By John Bohnenkamp
Ryan Grace remembered his trip into Burlington.
The final leg of his journey in May from the Northeast to his summer Prospect League team in the Midwest was a flight from St. Louis to Burlington on a tiny Cape Air plane.
“I go on the tarmac of a huge airport, and I’m getting on an eight-seat plane,” the Burlington Bees first baseman said, laughing. “I’m like, ‘What did I get myself into?’
And after a bumpy start to his season, Grace became one of the league’s best hitters.
Grace concluded his season in the Bees’ 13-3 win over Normal on Saturday night at Community Field. He went 2-for-3, extending his hitting streak to eight games. Grace, who hit .378 after a 3-for-18 start to the season, finished the season with a .340 average, best on the team. If Grace had enough plate appearances, he would rank fourth in the league in hitting..
“The competition is much better than I guessed it would have been,” said Grace, who also had an .860 OPS. “I think in my first 20 at-bats I had three hits. It was just figuring out, when facing a pitcher, what to look for, and trusting what I could do. I used to not be able to hit to the opposite field, and now it’s all I do.
“Hits are hits, so I’m not complaining.”
“He’s a very competitive kid,” Bees manager Owen Oreskovich said. “He competes at everything he does. Just such a great kid.”
Grace, who is from Concord, Mass., was a freshman at Quinnipiac this season, but sat out the season as a redshirt. He’ll attend Colby College in Maine this fall, an NCAA Division III school.
Grace likes to travel, and getting a chance to play in the Midwest was something he had to take.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I thank (Oreskovich) for giving me the opportunity to play. I had a hard time finding somewhere. I’ve tried to make the most of it, and I think I have during the summer.
“I’ve always wanted to travel, but haven’t been able to because of baseball in the summer. I played all over New England every summer. This was the farthest from home. I always wanted to try to come to the Midwest, and I’m glad I came out here. I love it.”
Grace said he appreciated the “family culture” with the organization.
“The fans are awesome,” he said. “They know me. I go up to bat, I hear someone yell, ‘Let’s go Ryan.’ It was weird hearing it at first, but I’m used to it now.”
There were some other things he had to get used to, like the angle of the sun when it sets early in night games at Community Field.
“If that ball was hit to third base, I was like, skip the ball to me, because I couldn’t see it,” Grace said, laughing. “Even when the pitchers would try pickoffs. I was praying to God for them not to throw it over.”
Grace played right field for the first time in Friday’s loss to Quincy. He had three putouts, including a foul popup he was able to chase down.
“I’ve always wanted to play the outfield, but I never have been able to,” said Grace, who said he dropped 50 pounds after arriving at Quinnipiac last fall. “It was a good accomplishment to be in there. Made a catch or two, made it look as natural as I could. It’s something I wanted to pursue. Anything to get in the lineup. I’ll play anywhere.”
Oreskovich said he hated to see Grace leave.
“Ryan Grace makes everyone on the team laugh,” he said. “One of those guys that keeps everyone loose. Yeah, we’re going to miss him.”
Grace won’t be leaving the same way he came.
“Driving to Chicago,” he said, smiling. “A lot smoother ride.”
Photo: Bees first baseman Ryan Grace hit .340 this season. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)