Marquis Grissom: Mr. October Jr.

Any player who finishes up his major league career with 2,251 hits, 227 home runs, 967 RBIs and a .272 batting average should be pretty well known, even among casual fans. That may not be the case with Marquis Grissom, however.

Despite a 17-year career, Grissom toiled in relative anonymity, perhaps because he rarely appeared on leader boards. His best home run year was 1996 when he hit 23 for Atlanta. That same year was his best, average-wise, at .308. Since Grissom usually hit leadoff, he never reached the coveted 100-RBI mark, topping out with 95 for the 1993 Expos.

Other than stolen bases, Grissom never led the league in any major offensive category—and I’m not entirely sure that stolen bases qualifies as “major.” Since the heyday of Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, and Vince Coleman, interest in that statistic seems to have dwindled.

Grissom’s career got off to a modest start with Montreal in 1989 when he was 22. He hit .257 in 74 at-bats. The next year, he came to bat 288 times but could do no better than equal his average from the year before.

In 1991, however, he served notice on National League batteries that he was a force to be reckoned with on the base paths, leading the league in steals with 76. His batting average, however, was only marginally better (.267). In 1992, Grissom again led the league in steals (78), as well as at-bats (653), and showed signs of power with 14 homers and 66 RBIs. He would never again come close to his base-stealing totals of 1991 and 1992, but his prowess at the plate continued to develop.

In 1993, it all came together for Grissom, as he was named to the NL starting outfield for the All-Star Game and finished the season with 19 home runs and 95 RBIs to go with a .298 batting average. From that point forward, his career continued with solid but not outstanding statistics—at least, during the regular season. In 1994, he was again on the NL All-Star squad.

Of course, playing with the Expos was never a good way to attract nationwide attention, unless the nation in question is Canada. So it was something of a break when the Expos traded Grissom to the Braves at the start of the 1995 season.

Having grown up in Atlanta, he probably didn’t mind being traded to his hometown team. Since his arrival in the NL, the Braves had become fixtures in the postseason, appearing every year from 1991 to 2005. The only downer of that streak was that they captured only one World Series—but Grissom was there when it happened in 1995.

Also, it was an ideal time to leave Montreal, as the team had peaked in 1994, leading all of Major League Baseball with a 74-40 record before the players’ strike cancelled the postseason. Unlike other franchises, the Expos never recovered, attendance-wise. The number of empty seats at Olympic Stadium grew to the point where relocation was inevitable.

Grissom was doubtless disappointed that he had no chance to participate in postseason play in 1994, but the baseball gods made it up to him, decreeing that he would be a busy man during the Octobers of 1995, 1996 and 1997.

Grissom’s first postseason appearance was in the 1995 NLDS, matching Atlanta and Colorado. The Rockies were making their first-ever postseason appearance as the first-ever Wild Card team in the first-ever National League Division Series.

As it turned out, Grissom rocked their world, hitting .524 (11 for 21) with three home runs and a 1.048 slugging percentage. Although he never had a better postseason series (who has?), it hinted at the success he would enjoy in World Series play.

The Braves dispatched the Cincinnati Reds in the 1995 NLCS, then went on to meet the Cleveland Indians, appearing in their first Fall Classic since 1954.

The cancellation of the postseason in 1994 had soured a lot of baseball fans, but the resurgence of the Indians (100 victories despite the fact that the strike-shortened season was only 144 games) kindled some interest in the proceedings. It didn’t hurt that the Braves and the Indians were the two most politically incorrect major league franchises, inspiring some media pundits to go on the warpath.

The Braves won the battle of the tribes in six games, and Grissom was right in the thick of things, hitting .360 (9-for-25). The Braves became the only franchise to win titles in three different cities, yet it was the first championship in any sport for the city of Atlanta. As a result, Grissom got his first championship ring. It was also the last he would get, but he was far from through with World Series heroics.

