This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in August 2003.

Grace Field a boon for local Little Leagues

By Ed Odeven

Mark Grace has always been one of the most likable ballplayers in the major leagues. An easygoing, approachable fellow, Grace never takes himself too seriously.

Even on a day in his honor, Grace’s humor was on display.

After he was introduced by Jeff Munn, the Arizona Diamondbacks public address announcer, at the dedication ceremony to unveil Mark Grace Field Thursday morning at Arroyo Park, Grace smiled and greeted the crowd that was giving him a standing ovation and said:

“OK, OK, sit down. It’s just me.”

The cheering continued. Then Grace discussed why it’s an honor to have a field named after him.

“I just want to say guys that this place is going to be very special for me,” Grace said. “When I put my name on something, I’m going to dedicate myself to it. Whether it’s a professional baseball contract or whether it’s a field like this, I’m going to dedicate myself 100 percent to it.

“I understand (this field) is No. 12, so I think, folks, for all of you out there that’s a challenge. We’ve got 11 to compete with. I want it to be the best, and I think you want it to be the best. Am I correct?”

What followed was a unanimous “yessssss!” from the crowd of approximately 500 people and lots of clapping.

“In order for it to be the best, we are all going to have to get behind this thing, myself included,” he said.

“Write it down: If I have to come up here and drag the infield, then somebody’s in deep you know what,” he joked.

All kidding aside, Thursday was a special day for Grace, the Diamondbacks, Coconino Little League, which will use the field, and the city of Flagstaff. D-backs vice president-general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., Mayor Joe Donaldson, Bill Menard, the City of Flagstaff public works director, representatives from APS and a large throng of students and residents were present for the ceremony.

Mark Grace Field is the 12th ballfield to be completed for Arizona Diamondbacks Charities and the first field in northern Arizona. APS, a vital corporate partner for Arizona Diamondbacks Charities, has teamed up with the franchise’s Diamonds Back Youth Field Program to build eight fields.

The first of these fields, Matt Williams Field, in Phoenix was dedicated in June 2000. The most recent was the Miguel Batista Field, dedicated in early August on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Matt Mantei Field in Tempe is next on the list. Players who agree to lend their name to a field also make significant financial contributions for their upkeep.

Before the official dedication, Mark Grace Field was fixed up, refurbished and upgraded. It features new lights, an electronic scoreboard, new fencing and new dirt and grass. And Grace says he wants to see it looking brand-spanking new.

“I remember when I was in Arkansas playing in Little League,” Grace told the crowd. “We had a new complex where all of us were playing and it was not very well-kept. There were weeds, anthills and there were those red (ants) that bit you.

“Anyway, I remember a lot of us kids on Saturdays and Sundays would go to the ballpark and it was our job, because our parents made us do it, to go out and manicure this ballpark and make it something that we can be proud of. Within about six months, this place became a jewel of a place for us to play.”

Of course, everyone wants Mark Grace Field to be a well-kept park, one that maintains a professional look to it. But more important, Grace and the Diamondbacks hope this park can serve as an important building block for the city’s youth, tomorrow’s future.

Diamondbacks president Rich Dozer said, “This field is going to teach kids great lessons. It’s going to keep them off the streets doing productive things, but it’s also going to teach them great lessons about winning, losing, success, failure, teamwork, a ton of life lessons. We are excited to be a part of this.”

I asked Grace if this was one of the most special days in his career. He responded by saying, “I’m very humbled and very honored. … What a beautiful place in the state to have Mark Grace Field. … This is the only Mark Grace Field in the world, and I’m very proud of it. I’m going to do everything I can to make this the best Little League place in the world.

“In the spring, summer and fall months, when the weather permits, they are going to have a great place to play and hopefully we can turn out some big leaguers here.”

Entering the weekend series against the San Francisco Giants, the 39-year-old Grace had played in 2,236 games since he broke into the major leagues in 1988 with the Chicago Cubs. Since then, he’s batted at a .310 clip while producing 2,442 hits (510 doubles).

Surely, Grace’s commitment to Flagstaff’s youth is one of his biggest hits to date.