The magnificent Mark Grudzielanek
No one would have thought after the first week of the regular season Mark Grudzielanek would be leading the Los Angeles Dodgers in home runs. However, Grudzielanek is. Many Dodger fans believed the Dodgers should have traded Grudzielanek during the winter. After all, he has been a poor fielding second baseman, and the Dodger fans have perceived him as a poor second-place hitter because he tends to be a free swinger. Though Dodger fans do not appreciate Grudzielanek's skills and contributions, he has been an integral part of the Dodgers since August, 1998. I cannot picture the Dodgers without Grudzielanek's contributions and spirit.
I was excited when Mark Grudzielanek joined the Dodgers on August 1, 1998. Yes, he had a reputation as a temperamental baseball player during his time as a Montreal Expo. The Expos had treated him unfairly by signing him to a minor league contract after the 1996 season when he had 54 doubles. I knew he had difficulty fielding as a shortstop, but he could hit. He was young and enthusiastic. Grudzielanek has gotten more of my respect every day he has worn a Dodger uniform.
In 1998 as a Dodger, Grudzielanek batted .264 with two home runs and 21 RBI. He committed ten errors in 51 games with Los Angeles. During the winter he wanted a little higher raise than the Dodger management offered, so he went to arbitration and lost. Instead of getting mad and pouting, as many major leaguers would do, Grudzielanek listened to the criticism and tried to improve. At his own expense, he went to Bucky Dent's baseball camp to try to improve his defense. While there, he learned the importance of footwork.
When Grudzielanek reported to spring training in 1999, he was competing with Jose Vizcaino for the starting shortstop job. As usual he had a good spring training, but Davey Johnson decided to platoon Vizcaino and Grudzielanek according to the percentages. Although this did not please Grudzielanek, he never complained. During April Johnson felt Grudzielanek was getting into some bad habits and gave him more bench time. This further frustrated Grudzielanek but still he did not complain. In May when he got an opportunity to play, he seized it, batting .318.
The 1999 season had been frustrating for the Dodgers because everybody had picked them to win their division and they were below .500. On June 1, 1999, in Pittsburgh Grudzielanek hit into a double play. The frustration built up in Grudzielanek, and he punched a concrete wall and broke his hand. Because he loves to play, he felt as if he were a caged lion while he was on the disabled list.
After coming off the disabled list, Grudzielanek performed fantastically. Whereas he batted .300 before the all-star break, he batted .344 afterwards. His .326 batting average was the highest by a National League shortstop since the 1930s. He became the first Dodger shortstop to bat at least .300 since Maury Wills in the 1960s. Whereas Grudzielanek had committed at least 27 errors in each of the previous three seasons, he committed thirteen errors in 1999. His performance was one of the bright spots in a dismal season for the Dodgers.
During the 1999-2000 off-season Grudzielanek signed a four-year contract with the Dodgers. Because the Dodgers felt Alex Cora was ready for the major leagues and would make a better shortstop than a second baseman, the Dodgers moved Grudzielanek from shortstop to second base. Grudzielanek was not excited about the move but wanted to help the team any way he could. To learn the fundamentals of second base, Grudzielanek again went to Dent's camp.
The 2000 season was difficult for Grudzielanek because he did not feel comfortable at second base and he fought a miserable viral infection that left him in a weakened state after the all-star break. To his credit, he never made excuses for his sub par performance. As the season proceeded, he looked more comfortable at second base. Though he committed seventeen errors, a lot for a second baseman, it was not bad for a player trying to learn a new position. Before the all-star break and his sickness he batted .303, but after it he batted .246.
During this off-season Grudzielanek focused on regaining his strength. Again he went to Dent's baseball camp to improve his defense. He has a new comfort and confidence level at second base.
This past week Grudzielanek was amazing. Though he never hit more than ten home runs in past seasons, he has hit five home runs in the first week this year. He has batted .357 and driven in eight runs. He played an integral role in the Dodgers' four victories. He also has played solidly at second base.
Though many Dodger fans do not recognize Mark Grudzielanek's accomplishments, he has been one of the best Dodgers since 1998. He gives his all when he takes the field. He does not believe he has had a good game unless his uniform is dirty. When starting pitchers, Gary Sheffield, Shawn Green, and Eric Karros catch most of the headlines, it is a pleasure to give Grudzielanek some recognization. Mark Grudzielanek is the Dodger of the week April 2-8.