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Grace getting a second chance in baseball

Grace getting a second chance in baseball

Grace getting a second chance in baseball

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Off in the distance, beyond the walls of the sprawling baseball complex at Salt River Fields, two landmarks catch the eye of Mark Grace.

The furthest away is Chase Field, the stadium where he ascended to fame in the desert by capturing a World Series in 2001 and later spending nearly a decade as a beloved figure in the broadcast booth.

The other, just a few miles down the road, is the streets of Old Town Scottsdale, a city where nightlife temptations derailed and almost ended his career in baseball.

Together, the juxtaposition of the two reminders from his multilayered past forms a fitting backdrop for the beginning of his present, a new chapter of recovery and redemption.

A year after two drunk driving arrests in a span of 15 months led to a four-month jail sentence and his dismissal as a color analyst, Grace has returned to baseball this summer, serving as the hitting coach for D-backs rookies in the Arizona League.

"This is where I belong. Somehow, someway, this is where I belong," Grace said. "To be back in baseball, it's incredible. I'm a baseball person, that's all I've ever been."

For the previous 25 years, Grace's role in the game was a lot more glamorous. For a quarter-century, the three-time All-Star and four-time National League Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner either competed against or broadcasted the greatest players in the world. Now, he's on the other end of the spectrum, teaching in the lowest level of the Minor Leagues. Grace doesn't miss the bright lights though, he savors the simplicity he has found in coaching youngsters aged 17-21.

"It's a long way from the Major Leagues, that's for sure," he said. "But it's so fulfilling, I love it. I'm here because of the mistakes I've made, but it has led me to a great place."

Before the D-backs offered him the job in the spring, Grace had no idea what the future held for him. If he wasn't in baseball, what could he do?

That's when the Arizona front office stepped in. Although Grace had let the club down with his lapses in judgment, the D-backs recognized the value the career .303 batter could bring to their fledgling prospects, not only on the field, but off it as well.

"There is so much more to these kids' lives than just baseball, so you kind of have to be a father figure for them and teach them right from wrong," Grace said. "And I've got a lot that I can teach them about, because I've lived it. I can speak from experience about the things you ought not to do when you're here, especially in Scottsdale. You don't want to end up where I did."

That message has resonated with Grace's players, who, despite being in their early teens when he retired, still know what the first baseman accomplished in the big leagues. So while it likely wasn't the first time the kids heard the "be smart" speech, having it come from a person of Grace's stature made the warnings a bit more substantial.

"You can relate to him because he's been doing it for a long time," said Jamie Westbrook, the D-backs' fifth-round pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft. "It's not just another guy. He knows what he's talking about, so it really helps."

"After the trouble he got into, he's been setting a great example for us to make sure we don't make the same mistakes he did," said second-round Draft pick Justin Williams. "He's an awesome hitting coach and even more awesome guy."

Of course, Grace's job isn't just about teaching life lessons. He spends his afternoons in the grueling Arizona heat, instructing the rookies on the finer points of baseball. Here, when a player does something wrong, Grace uses his upbeat and infectiously affable personality to make the young man smile before showing him the correct way to hit the cutoff man or rotate their hips in their swing. He'll get on a player's case for not being aware of a situational hitting scenario, but he'll do it in a way that gets the point across without disparaging the kid's confidence.

Grace does it all with the hopes that his young players will eventually advance through the club's farm system. He said that's when the proudest moments of his job occur.

"Watching their eyes light up, it's incredible," Grace said. "They are getting some of the best news they've gotten in their lives. You get to hand them a plane ticket and hopefully you won't see them until the next spring. It's genuine elation."

While Grace admitted that he'd love to join the ever-growing list of former players to manage in the big leagues, he said he's not sure where his new job will take him, only that it's the last second chance he'll ever need.

"I almost blew it, but thankfully for the Diamondbacks, they believed in me," he said. "And I'll be damned if I'm going to let them down."

Tyler Emerick is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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