Grissom’s log for the 1995 Series is as follows:

Game One: 1-for-4
Game Two: 1-for-3, one run
Game Three: 2-for-6, one run, double
Game Four: 3-for-4, one run
Game Five: 1-for-4, one RBI
Game Six: 1-for-4

TOTAL: 9-for-25, three runs, one RBI

The Braves returned to the Series in 1996 after sweeping the Dodgers in the Division Series and then defeating the Cardinals in seven games for the NL pennant. The Braves were unsuccessful in their attempt at back-to-back titles, bowing to the Yankees in six games, but Grissom made his presence known. He hit .444 during the Series (12-for-27) and knocked in five runs.

Those 12 hits tied a record (also held by Roberto Alomar, Billy Martin and Paul Molitor) for a six-game World Series. Normally, that would get you a lot of attention, but Grissom was upstaged by a 19-year-old teammate, Andruw Jones, who hit .400 with two home runs in his first two at-bats. In the end, both were upstaged by the Yankees winning their first title in 18 years.

Unfortunately, Grissom made a key error in the fifth game, which resulted in an unearned run. It was, alas, the only run of the game, and the loss gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the series. Ironically, Grissom had just completed his fourth consecutive season as a Gold Glove center fielder.

Offensively, Grissom’s 1996 Series breaks down like this:

Game One: 2-for-5, two runs, one RBI
Game Two: 2-for-5, one run, one RBI, double
Game Three: 3-for-4, one run, triple
Game Four: 1-for-5. two RBIs
Game Five: 2-for-3
Game Six: 2-for-5, one RBI

TOTAL: 12 -for-27, four runs, five RBIs

Having proved his worth during his two-year stint with the Braves, Grissom was rewarded by being traded (along with David Justice) to Cleveland late in spring training of 1997. As it turned out, Justice and Grissom had the last laugh, as Cleveland went to the World Series while Atlanta fell short in the NLCS, which cleared the way for the Florida Marlins’ first World Series appearance.

At age 30, Grissom had a bit of a down season with the Indians (12 home runs, 66 RBIs and a .262 average), but once the postseason began, he was back in his element.

The Indians defeated first the Yankees and then the Orioles on their way back to the Fall Classic. During the first two rounds of the postseason, Grissom’s contributions were modest (yet somehow he was named the ALCS MVP, based on six hits in 23 at-bats, with four RBIs and three stolen bases).

Once he returned to the Series, however, he cranked it back up. As in 1995, he went 9-for-25, good for a .360 average. Unfortunately, it was in a losing effort, as the Marlins pulled out a victory in the 11th inning of the seventh game.

In Grissom’s third straight (and final) World Series, he was batting in the No. 8 slot in the lineup, whereas the Braves had employed him as a leadoff hitter. Still, he was highly productive through the first three games in 1997:

Game One: 2-for-3, one run, double
Game Two: 3-for-4, one run, one RBI
Game Three: 2-for-3, two runs, one RBI
Game Four: 0-for-4
Game Five: 1-for-4
Game Six: 0-for-3
Game Seven: 1-for-4, one run

TOTAL: 9-for-25, five runs, two RBIs

Game Four marked the first time Grissom had gone hitless in a World Series game. After hitting safely throughout the 1995 and 1996 Series, and the first three games in 1997, he was finally stopped by a committee of Marlins pitchers. Nevertheless, his 15-game streak was good enough for the silver medal, behind only Hank Bauer, who hit safely in 17 straight World Series games from 1956 to 1958.

Worse than the end of the streak was the fact that it signaled the beginning of a slump! Grissom was just 2-for-15 in Games Four through Seven. That dropped his career World Series average from .452 to a mere .390. All in all, it was a remarkable three-year run, even if it ended on a down note.

Grissom was traded to the Brewers after the ‘97 World Series. He played for the Brewers, the Dodgers and the Giants during the remainder of his career, which ended after the 2005 season. There was nothing more to add to his World Series record, though he did make one last postseason appearance, with the Giants in the NLDS in 2003.

