Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thursday Throwback - Marquis Grissom

(This column used to be called Random Ex-Brave.)

"Mark gets the sign. The wind and pitch, here it is."...It's a fastball on the outside corner that Carlos Baerga hits off the end of the bat.

Matthew Stockman | Getty
He was born in Atlanta in 1967. He attended Lakeshore High School in College Park. He continued his education and playing career with Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University, four hours away from Atlanta in Tallahassee. The fact was that Marquis Grissom was meant to be a Brave. It was in his DNA. After it finally happened for Grissom in 1995, it would be just more than six months later that Grissom would be involved in one of the biggest moments of Atlanta sports history.

He was born for this.

"Swung! Flyball deep left-center."...The flash of old cameras as fans try to capture the moment. The ball travels through the air toward the gap. Those lucky thousands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium grow louder in anticipation.

In the 1988 amateur draft, the Braves passed on Grissom five times. Instead, they drafted Steve Avery, Jimmy Kremers, Matt Murray, John Kupsey, and Preston Watson. The latter two failed in their effort to get to the major leagues and only Avery really had much of a career otherwise. Instead, the Expos took Grissom in the third round and #76 overall. He would turn into the best player of the third round that year, though Darren Oliver certainly had a long career.

Grissom would need little time to make his presence felt in the Expos system. He played in just 201 minor league games before arriving in Montreal on August 22, 1989. A year later, he would be limited by injuries, but still swiped 22 bases in 98 games. He was part of a brilliant rookie class for the Expos that year, which also welcomed Mel Rojas, Larry Walker, and Delino DeShields to the majors. All three would receive at least a vote for Rookie of the Year, won by Atlanta's David Justice with 23-of-24 first place votes (DeShields got the other). Starting to think it was a Montreal writer who accounts for the one vote for both Walker and Grissom, along with the only first place vote DeShields received.

In 1991, Grissom had a mini-breakout season while settling into the everyday center fielder. He led the National League in steals with 76, but only on-based .310. It would be a year later that Grissom began to show what he was truly capable of. He again led the NL in stolen bases, this time stealing 78, but showed increased muscle with a .418 SLG, an improvement 45 points. The rest of his game would need one more year to come together and that takes us to 1993. An All-Star and Gold Glove winner for the first time, Grissom slashed .298/.361/.438 for the Expos. The steals were down (and this would become a theme), but his overall game was higher. The .789 OPS was the highest OPS of his career until he eclipsed that in 1996.

Grissom was part of one of the best teams to not go to the playoffs since the creation of divisions. In 1994, the Expos were stacked with talent across the board and bonus - it seemed like all were still young. Moises Alou had settled into an MVP contender next to Grissom in left and Walker was one of the league's finest hitters. So good was the outfield that Cliff Floyd had to move to first while Rondell White was stuck in the minors. Also on the infield with Floyd was Wil Cordero, one of the league's best hitting shortstops. The staff was fronted by Ken Hill and Pedro Martinez while John Wetteland and Rojas were lethal in the later innings.

The Expos were just 28-22 through May, which left them 3.5 games behind the Braves in the new NL East. However, they would get hot in June and even took 2-of-3 against the Braves June 27-29, getting them within a half-game of first place for the first time since May. A 14-0 hammering of the Padres on July 8 brought them even with the Braves. They would take over the division for good on July 22, including taking two more from the Braves - this time in Atlanta - in July's final days. On August 11, they lost 4-0 to Zane Smith and the Pirates. That evening, with the Expos up by six games in the division, baseball players went on strike. The season was over. As was Expos' best chance to stick in Montreal. They averaged 24,000 fans in 1994, their best total in a decade. In their final home series before the Strike, the Expos drew no fewer than 30,359 fans for a series against the Cardinals. Their home series in late June against Atlanta had this attendance: 45,291 - 40,623 - 45,960. For those of us that watched Braves games on TBS after 1994, visits to Montreal often saw Skip Carey poke fun at how quiet the Stade Olympique was. In 1994, the it wasn't so quiet.

Grissom hit .288 that season with a .771 OPS. He went to another All-Star Game and won another Gold Glove.

