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Staying clean may be costing Fred McGriff in his bid for Hall of Fame

On the weekend he might have been inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, an extraordinary achievement, Fred McGriff had the most ordinary of weekends.

He visited his mother. He watched his daughter, Ericka, play volleyball. He caught a little of a Rays game on television. He watched a few of the highlights from the induction ceremony.

Then he went about the business of waiting for another year.

With McGriff, this is what you would have expected. Fred, good old Fred, has never been one for temper tantrums or sulk sessions. He did not scream, he did not weep, and he did not demand a recount. He did not wonder how he might have spent his weekend if the sport had managed to remain pure.

Most of all, the Tampa native and former Ray did not curse the cheaters who conspired to make his numbers look small.

That one you would have understood.

McGriff is a victim here. If all those players who took performance-enhancing drugs while he played were cheating baseball, McGriff may have lost the most. Together, all those crooks with the cartoon biceps and inflated statistics made his numbers look ordinary by comparison. They made 30 home runs look tiny. They made 100 RBIs look pedestrian. Their counterfeit accomplishments diminished McGriff, making him look less dangerous, less special. They stole from McGriff like an Internet swindler with your bank account number.

For many of us, it was impossible to watch the Hall of Fame inductions over the weekend without thinking of McGriff. Even now, you wonder: Had the steroid era never happened, if so many had not taken such shortcuts for so long, how would we think of McGriff today?

As a Hall of Famer? Maybe.

As a greater star than most remember? Almost certainly.

For 15 seasons McGriff at the plate was something to see. From 1988 to 2002, he averaged 31 home runs and 97 RBIs, and batted .288. Only 10 men have averaged those kinds of numbers, and six are in the Hall of Fame. The others — Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro — are not yet eligible. Before they are, voters are going to notice the scandals on their resumes.

And so it went. The more the bodies swelled, the more their shadows obscured what McGriff was doing. Erase Bonds and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Palmeiro — all of whom have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs — from the books, and do you know how good McGriff was in those 15 seasons? He was second in home runs, first in RBIs, third in hits and first in extra bases. Even McGriff's supporters will admit he's not a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but the cleaner you can imagine the sport, the better McGriff's numbers look.

As it was, McGriff received a disappointing 25 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility. That doesn't mean he won't get in. Billy Williams received 23.4 percent of the vote his first time out, and he got in six years later. Jim Rice received 29.8 percent, and 15 years later he got in. Don Drysdale received 21 percent, and it took him 10 years. McGriff has a lot of ground to make up, perhaps a lot of years to wait.

"I didn't know what to expect," McGriff said Monday, his voice as quiet as ever. "You have to keep fighting. It's up to other people to decide if I belong in there or not."

Push McGriff a bit, however, and he'll say yes, in his mind, he belongs.

"I had some good numbers," he said. "I think my numbers are as good or better than some of the people in there. People say, 'Well, you didn't hit 500 home runs.' So I'm a good player if I hit 493 and a great player if I hit 500? I don't believe seven home runs should make that much difference."

Well, sometimes they don't. Lou Gehrig had 493 home runs, too. Yeah, he's in.

The thing is, it wasn't so much the numbers with McGriff. It was stature. After steroids, no one looked at 30 as a lot of home runs anymore. Baseball had turned into a fireworks show and the home run record into an auction. It was easy to overlook McGriff. He wasn't flashy. He wasn't noisy. He wasn't the hitter everyone talked about on the highlight shows. In a clean game, he would have been. In a clean game, McGriff's numbers would have been imposing. As it was, he wasn't McGwire. He wasn't Sosa. He wasn't Bonds.

Thank goodness.

To this day, McGriff swears he has never seen a performance-enhancer. He insists he has never been offered one. Could he have obtained one if he wanted? Yeah, probably. He could have gone to a gym and asked around. He could have hired a personal trainer. For goodness sake, he played with Jose Canseco.

So how do we know that McGriff was clean? Because there is no whisper to the contrary, certainly no evidence. McGriff's body type never changed. He never had a season where his numbers spiked sharply. Unlike Bonds and Roger Clemens, he never reached a point where he was performing like a man 10 years younger. When he was at an age when his numbers should have fallen off, McGriff's fell off.

"Some guys are always looking for a quick fix," said McGriff, 46, who last played in 2004. "It doesn't matter if it's in sports or business. People are looking for an edge. People seem to think steroids were some widespread thing where people were talking about in the clubhouse, but they weren't. I never had anyone approach me and say, 'You ought to take this.' "

You wonder: How much difference could performance-enhancers have made on a slender slugger such as McGriff?

"Maybe 100 home runs," McGriff guessed. "I probably hit 100 balls to the warning track."

Given that, given 100 home runs, given more success and more longevity, how does a player resist? True, the world has turned upside down when we reach the point of asking a player why he didn't cheat, but why didn't McGriff try it?

"I was never tempted," he said. "For me, I've always had power. I had to find a way to make contact. If I could make contact, I was going to hit my share of balls out of the park."

McGriff laughed softly.

"People always talk about how this guy came clean or that guy came clean. I ask them, 'Did he give back the money?' "

Let's be honest. McGriff wants to get into the Hall of Fame. Who doesn't? That said, the guy seems to be at peace with the numbers he logged and the memories he made. That's not bad, either.

"I've exceeded all of my expectations," he said. "I'm still the guy who was cut from his high school baseball team (Jefferson) as a freshman. The Hall of Fame? That would be unbelievable."

Next year? Maybe. McGriff's statistics are what they are. His home runs won't get longer, and his hits won't get bigger. Pretty much, his numbers will remain unchanged. But by next year, however, perhaps voters will have noticed how clean they are.

Staying clean may be costing Fred McGriff in his bid for Hall of Fame 07/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 9:03pm]
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