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McGriff says no; now the question is why?

No. Fred McGriff said no.

He said it resoundingly, outstandingly, confoundingly. He said it definitively, determinedly, dramatically. He said it unequivocally, unapologetically and unbelievably. He did not stutter. He did not mutter.

No, McGriff said.

No, no, a thousand times no.

Oh, and Fred said this, too: Better check with him tomorrow.

Just in case he's changed his mind.

And so the saga continues and the mystery lingers. McGriff said no Monday, but as for today, the answer is maybe. And so the rest of us are left not quite knowing what to think, or how to feel, about his refusal to leave.

Is this about love of Tampa Bay? Or hatred of Chicago? Is this about family? About finances? Is this about loyalty? About leverage? Is McGriff upset the Rays would trade him? Or offended they didn't get a better return?

Correct answers: Who knows?

With McGriff, it is always difficult to tell. Always, he has been the toughest read in the clubhouse, a first baseman constructed by Rubik with the directions in Sanskrit. He is the moving target with the quiet voice and the impassive face, answering questions in little circles designed to reveal as little as possible about himself.

There never has been a time, however, when McGriff has been more difficult to understand than now. The Chicago Cubs have tossed him a lifeline, and he has declined to take hold. They offered first place instead of last, and he said no. They offered a pennant race instead of a dormant place, and he said no. They offered success instead of failure, and he said no.

Who turns down a chance at the parade? Most athletes, given McGriff's choice, would get out of town so fast they would leave skid marks. If this is not being rescued by the cavalry, it is at least akin to being called up by the majors.

Yet, McGriff said no. No to the ivy-covered walls. No to the Sears Tower. No to deep-dish pizza. No to the Cubs.

Turns out, there is a lot about "no" that is hard to understand.

It would be nice to believe this is all about family, as Jim Krivacs, McGriff's agent, has suggested. It's a lovely notion, an athlete who is so content spending time with his family that he won't trade it in, not even to have another shot at a championship ring, and hang everyone who can't understand. There is too darned little loyalty in sports not to salute those who have it.

But if this is really about family, why didn't McGriff say he would put his foot down to all trades? Why not come out and say that he's happy here, and that a money-strapped franchise such as the Rays is just running up the phone bill by trying to trade him, because he isn't going to agree to go anywhere. That isn't the case. According to Rays general manager Chuck LaMar and Krivacs, McGriff has said not to pull the plug on any trade, including one that could send him to the Cubs. In other words, this no doesn't appear to be written in ink.

Is it about a lack of competitiveness? As you might imagine, the suggestions already have begun that McGriff has become complacent, that his fire doesn't burn as hot as it once did. In Chicago, the popular opinion is that a real competitor would have been there by now, toddlin' himself silly. We are led to believe that winning is all that matters to all athletes all of the time, and if someone turns down the chance to become a winner, well, it's easy to figure out what to call him.

As theories go, that one is bunk. McGriff had never played for a losing team before he came to Tampa Bay. As much as anyone, he knows the difference between a winning clubhouse and a losing one, between playing games that matter and games that don't. His first season in Tampa Bay, he called losing "a shock to the system." It's hard to believe he wouldn't want to ride the electricity again.

Is it about waiting for a better opportunity? Perhaps. If McGriff is going to leave Tampa Bay, perhaps he merely wants to do it on his terms. Perhaps he'll get the opportunity. Who knows? Perhaps this time, the other team will offer warm bodies in exchange for him.

The thing is, saying no is a risky proposition for McGriff. He is gambling reputation, opportunity and money (the Cubs had promised to guarantee his option for next year).

If McGriff stays with the Rays, does he lose playing time to Steve Cox and the youth movement? (LaMar says no, that McGriff is one of the Rays' best players and, as such, he'll be in the lineup most nights). Does McGriff fall short of the 550 at-bats he needs to trigger next year's option (worth $6.75-million)? With next year's labor situation uncertain, is McGriff sure to land a free-agent contract? And if he doesn't, do his chances of the Hall of Fame grow smaller in the distance?

"Life's a gamble," McGriff said. "I may retire. Nobody knows."

With McGriff, no one ever knows. There is speculation and theory and mystery, wrapped up with confusion and bewilderment and slugging percentage. That's a shame. People like McGriff around here, certainly more than the suspects offered up by the Cubs, more than the prospect of a team saving money. It seems, somehow, that McGriff could at least let people know what he's thinking.

If he's going to just say no, he could at least just say why.