Fred McGriff's Mission: 500 HR
The road back was a bumpy one.
He's nearly 41 now, but the man
who endorsed those "Tom Emanski Instructional Skills videos" over a decade ago seems immune to the effects of time. His hat is still perched high on his head and, while many men his age carry around beer bellies, he has
a body that is worthy of a "Soloflex" commercial.
After nearly two months in limbo,
the smooth, twirling swing and toothy smile of Fred McGriff returned to the diamond in late May when the veteran joined the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His mission, of course, is 500 homeruns.
After hitting his 492nd career homerun,
and first of 2004, on May 31, McGriff said it felt "nice". When you consider that just weeks earlier, it looked like
his big league career may be over, "nice" may be understating it just a bit.
|McGriff belts #492 on May 31.|
McGriff's appearance remains virtually unchanged, last winter there were whispers around the game that his skills had eroded.
After a 2003 season that included the first two stints on the Disabled List of his 17 year career, McGriff found no takers
in the free agent market.
"I had been injured -- out of sight, out of mind -- hadn't played, had knee surgery, so
it was difficult," the 40-year-old said of his job search this past winter.
Not ready to retire, McGriff turned to
the Devil Rays, for whom he played from 1998-2001. The Rays, despite not having a spot on the major league roster for
him, invited the Tampa native to Spring Training. The plan was for McGriff to play well enough to attract the interest
of another club.
It didn't work. Instead of joining another big league team, McGriff found himself back at home
until the Devil Rays, who discovered they needed him after all, came calling. Following a short warm-up
stint in the minors, McGriff joined the team on May 28.
The Magic Number & the Hall
"Once I got to 400 when I was 35 or 36, I thought that if I could stay healthy and hit 30 a year, I'd be real close,"
McGriff said of his pursuit of 500 homeruns. "I felt that last year I would be able to get it, but I got hurt. I needed
22 going into last year, but I only got 13."
Although McGriff has never had a 40 homerun season, won an MVP award,
or been regarded as a franchise-type player, he has played at a remarkably consistent, high level. From 1988-94, his
homerun total never dipped below 31, and his streak of 15 straight seasons with 20 or more homers is the ninth longest in
The "Crime Dog's" numbers go beyond the long ball, however. A .285 career hitter, McGriff may
not only eclipse the 500 homerun plateau in 2004; career hit number 2,500 is also on the horizon. Just 12 players
have reached both milestones.
Yet, his Hall of Fame credentials are still questioned by many voters. McGriff claims
that is of no concern to him. "I didn't start playing this game to get into the Hall of Fame," the five-time All Star explained.
"I play this game because I enjoy playing. I've been blessed to stay healthy and so (milestones) have come along.
I laugh (at the criticism); my numbers are just as good or better than a number of guys in the Hall of Fame."
though, does feel the nomadic nature of his career -- he has suited up for six different teams -- may cost him some votes.
"I haven't played with one team my entire career, I've been caught in a fire sale a couple of times," the veteran slugger
explained. "In San Diego they traded away a lot of good players (in 1993); here in Tampa they did a similar thing (in
2001). Some things are out of your control."
A New Era
In 1992, while with
the San Diego Padres, McGriff led the NL with 35 homeruns. In today's game, players have been known to reach that total
by the All Star break. McGriff, like many others, is at a loss on why the totals have risen so sharply during the course
of his career.
"Guys are getting stronger....I know the ball parks are more friendly to players that hit homeruns,"
he offered after crinkling his forehead while considering the topic. Finally, he conceded, "that's a good question."
Although he spent much of his prime playing in an era less conducive to the long ball, McGriff does credit new technology,
along with a rigorous workout routine for his longevity.
"I continue to work out every other day -- treadmill,
bicycle -- a lot of different exercises," he explained. "I take advantage of the new technology (which is) developing
all the time, they keep coming up with new gadgets, training techniques and so forth."
Not Done Yet
When McGriff hits his 500th homerun, don't expect him to immediately trade his bat in for golf clubs or move up into
the broadcast booth. Even with all the difficulty he had finding a job this season, he still plans on playing in 2005.
"I want to keep going (after this year)," he remarked. "Hopefully, I can find myself a job next year."
McGriff's page @ Baseball-Almanac.com
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