Axelrod, said Friday. "He's excited."

Despite his long-standing love affair with the team and the Wrigley Field fans, the Cubs decision to let Grace go was hardly a surprising one. After 90 losses in three of the last four seasons, Cubs president and general manager Andy MacPhail has to make some tough choices.

The Cubs have two strong up-and-comers at first base with Julio Zuleta and Hee Seop Choi, and one if not both will be ready to play next season.

At some point, Grace would have to make way for the younger players, and MacPhail didn't want to do that to him.

"It would be awkward in August or September, if one of our first basemen showed he was ready to play at the major league level," MacPhail said. "Mark has done too much, contributed too much to the Cubs."

But Grace always hoped he'd retire with the Cubs. Despite the endless losing seasons, he had a fierce loyalty that kept him in Chicago when he probably could have made more money elsewhere. He even had Wrigley Field ivy painted on his motorcycle.

He was particularly proud of his membership in the small fraternity of players who spent their entire careers with one team, and he didn't want to end up like former frat brother Chuck Finley.

After spending his first 14 years with the Anaheim Angels, Finley signed with the Cleveland before last season.

"This is a business, and when your employer doesn't want you back you have to find work elsewhere," Grace said. "Now I'm a Diamondback."

As Grace was leaving the one-team club, another member was finding a way to stay put. Tony Gwynn turned down more money from Cleveland and Kansas City to stay in San Diego, where he's spent his entire 19-year career.

Gwynn accepted an incentive-laden $2 million contract for 2001 on Thursday.

"The difference is, the Padres tried to have him back," Axelrod said Thursday. "I don't know that it's a great move for them, but they did it because the guy has been there for 19 years."

The Cubs never even made Grace an offer. But MacPhail said it wasn't because the Cubs didn't value Grace.

MacPhail could have re-signed Grace or offered him arbitration, but it wouldn't have changed the fact that someday soon, Zuleta and Choi will be ready.

Zuleta, who hit .294 in 30 games last season, can probably play now. Choi was one of the top prospects in the Arizona Fall League's managers and coaches poll, and he could be ready next season.

"It was a difficult decision because Mark meant so much to the franchise," MacPhail said. "When you boil it down to its most basic level, Mark expects to play three or four more years."

The Cubs also declined to offer arbitration to closer Rick Aguilera, catcher Jeff Reed and infielders Shane Andrews and Jeff Huson.

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