TAMPA — It just wasn’t his time. Not in 1987, when he hit 20 homers in Toronto but Mark McGwire was the unanimous winner of the Rookie of the Year award after hitting 49 home runs in Oakland.
No, it wasn’t his time. Not in 1994, when he was having a career year with a .318 batting average, 34 home runs and a 1.012 OPS before an historic strike ended the season in early August.
It still wasn’t his time. Not in 2010, when he first went on the Hall of Fame ballot in the shadow of baseball’s steroids scandal and his 493 honest-to-goodness home runs looked quaint in comparison.
It’s probably safe to say the stars have never quite aligned for him in ways that might typically honor a baseball career that was rather rare for its consistency and elegance.
Until, hopefully, now. Until, with luck, this moment.
Let this be the hour when Fred McGriff finally gets his due.
It was recently announced that the Tampa native would be one of the eight candidates for the Hall of Fame’s new contemporary era committee that is scheduled to meet in a couple of weeks.
By now, he knows there are no guarantees. Stuff happens. Unexpected, inexplicable, heartbreaking stuff happens. But, for the first time in this arena, McGriff may have fortune working in his favor.
Of the eight players on the ballot, three failed to get elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America because of their alleged involvement with performance-enhancing drugs. Otherwise, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro would have had Hall of Fame busts long ago.
So, will this 16-member committee — made up of current Hall of Famers, executives and veteran media members — have a different outlook on PED-tainted careers? I suppose that depends on the makeup of the committee (which hasn’t been announced yet), but it seems unlikely. The tide against steroids-era players eventually may shift, but it doesn’t feel as if we’ve reached that point yet.
A fourth player, pitcher Curt Schilling, is another worthy but polarizing candidate. His outspoken political views and utter disdain for the voting process in recent years makes him a complete wild card.
That leaves three hitters as McGriff’s main competition on the ballot. Albert Belle, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy were, for at least a handful of seasons, among the best hitters of their generation.
And, still, McGriff should have them beat.
Murphy famously won back-to-back MVPs in 1982-83 and was one of baseball’s best all-around talents for about eight years, but his career had fallen off a cliff by age 32. He hit .234 with a grand total of 88 home runs over his final six seasons.
Mattingly’s candidacy has a similar problem. From 1984-89, he was a hitting machine, winning an MVP, a batting title, and leading the league in hits, doubles, RBI and OPS at various points. But a bad back eventually wore him down and his career ended with less than half of McGriff’s home run total and 1,054 fewer hits/walks.
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Belle is an even more extreme example of a shooting star. From 1993-98, he hit .310 with an average of 42 home runs a year. And, by the end of 2000, he was done. As his skills began to fade, his surly personality basically made him a pariah. It will also keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
McGriff does not have Murphy’s MVP awards. He was not beloved in one uniform the way Mattingly was in New York. He wasn’t quite as fearsome as Belle was in his prime.
But McGriff had a career that was at least comparable and, in some ways, better than a lot of Hall of Fame first basemen. His slash line — a .284 batting average, .377 on-base percentage and .509 slugging percentage — is better than Eddie Murray, Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda. It’s almost identical to Willie McCovey (.270/.374/.515), and he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The rap on McGriff is he compiled a lot of numbers over a long career but wasn’t as feared as others. And that’s just not true. From 1988-2002, only Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. got more intentional walks than McGriff. Opposing managers clearly saw him as a threat in the middle of the order.
And, anyway, what’s wrong with consistent excellence? McGriff is one of 17 players in baseball history with at least 15 seasons of 20 or more home runs. Thirteen of them are already in the Hall of Fame, Albert Pujols is on his way there and Bonds and Alex Rodriguez are smudged with steroid accusations. At this point, McGriff is considered the only clean player on the outside looking in.
So, yeah, the arguments are all there. And the numbers have been there for a while.
Finally, this should be Fred McGriff’s time.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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