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McGriff unfazed by looming milestone

Slugger is two shy of 400 homers but insists it has no special meaning.

The number is round, so it rolls easily off the lips. Four hundred. It is hardly different from 398 or 399, yet it means something special when it comes to home runs.

Fred McGriff understands this even if he does not truly believe it.

The Devil Rays first baseman begins a 10-game homestand tonight two home runs shy of 400. The Tampa native has averaged a home run every five games this season, which makes it plausible that he will make history in his home park.

"Not bad for a kid from Tampa," McGriff says.

It is a line he has repeated often over the past year, mostly because he does not know what else to say. Unlike another local legend who reached 3,000 hits with the Rays last season, McGriff never has been comfortable examining his place in the game.

"The media will bring up numbers, but it's not something I pay attention to," McGriff said. "Maybe I'll think about them when I retire. That's when I can look back and say I did this or I did that. It's not as important while I'm still playing.

"For me, it's more fun for my family and kids. They can keep track of the number and count down for me."

Some of McGriff's indifference stems from the fact the 400-home run club is not as significant as the 3,000-hit club Wade Boggs was chasing last season.

Reaching 3,000 hits or 500 home runs has been an automatic ticket for the Hall of Fame.

But 400 homers is not far off. Of the 22 who have hit 400 and are eligible for the Hall, 20 have been enshrined. Only Dave Kingman and Darrell Evans are excluded.

Teammate Jose Canseco reached 400 last season but made it clear his sights were set much higher.

"Three hundred is okay, 400 is nice, but 500 is special," Canseco said. "When you get to 500, you're talking about automatically going into the Hall of Fame. I was happy with 400, but it wasn't like I was shooting for that."

Unlike Canseco, McGriff has not set 500 as a goal. From age 32-35, McGriff averaged 25 home runs a season. If he did that the next four years, he would be 10 home runs shy of 500 when he turned 40.

"If I end up with this amount or that amount of home runs, it's not like it's going to determine whether I was a good player or not," McGriff said. "The way I look at it, wherever I end up I have been blessed."

In some ways, it is fitting that McGriff downplays home runs. His career is defined not by the long ball but the long haul. He will be the 31st member of the 400-homer club and the fifth without at least one 40-homer season.

"When you think of Freddie, it's the steadiness of his career, the year-in and year-out performance," Rays manager Larry Rothschild said. "That's what's impressive."

McGriff's career has had the steadiness of a metronome. He never comes out of the lineup, his numbers rarely fluctuate. Before a subpar 1998 with the Rays, he had 12 straight seasons of 20 or more homers. The only time his batting average dropped below .270 was in 1989 when he hit .269.

"I've always tried to maintain a steady level because that is what helps your team win games," McGriff said. "Baseball can be very humbling, but I've been blessed to be healthy and have my skills. I'm basically still living a dream. This is what I dreamed about watching the Reds at Al Lopez Field and going to Tampa Tarpons games when I was a kid."

For McGriff, the most impressive part of his career is the numbers no one talks about. During the 1990s, only Rafael Palmeiro played in more winning games than McGriff.

He reached the post-season five times during his first 11 seasons and never had a losing season before coming to Tampa Bay in a trade from Atlanta.

"My final goal is making the playoffs right here. That's something I'm shooting for," McGriff said. "I was here the first year and I would like to be part of it when this team gets over the hump. The home runs will come, but winning is what makes this game fun."

400-homer club

Player HRs

1. Hank Aaron 755

2. Babe Ruth 714

3. Willie Mays 660

4. Frank Robinson 586

5. Harmon Killebrew 573

6. Reggie Jackson 563

7. Mike Schmidt 548

8. +Mark McGwire 540

9. Mickey Mantle 536

10. Jimmie Foxx 534

11. Willie McCovey 521

(tie) Ted Williams 521

13. Ernie Banks 512

(tie) Eddie Mathews 512

15. Mel Ott 511

16. Eddie Murray 504

17. Lou Gehrig 493

18. Stan Musial 475

(tie) Willie Stargell 475

20. Dave Winfield 465

21. +Barry Bonds 461

22. Carl Yastrzemski 452

23. Dave Kingman 442

24. Andre Dawson 438

(tie) +Jose Canseco 438

26. Billy Williams 426

27. Darrell Evans 414

28. +Ken Griffey 411

29. +Cal Ripken 409

30. Duke Snider 407

31. Al Kaline 399

32. Dale Murphy 398

(tie) +Fred McGriff 398

+-active.

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