"Grissom on the run." The center fielder tracks the ball toward the alley as fans stand waiting to witness history.

With their players making more and more money because they were so ridiculously talented, the Expos simply didn't have the funds to keep them all. In fact, they would drop their estimated payroll by nearly $7M in 1995. Some of that came as the Braves prepared for the 1995 season. The previous year, they had dealt Deion Sanders and his immense baggage to the Reds in exchange for Roberto Kelly, who OPS'd .784 with the Braves in 63 games before the strike. Not known for his defense in center field, nor the ability to leadoff, Kelly was still a fit for the Braves - but not a particularly good one. Seeing the Expos situation, John Schuerholz pounced and brought Grissom home to Atlanta in exchange for Kelly, decent outfield prospect Tony Tarasco, and Macon righty Esteban Yan. It probably looks worse now than it did then, but I imagine a lot of major league GMs questioned why the Expos would give up Grissom for so little. This was a decision based on budget realities, rather than baseball.

Most people forget, but Grissom had a letdown first season with the Braves. He put a lot of pressure on himself to be that missing piece that would finally take the two-time NL Champion over the hump. Slashing just .258/.317/.376 with 29 steals, Grissom was a letdown in '95. But maybe he was simply saving his best for October. They don't hand out NLDS MVP's, but if they did, it would have gone to Grissom. He was responsible for the first run of the NLDS with a homer off Kevin Ritz in the third inning. He would double four innings later, but foolishly got thrown out at third on a Mark Lemke grounder. It'd be probably his only goof of the playoffs. The next night, Grissom took Lance Painter's first pitch of Game 2 over the wall. Not done, he would homer off Painter again in the 4th. In Game 4, Grissom was perfect. He singled four times, doubled in his other at-bat, and stole a base. The Braves would cruise to a 10-4 series-clinching win. While his follow-up in the NLCS wasn't nearly as eye-opening, Grissom rebounded in the World Series for a 9-for-25 series with a double and three steals.

Oh...and he caught a ball.

"YES! (YES!) YES! (YES!) YES! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship! Listen to this crowd! A mobscene on the field!" Grissom catches the flyball and runs toward the infield to join his teammates that have made a human pile in the center of the infield.

In 1996, Grissom got a do-over and responded with his best single season in the majors. The 29 year-old slashed .308/.349/.489 with over 200 hits, 32 doubles, 10 triples, 23 homers, and 28 steals. It was the kind of big year that keeps you around with a team for years.

Except, for the second time in his career, Grissom's salary became a problem. While the Braves weren't handed down a demand to blow up the team and save money, they did have a tough choice to make. Grissom and Justice both had long-term contracts and lots of money promised to them. Meanwhile, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were a year away from free agency. There was not enough in Ted Turner's deep wallets to keep all four. Frankly, there was only enough to keep two. The Braves sided with the future Hall of Famers and traded 2/3's of their projected outfield days before the opening of the 1997 season for Kenny Lofton, Alan Embree, and much needed financial flexibility. The deal remains hated by Braves fans, though a critical look at the time makes it difficult to hate. For a deeper look, check out my Thursday Throwback column on Lofton.

Grissom lasted one disappointing season in Cleveland before a trade to Milwaukee. He OPS'd just .687 there over three seasons and the Brewers traded Grissom to the Dodgers. He flatlined in 2001, on-basing just .250 before an excellent bounceback season in 2002 where he slashed .277/.321/.410 with 17 HR. The big contract year prompted the Giants to bring him up the coast. For two years, he was a productive center fielder, belting 42 homers. But even the best of us eventually can't continue. 2005 saw Grissom hit a measly .212 before being unceremoniously kicked to the curb.

After a failed attempt to make the 2006 Cubs roster, Grissom would retire and head home to open the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association. According to the Alumni page, they have produced quite a few draftees, but Grissom might be even more proud of the lasting impact the academy he started has had on the young men that have gone through the doors.

One final note...Grissom received four votes in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011. It was four more votes than Baerga had that year.

More Thursday Throwbacks...
Terrell Wade (1995-97)
Tommy Gregg (1989-1992, 1997)
Jerome Walton (1996)
...or view ALL of them.

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