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TRIBE'S GRISSOM HAS BECOME A MR. OCTOBER FOR THE '90S

Seeing how we've established this as the backward, unpredictable World Series, it seems only appropriate to pass along the latest bizarre bit of baseball news:

The man with the highest batting average in Series history (minimum 50 at-bats, of course) will be hitting last for the Indians tonight at Jacobs Field.

Marquis Grissom, Cleveland's genial 30-year-old center fielder, is hitting .441 in his three-year Series career. He is 26 for 59. He has hit safely in all 14 of his Series games, putting him in the esteemed company of the late Roberto Clemente.

Do the math. Grissom has averaged nearly two hits a game in baseball's greatest showcase, a lot better than, say, Ted Williams or Willie Wilson. He is also one of the swiftest runners in the game, a man who has twice stolen 70 bases in a season.

It's the profile of a hitter perfectly suited to hitting at the top of the order. But instead, Grissom will be batting ninth tonight in Game Three, like some slap-hitting Spike Owen or Alvaro Espinoza.

And you know what? It doesn't bother him one bit.

"I remember when I played Little League, you hit wherever the coach put you as long as you were in the ballgame," Grissom said Monday after a workout at Jacobs Field.

"When I moved Marquis out of the leadoff spot, he took it very well," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove. "His reaction was, 'Whatever it takes for the team to be better.' He kept telling me over and over he would be good for us before it was all over with."

Hargrove certainly envisioned Grissom as his leadoff hitter when Cleveland acquired him and David Justice from Atlanta last March 25, in a blockbuster deal that sent Kenny Lofton to the Braves.

In 1996, Grissom had established career highs in hits (207), runs (106), triples (10) and home runs (23). Where else would he have been expected to hit in the order, but right on top of it?

But Grissom had a miserable time adjusting to the American League. Two months into the season, he was barely hitting .200. The pressure of replacing Lofton was clearly getting to him. So Hargrove dropped him down to the bottom.

"I was trying too hard, pressing too hard, wanting to do well too quick, too soon," Grissom said.

He said his previous managers -- Montreal's Felipe Alou and Atlanta's Bobby Cox -- helped him climb out of hitting slumps by dropping him to the bottom of the order.

The change did him good this year, too. Grissom lifted his average to .262 by season's end, though his production (74 runs, 12 homers, 66 RBIs) was down considerably from a year ago.

"I salvaged a decent season," he said, "but I struggled mentally and physically most of the year. When I struggle, I pull off balls, pop up balls, chase balls out of the strike zone. It was frustrating."

When the postseason arrived, though, he was ready. In Game Two of the AL Championship Series against Baltimore, he hit a three-run home run to get the Indians back in the series. And he scored the winning run in the third game.

Then came the World Series, where he customarily shines. Hargrove said he's not surprised. He's never seen a player work harder at his craft than Grissom, who has become a symbol of the kinder, gentler, more assiduous Indians team.

"The mental side of this game is tremendously important," Hargrove said. "Good players are able to focus in on what they're trying to accomplish. They're able to let their talent work for them."

Grissom, an Atlanta native, says his strong work ethic comes from his upbringing. He was one of 15 children, which can't help but teach you to learn your place in the order.

His father, who worked in a Ford plant in Georgia, named him after an automobile -- the Mercury Marquis. He can't explain where he got his gift for the clutch.

"I don't know," he said. "I think number one, I'm going out and having fun. I try to go out and have fun and not put pressure on myself. I try to do the things I know how to do. I always try to reflect back on when I was a little kid, just playing the game."

He plays it with a boundless exuberance, the way Paul Molitor plays it, the way Pepper Martin played it more than half a century ago. Those are the two men who shared the Series batting mark before he passed them Sunday.

"I'm looking at (the record) now," he said, "because you guys are bringing it up. But I just go out there and play. I'm trying to help my team as much as I can, because those guys have picked me up all season and it takes a total team effort to win."

Grissom is the only player to appear in the last three World Series. In the last two Octobers, people barely noticed that he was stringing together one of the longest hitting streaks in Series history.

They're noticing now. If Grissom gets a hit in all three games here, he'll tie Hank Bauer's record of hitting in 17 straight Series games.

The only thing getting more attention is the weather. Every time you turn around, someone is asking a manager or player how he expects the games to be affected by the cold weather.

But it doesn't matter if they're throwing snowballs up to the plate. It's World Series time, and Marquis Grissom is burning hot.

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