COOPERSTOWN, N.Y — Fred McGriff is not usually one to hold court and tell stories. But a visit to the hallowed grounds of baseball’s Hall of Fame can do things to people.
And when McGriff toured the museum on Tuesday as part of an orientation trip in advance of the July 23 ceremony at which he will be inducted as a member — inviting the Tampa Bay Times to tag along — he was moved by the various displays to share memories and anecdotes at nearly every turn.
McGriff was especially drawn to exhibits about players and managers who also had Tampa roots, specifically the fellow Jefferson High products, narrating as if he was touring his old neighborhood, and posing in front of the cases for his wife, Veronica, to snap photos.
McGriff noticed the spikes and undershirt worn as White Sox manager by Al Lopez, the first of what now will be four Tampa-produced Hall of Famers (with Wade Boggs and Tony La Russa).
“In Tampa, everything is Al Lopez,” McGriff said.
That included the former spring training and minor-league stadium named for El Senor — near the current Raymond James Stadium — where a young McGriff would head over from his nearby home on many days to watch and learn baseball.
He saw many of the Reds’ best, mentioning Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Dan Driessen, Dave Concepcion, George Foster and manager Sparky Anderson, among others. “The Big Red Machine was it,” McGriff said. “They were awesome.”
During the minor-league Tarpons season, McGriff and friends would get free tickets from the nearby Kash n’ Karry store, and sometimes shag home run and foul balls to turn in for a free soda or snack.
Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber then got a big smile from McGriff by making the obvious connection: “You start off being tied to Al Lopez and you’re still tied to Al Lopez.”
Around the next corner was a jersey worn by Hillsborough High product Dwight Gooden during his dazzling 1984 season with the Mets, when he struck out 276 and won National League rookie of the year honors in a blazing start to a career that would be derailed by drug issues.
“I still tell people all the time, he’s one of the greatest pitchers of all time,” McGriff said. “For me, facing him in high school, and then seeing him in the minors, and he’s striking out 300 guys (in 1983 in the Class A Carolina League), I’m like, ‘I’m OK.’ Dwight was awesome.”
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He stopped next for a better look at a blue jersey from the recent reincarnate of the Tampa Tarpons — now used by the Yankees’ Class A minor-league team. Told it was worn last year by Rachel Balkovec, the first woman to be a full-time manager of an affiliated minor-league team, McGriff said he would have to check out a game.
When Shieber pointed out a Boggs Devil Rays jersey, McGriff laughed about Boggs’ myriad superstitions and lauded his talent, sharing how as Tampa Bay teammates in 1998-99 he sought out the Plant High product to talk hitting and they sat for a few hours.
“He helped me out,” McGriff said. “I was always trying to pick people’s brains. … Guys who could hit, and Wade was another one, I wanted to pick his brain, find out what he was thinking.”
McGriff dished more praise during a visit to the basement-level artifacts room, where after donning gloves to pick up a 1923 Babe Ruth bat, he spotted another on the table of pre-selected items with Gary Sheffield’s name; he had used it during his April 1996 11-homer binge.
“Another Tampa flash, Tampa connection,” McGriff said. “Sheffield has more home runs than me (509 to 493), so he rules Tampa.”
McGriff made mention of the Jefferson ties when he noticed a photo of La Russa, a 2014 inductee for his managerial success. And again when he saw the bat Luis Gonzalez used to deliver the Game 7 walk-off hit to beat the Yankees and give Arizona the 2001 World Series championship. So much so that he asked Veronica to take another photo to send to Gonzalez.
McGriff seemed to enjoy recalling that Gonzalez foiled the Yankees, making several cracks about the team that drafted him in the ninth round in 1981, then traded him after two rookie-level seasons. Including when “New York, New York” was playing as part of an exhibit.
“I’ve heard that song too much,” he said. “Imagine living in Tampa having to listen to Yankees (stuff) every day.”
Stopping at a cool Hall display that includes a ring from each World Series winner, McGriff mentioned his Tampa-based good friend Tino Martinez, who won four championships with the Yankees.
“When Tino comes over, I’ve got to hide my (Braves) ring,” McGriff said. “Because those Yankees rings are just huge. Just got to put mine in my pocket.”
When another highlight video mentioned Houston’s Kyle Tucker, who along with the Mets’ Pete Alonso leads the latest class of bay area big-league stars, McGriff noted, “See, Tampa keeps going.”
A familiar feel
Though McGriff, now 59, played parts of 19 seasons in the majors for six teams and had several notable achievements (including being the second player to hit 200 homers in each league), there are officially only two of his items in the Hall.
One is the bat he used as a rookie to hit the last of the Blue Jays’ record 10 home runs in a Sept. 14, 1987, game.
The other is the bat from his 400th career homer, in a June 2, 2000, game for the Rays at the Mets. He picked it up and gripped like he could still swing it well.
He knew the milestone homer came off Glendon Rusch, but if he had needed a reminder, Rusch called him a few months ago to congratulate him on being elected by the 16-member Contemporary Era committee: “I told him, ‘Sorry dude, I had to get you.’ ”
There was another McGriff-related item set out in the artifacts room — an autographed 1998 Devil Rays team ball, which was more notable given the Rays’ just opened their 25th anniversary season. And also that there turned out to be two Hall of Famers — Boggs and McGriff — in the lineup for their inaugural March 31, 1998, game.
“That’s pretty impressive for the Rays,” he said.
It’s a Braves world as well
Though McGriff went to see the Reds in spring training as a kid in the 1970s, he became a fan of the Braves because their games were what he could watch on TV.
“Growing up in Tampa, WTBS was all you had,” he said.
That McGriff, after being drafted by the Yankees and playing in the majors for the Jays and Padres, ended up with the Braves for 4 ½ seasons and won the 1995 World Series with them, was even better.
Fittingly, he took special interest in the Braves-related exhibits, including the large display for Hank Aaron — whom McGriff also had a treasured chance to talk hitting with.
McGriff will soon join Braves teammates Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz in the Hall.
“Good people, good man,” McGriff said of Cox. “He kept everybody in line. He was the boss man. People don’t know that. We won a lot of games. But when he would close the (clubhouse) door, he wore us out.
“It didn’t happen often, but we lost two-three games in a row — I can’t repeat what Bobby said. He’d get a little upset. But I learned a lot from Bobby.”
Life hasn’t been too different ... yet
McGriff had more stories — and some questions of his own — during a visit to the gallery where his plaque will hang, and later at lunch with Hall officials and a Times reporter, covering the stadiums he liked most to hit in (Yankee, Fenway, Coors) to his favorite mascots (Phanatic, The Chicken) to the current Rays team (which looks good).
He said the increased attention of being a Hall of Famer hasn’t created too much change in his life around Tampa Bay, except for being asked more often for autographs and spending some time on his induction speech. (He did say having a security guard outside his Cooperstown hotel room felt weird.)
He and Veronica live in a 55-and-older community, he goes to occasional games scouting for the Braves and still has lots of time for practicing and playing golf.
“Some guys have set me up,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s go play golf.’ Then we get to the 18th hole and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, Fred, I’ve got four balls for you to sign.’ And I’m like, ‘I thought you just wanted to play golf.’ ”
Veronica, his wife of 34 years, said McGriff has “been doing really well — so far. He only shows me so much.”
But at the end of the tour she also acknowledged how life-changing election to the Hall has been.
“I want to say it’s meant a lot, but that’s just not enough verbiage, or words to that you can put into it,” she said, tears welling. “You just get very emotional. Like he said, we’re in a fraternity, a different league of people. It goes way back. I can’t even …”
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