World Series career records, of course, are dominated by players who made the most appearances. A single-season record can be held by an unremarkable player having a remarkable series—consider Billy Hatcher’s record .750 batting average in 1990, albeit in just 15 plate appearances.

Moving beyond single-season records to career records, we discover a wide discrepancy in what constitutes a World Series career. Any number of trips to the World Series (up to Yogi Berra’s record 14) could be included; offensively, the number of at-bats tops out at 259, a record also held by Berra.

So how do we assess Grissom’s achievement? Obviously, his 77 at-bats are less than a third of Berra’s total. But it’s more than enough to place him among the best.

Baseball-Almanac, for example, requires a minimum of 50 at-bats for its career listings. Under that standard, the World Series batting champs are Pepper Martin and Molitor at .418. The same minimum applies to on-base percentage, admittedly, not one of the more discussed World Series statistics. (If you’re wondering, Lou Gehrig holds the record at .477.)

If we use 75 at-bats as the minimum, Martin and Molitor would be disqualified, and Brock would be champ with a .391 average (34 for 87) compiled during the 1964, 1967 and 1968 Fall Classics, all of which went the distance. Grissom would be in second place, just one point behind, at .390.

Baseball-Reference has a much lower threshold. On its list, Martin and Molitor are only in eighth place because there are seven players ahead of them with fewer than 50 at-bats.

So it is a thorny problem deciding where to rank Grissom’s World Series accomplishments. As good as they are, a couple of “what ifs” can be posed.

A seventh game in 1996 would have afforded Grissom the opportunity to tie—or perhaps break—the record for most hits in a Series (13) held by Marty Barrett (1986), Bobby Richardson (1964) and Brock (1968), all of whom needed seven games to reach that total. Given his record as it stands, if he could have eked out one more base hit, he would be ahead of Brock in the 75-at-bats-and-over crowd and hence No. 1 on the batting average list.

In any statistic based on accumulation (most home runs, most RBIs, most hits), no minimum number of games or at-bats is needed, even during the regular season. It is theoretically possible for a player to lead the league in home runs and/or RBIs while not qualifying for the batting title.

For statistics involving percentages, there must be a minimum number of games, at-bats, plate appearances, or whatever to make the percentage meaningful. They’ve pretty well settled on those numbers for regular-season leader boards, but the World Series doesn’t appear to have any fixed thresholds.

However you slice and dice the figures, Grissom’s .390 batting average puts him among the elite in World Series history. In fact, he just might have had the best consecutive three-year run in World Series history—at least for anyone who never played for the Yankees.

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  1. Walt Coogan said...

    I would not quite say that Grissom “toiled in relative anonymity” throughout his career other than the World Series. In the mid-nineties (say, about 1994-1996), he seemed to constitute the consensus choice among analysts and observers as the National’s League premier center fielder. He was starring for the team with the game’s best record (Montreal) when the strike hit in 1994. The following spring, a trade brought him to the most high-profile team in the National League (Atlanta), with Grissom representing the final piece in the Braves’ puzzle in the minds of many media members. And then his 1997 trade to Cleveland kept Grissom in a high-profile, winning situation for another year.

    I think that what happened is that people forgot about Grissom after his trade to Milwaukee prior to the 1998 season, and thus people have forgotten about how highly regarded he happened to be during his prime.

  2. Walt Coogan said...

    As for the 1997 American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Award, Grissom received it because of two critical plays. In the eighth inning of Game Two in Baltimore, with the Orioles having already won Game One and leading this game 4-2, Grissom bombed a two-out, three-run homer off Armando Benitez to give Cleveland a 5-4 lead in a game that the Indians won by that margin. That hit probably flipped the course of the series. Then Grissom won Game Three in Cleveland by stealing home in the bottom of the seventh inning.

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