Fred McGriff would get the question all the time.
From friends around his Tampa hometown, former teammates, reporters, golfing buddies and random people who recognized him. In some form, they all wanted to know, how was he not in baseball’s Hall of Fame?
McGriff never had a good answer.
He had the numbers, most notably 493 home runs, including 13 seasons of 27 or more.
He had the credentials, with six straight top-10 league MVP finishes and five trips to the postseason, including a 1995 World Series title with the Braves.
He had the reputation, playing 19 seasons for six teams, including two stints with his hometown Rays, without a scent of controversy during a period when performance-enhancing drug use was a major topic.
But he never had the votes, nowhere close to the 75 percent threshold in 10 years on the writers’ ballot.
Now McGriff, 59, doesn’t have to pause, stumble and awkwardly change the subject, voted into the Hall on Sunday by a committee formed to take another look at players who had been passed over.
“It’s a special moment to call myself a Hall of Famer,” he said on a media zoom call from his Tampa home. “Now it’s ‘Fred McGriff, Hall of Famer.’
“Over the years, you have people coming up to you … ‘You’re a great player, you went out there and played the game right,’ and so forth. And you always have to be like ‘Okay, thank you, appreciate it,’ and just keep going on.
“So now that’s out of the way. I don’t have to answer that question.”
The vote by the 16-member Contemporary Era (since 1980) committee made up of Hall of Famers, league executives and veteran media members was unanimous, a striking rebuke to Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters who only once gave him more than 24 percent of their vote, in his final year of eligibility (2019) when he got to 39.8.
With 12 votes needed for election Sunday, McGriff was the only new inductee, as Don Mattingly got eight, Curt Schilling seven and Dale Murphy six. The other four candidates — Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro — got fewer than four, with the Hall not specifying their total. That seemed a strong statement about the chances for Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro, who have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
Given the lack of votes from the writers, McGriff seemed to be getting overlooked and even penalized in comparison to players whose numbers may have been artificially inflated. But as a player and in retirement, he chose not to address the issue or question the fairness.
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Sunday, his choice of words in explaining that approach seemed telling.
“With me over the years it was always about consistency,” he said. “I know that I’ve put a lot into this game. I worked hard to get to this point. For me to just play one day in the big leagues, I exceeded all expectations.
“So I went out and I just played the game like it was supposed to be played. I went out there hard, every single day. And that’s really all you can do. You control what you can control. If you can’t control it, you go with the flow. ... So if I hit 500 I’m a great player, and if I hit 493 I’m a good player? You know what I’m saying.”
That mindset served McGriff well just to get to the major leagues, and now to become the third Tampa native in Hall, joining Al Lopez and Tony La Russa. Wade Boggs, a 2005 inductee, moved to Tampa at age 11.
“It says a lot about Tampa,” McGriff said. “Over the years there’s been so many great players that have made it to the big leagues. It’s kind of staggering. … So now I get to join Wade in the crew.”
Spending childhood days collecting broken bats at the Reds’ spring training camp and later selling sodas in the stands at Tampa Stadium, McGriff went on to play baseball at Jefferson High under legendary coach Pop Cuesta.
But that was after — now somewhat infamously — failing to make the team as sophomore, then getting bigger, stronger and much better.
“Getting cut from my high school team and making it up to the big leagues, it’s been a beautiful ride,” McGriff said.
He was a ninth-round pick by the Yankees in 1981, traded as a low-level minor-leaguer the next year to the Jays, and reached the majors in 1986. By the next year, he was on his way to being one of the game’s top slugging first basemen, averaging 35 homers over a seven-year stretch, twice leading his league and becoming the first to hit 30 with five different teams.
He was traded to the Padres for the 1991 season, to the Braves in July 1993 — helping them to the 1995 World Series championship — then sold to the hometown Devil Rays for their inaugural 1998 season, a favorite of original general manager Chuck LaMar and his young son Charlie. He was traded in July 2001 to the Cubs, spent part of 2003 with the Dodgers and returned to the Rays in 2004 for a final run, trying to reach the 500-homer plateau,; he hit only two in 27 games and then retired.
He acknowledged Sunday that he occasionally thought that had the 1994-95 seasons not been shortened by labor strife, he might have gotten to 500. Also, he joked, had the umpires called fair a few balls he hit right down the line.
Many shared in McGriff’s excitement on Sunday.
“It has been long overdue,” said fellow Tampa product and former big-leaguer Tino Martinez. “The numbers he put up year after year speak for themselves. His consistency and longevity and playing the game the right way — he is a Hall of Famer.”
LaMar said the honor was well-deserved.
“Obviously he was an outstanding player, but even more than that a tremendous teammate and someone that made a difference, a positive impact on every team he ever played for,” LaMar said. “I was fortunate to be with him in Atlanta and in Tampa Bay. His consistency is what made him a Hall of Famer. Not only the years, but the years of outstanding productivity.
“So, when you think of Fred, you think of not only that consistent productivity, but just the way he went about his business and the impact he had on every club.”
Whatever frustrations McGriff had over the years seemed distant Sunday. He watched the announcement with his wife and daughter at his Tampa home, sipping some wine to relax. He flies to San Diego on Monday morning for a welcome meeting with Hall officials and more media sessions at the winter meetings, and he will be inducted into the Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 23.
“It’s all good,” he said, with that well-known smile. “It’s been well worth the wait.”
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