Sosa returns the compliment. "I don't have nobody hitting behind me," says Sosa, grinning and knowing the quote will get back to Grace.
Grace eats it up. "I love 'em," he says of Sosa and the rest of his teammates. "I love 'em to death."
All of which is to say that when Grace claims he could quite casually play for a team other than Chicago...well, his mother, Sharon, simply shakes her head at this transparent fiction. "Truth be told," she says from her 230-acre farm in Bentonville, Ark., "Mark would pay the Cubs to play for them."
Grace has lived in Chicago longer than he has lived anywhere else. His father, Gene, moved 13 times in 25 years as an account manager for the Union Pacific Railroad. Mark—who has an older brother, Mike—was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., and lived in Atlanta, St. Louis, Nashville and Memphis, all before the eighth grade. "I heard a lot of Johnny Cash growing up," Grace says of those cities, where he always made friends quickly.
"Mark has never been a stranger," says his mother. "He was never alone. In a new town he would just walk out and pull someone off the street to play ball. You can see it now, the way he's always talking to anyone who goes near first base: the runner, the umpire, the coach, whoever."
Indeed, on defense, Grace, a four-time Gold Glove winner, garrulously greets base runners as if each were the first visitor to Grace's desert island. What does Grace talk about in these nationally cable-televised colloquies? "Usually, we're just exchanging pleasantries," he says. "Sometimes, I'm messing with their head. You know, 'Is that your girl, in the front row, with the big....' "
Naturally, Grace was the first player to congratulate Mark McGwire when Big Mac hit his record-breaking 62nd home run against the Cubs in St. Louis. Grace high-fived his fellow first baseman and slapped him on the rear end as McGwire rounded first. The rest of the Cubs' infield served similarly as a receiving line. "The only time we got caught up in the home run race was in St. Louis," Grace said three weeks later. "And we probably made a mistake. Once we got out of there, we got refocused on the wild-card race."
But the mind will wander in the course of 162 games. Grace occasionally allows his thoughts to drift to what might have been. "Letting go of Greg Maddux," he says of the four-time Cy Young winner who left the Cubs for Atlanta as a free agent in December 1992. "That whole farce is something Cub fans will never forgive. Neither will I. You add 20 wins a year and subtract 20 losses a year—some of those years, that would have made a lot of difference. The shame of it is, Greg wanted to stay. I'm the only one here who played with him as a Cub. The rest of the guys on this team just say, 'He was pretty good here, wasn't he?' Yeah, no s—-." Grace, his voice husky from the Winstons he smokes, laughs sardonically.
The Braves, of course, have been to the playoffs every year with Maddux. "Greg wanted to stay here and play here," Grace says again, just when you think that part of the conversation has ended.
Given the surreal circus that is the life of a major leaguer, Grace finds it difficult to stay down in the dumps for long. Before the Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates in a Sunday matinee at Three Rivers Stadium in September, the visitors gathered on the field to watch the pregame entertainment. A tee-ball game between teams of corporate and sports mascots was marred, improbably, by a bench-clearing brawl. As the Energizer Bunny beat Mr. Met unconscious with a drumstick, one didn't doubt that Grace really would pay the Cubs for the privilege of playing.