One of the quickest ways I know to start an argument is with three simple words: Hall of Fame.
In Chicago, those are fighting words. (I'm telling you, it's a crime Ron Santo was never voted into the Hall of Fame.) In Minnesota and Toronto, they're a rallying cry. (What idiot doesn't believe Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame?) In every city Andre Dawson has ever called home, they're a virtual call to arms. (The numbers! Just look at the numbers!)
And now, from the looks of things, the time has come for Tampa Bay to join the fray. Fred McGriff is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this month, and I'm concerned that Crime Dog fans in the area might be a little disappointed when the vote totals are released two weeks from today.
It's a long shot for McGriff to make the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot. Heck, it's a long shot for just about anyone in their first year. It took Eddie Mathews five years to get in, and he was fifth on the all-time home run list when he retired in 1968. It took Duke Snider 11 years. And Jim Rice lasted until his 15th and final year on the ballot before reaching the hall.
So there shouldn't necessarily be an urgency to get enshrined on the first ballot. The key is gaining momentum for future ballots. It takes 75 percent of the vote from eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and so it helps to start off your candidacy in the 50 percent range.
Will McGriff's name be checked on at least half the ballots this month? My guess is he will fall a little short.
McGriff lacks the singular achievement or defining persona that drives a lot of candidates in their early years on the ballot. He fell seven home runs shy of 500. He didn't reach 3,000 hits, which made Wade Boggs an automatic the last time Tampa Bay was on the clock.
McGriff never had a 50-homer season or, for that matter, a 40-homer season, and he never won an MVP award. He didn't have Kirby Puckett's charm, and he wasn't part of a romanticized lineup the way Tony Perez was with the Reds in the 1970s.
So what is the best argument for putting a check next to McGriff's name on the Hall of Fame ballot?
He belongs. And it's that simple.
The beauty, and ultimately the curse, of McGriff's candidacy is its simplicity. He was, for a 15-season span, one of the most consistent run producers in the game. He was, in a lot of ways, the antithesis of someone like Mark McGwire, who had a handful of brilliant seasons mixed in with a lot of stinkers.
From 1988 to 2002, McGriff averaged 30 homers, 97 RBIs and had a .380 on-base percentage. Think about that. He put up those numbers every season for 15 years. During that period, only six players got on base a higher percentage of the time. And only six players had a higher slugging percentage.
There's a pretty strong argument in there to say McGriff was one of baseball's top 10 hitters over a long period of time. Now, you can pick out any one season among those and say there were 10 better hitters. Or even 20. I will not argue that. But a lot of those hitters peaked and faded while McGriff continued hitting year after year after year.
And there is tremendous value in knowing you can put a guy in the lineup on April 1, and already know what his numbers are going to look like on Oct. 1. McGriff was that kind of hitter. He was never hurt, he rarely slumped and his numbers never varied from league to league or ballpark to ballpark.
You could argue the bar should be set higher for McGriff because he was a first baseman. It is not a premium defensive position, and it is home to some of the game's greatest sluggers. And that means the standards should be different for a first baseman as opposed to, say, a shortstop or catcher.
For instance, Roberto Alomar does not have McGriff's offensive numbers, but he will likely get a higher percentage of votes because he played second base. I've got no problem with that concept.
So let's grade McGriff against other Hall of Fame first basemen. Depending on how you divvy up players who were at multiple positions, there are somewhere around 15 first basemen in the Hall of Fame in the modern era (from 1901 forward). And McGriff's numbers put him in the top half of that group.
His home runs would place him tied for fourth. His RBI would be sixth. His on-base percentage would be eighth and his slugging percentage sixth.
Still, there will be some who say McGriff doesn't pass the sniff test. If you don't automatically think "Hall of Famer" when you hear the player's name, then he probably doesn't belong. That argument is, as politely as I can put it, a load of crap.
History views presidents differently through the scope of time. Novels, movies, music and art often take years before they are fully appreciated. And so it should be that a ballplayer's career should only be summed up after considerable contemplation.
And in Fred McGriff's case, the conclusion is a Hall of Fame vote.