For new Hall of Famer Fred McGriff, first cut ran deep

Not making Pop Cuesta’s Jefferson High team as a sophomore motivated the Tampa-born slugger to get bigger and better.
Fred McGriff sports a Hall of Fame cap and jersey Monday at baseball's winter meetings in San Diego.
Fred McGriff sports a Hall of Fame cap and jersey Monday at baseball's winter meetings in San Diego. [ Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame ]
Published Dec. 6, 2022|Updated Dec. 7, 2022

Fred McGriff’s election to the Hall of Fame is getting Pop Cuesta a lot of attention.

In repeated interviews since he was voted in Sunday, McGriff has pointed out the key role Cuesta, the longtime and legendary coach at Tampa’s Jefferson High, played in his career.

“I got cut from my high school team in 10th grade,” McGriff said. “So for me just to play one day in the big leagues, I exceeded all expectations.”

Cuesta said Monday he couldn’t be more thrilled to see McGriff elected to the Hall.

“Like everybody else, (I thought) that it was about damn time,” Cuesta said. “He really deserved to be there.”

Still, Cuesta maintained that the decision not to put McGriff on the Dragons team his sophomore year was the right one.

“Fred came out, and we had a senior first baseman and another junior, and Fred was not the same Fred you see now (close to his 6-foot-3, 200 pounds playing weight),” Cuesta said. “He was about 5-7, maybe 5-8. Skinny. He struggled to get the ball into the outfield when he made contact. He wasn’t strong at all.

Pop Cuesta was the baseball coach at Jefferson for 43 years.
Pop Cuesta was the baseball coach at Jefferson for 43 years.

“So I talked to him. If I had a lot more uniforms, I could’ve kept him with me. But at the time, West Tampa had a very strong Little League program. … So I said, ‘Just play there, and get stronger.’ So that’s what he did.”

McGriff was so driven that when Jefferson wasn’t playing or practicing, he’d ride a bike from his Lincoln Gardens-Carver City neighborhood across town to lift weights, sometimes heading to Cuesta’s house to wait out the afternoon rains.

The work obviously paid off as McGriff — who hit a memorably long homer off Hillsborough High pitcher Dwight Gooden, who also became a major-league star — developed enough to receive college offers and be a ninth-round pick of the Yankees in the 1981 draft.

“I could have quit,” McGriff told Rays radio broadcaster Neil Solondz Monday at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego. “Once I got cut, I could have just called it a day. But I said no. I went back to West Tampa and finished my season out there, and I tried out for the (Jefferson) team again the next year and made the team.

“But it’s funny, because they give the coach a hard time now, like, ‘Oh, dude, you cut Fred McGriff.’”

• • •

McGriff, 59, played for six teams (including his hometown Rays twice) during his 19-year MLB career. He said no decision has been made yet on which logo — if any, as some multi-team inductees have opted for none — will be represented on his cap for his plaque, which will be unveiled for his July 23 induction. He said he had to talk more with Hall of Fame officials.

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“We haven’t quite had that discussion,” McGriff said at a media conference in San Diego. “We’re working on some things. Stay tuned.”

McGriff started his career with the Blue Jays. He had considerable success with the Padres. He was part of the first Devil Rays team and finished his career at home.

But he played his most games for the Braves (636 over five seasons), with whom he hit his most homers (130), had his best individual season (.318, 34 homers, 94 homers, 1.012 OPS in 113 games in 1994) and enjoyed his greatest team success (winning the 1995 World Series).

Or, McGriff joked, he might wear the ill-fitting blue cap from his infamous Tom Emanski instructional video.

• • •

Playing for so long and on so many teams made McGriff lots of friends, which led to a staggering number of congratulatory messages. He had received 800 texts and counting as of Monday night.

There was a steady stream of phone calls, including from Hall of Famers such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin.

He got a flood of emails, especially after the general manager of Tampa’s Old Memorial Golf Club shared the news to all the other members.

And there was an avalanche of social media posts from friends, more Hall of Famers (including fellow Tampa product Wade Boggs), former teammates and opponents and even Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

“It’s just been unbelievable,” McGriff said.

• • •

McGriff was voted into the Hall by the Contemporary Era committee after not getting much support in 10 years on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.

Original Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar said he knew McGriff was special when the two were first together with the Braves in the mid-1990. It was as much for the kind of person McGriff was as for his talent as a player that LaMar wanted him to be part of the inaugural Rays team.

“There’s a lot of really good players in the major leagues,” LaMar, now a pro scouting supervisor for the Padres, said from the winter meetings. “But there’s very few true stars and who carry themselves as a star on and off the field. And Fred was that way from the first time we were together.”

• • •

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