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Tampa’s Fred McGriff parlayed simple math into a plaque in Cooperstown

Enshrinement in the Hall of Fame awaits after a career marked by consistency on the field and a broad smile and memorable laugh off it.
 
Tampa native Fred McGriff posing with the placeholder where his plaque will hang after his Sunday induction to the baseball Hall of Fame.
Tampa native Fred McGriff posing with the placeholder where his plaque will hang after his Sunday induction to the baseball Hall of Fame. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]
Published July 22, 2023|Updated July 22, 2023

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Somewhere along the winding path from the Forest Heights Little League near Tampa’s Carver City-Lincoln Gardens neighborhood to the front door of the National Baseball Hall of Fame at 25 Main Street in Cooperstown, Fred McGriff figured out the equation to great success in the major leagues:

5x6 = 30.

Famously cut by coach Pop Cuesta from his Jefferson High team as an undersized sophomore, drafted in the ninth round by the Yankees, then traded after two seasons at the lowest rung of the minors to Toronto, McGriff spent six years total working his way to regular duty in the majors starting in 1987.

Given where McGriff came from, he truly was happy to be there. Then it was a matter of staying, impacting his teams and, eventually, excelling.

“As a player, your goal is to make it up to the big leagues,” said McGriff, 59. “Once you get to the big leagues, it’s kind of like, ‘I’ve got to go out there, I’m trying to perform, I’m trying to win a World Series.’

“You set goals for yourself every year, trying to hit home runs, RBIs, batting average."

McGriff focused on some round numbers that at the time were also big numbers: a .300 average, 100 RBIs and, most notably, 30 homers.

“Back in the day, if you hit 30 homers, it was awesome," McGriff said. “That was pretty much the number."

Fred McGriff tells stories from his career during a stop at the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery on March 28 in Cooperstown.
Fred McGriff tells stories from his career during a stop at the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery on March 28 in Cooperstown. [ MILO STEWART JR | National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum ]

McGriff hit that number 10 times — including seven straight — in the 16 seasons he played 100 or more games, falling just short in three others. He also was the first to hit 30 for five different teams.

And that consistency — yielding a total of 493 homers — was pretty much what got McGriff finally elected to the Hall of Fame in November by the Contemporary Era committee vote, the fourth Tampa Bay area product and second former Ray to be enshrined.

To McGriff, it was a simple math equation to get to “the magical number” each season.

“If I hit five home runs a month for six months," he said, “I was going to get to 30."

Depending on the audience, he explained his thinking in different ways. In one interview after his election, he said the goal was “five good swings a month.” In another, he said it was to benefit from “five mistakes” by the pitchers.

Dave Roberts, the current Dodgers manager and a former McGriff teammate, remembers a slightly less varnished version.

“One of Freddie’s best lines ever — ‘Doc, let me tell you, all it takes is 30 dummies a year to try to sneak a fastball by me,’ ” Roberts recalled, then repeated the good part. “All it takes is 30 dummies a year. To throw him a fastball and he hits a homer and then you get to the Hall of Fame.”

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McGriff used a similar approach with RBIs, seeking 17 a month, and he got to 100 eight times. And he had four seasons in which he finished hitting at least .300.

Lengthy wait for Hall call

Fred McGriff will become the fourth member of baseball’s Hall of Fame from the Tampa Bay area.
Fred McGriff will become the fourth member of baseball’s Hall of Fame from the Tampa Bay area. [ BILL SIKES | AP (1998) ]

Still, it took McGriff a while to get invited to Cooperstown. He spent 10 years on the Baseball Writers’ Association ballot without getting close to the 75% of the vote needed, spiking to 39.8% in his final year in 2019.

But in November, a 16-member committee of Hall of Famers, team executives and veteran media members made it happen with a unanimous vote.

McGriff never really complained publicly about the writers’ vote, joking recently when asked about the annual disappointment, “We’ve got some tough writers, some tough cookies."

Nor did he bite on questions about the potential unlevel playing field, given the accusations, suspicions and even some admissions from other players he competed against and/or was being compared to who may have benefited from performance-enhancing drugs.

What McGriff did say was that he appreciated being considered clean.

“I thought it was great," he said. “I took it as a compliment — having integrity and going out there and playing the game like the game should be played."

McGriff was obviously well known and respected for what he did on the field, most notably his steady production — such as the 10 years when he hit between 30-36 homers.

“Just very consistent," said Washington manager Dave Martinez, a teammate for the early Devil Rays years, an opponent in others. “A consummate professional."

Also, the unique “finish high” swing that McGriff developed to help him hit homers toward the center of the field. “When he finished high, he got you," Martinez said.

Fully endorsed video

McGriff, a first baseman, also enjoyed some off-field notoriety, topped by his awkwardly iconic and everlasting TV commercial touting the Tom Emanski instructional video.

That is so closely associated with McGriff that he joked rather than picking the cap of one of the six teams he played for to be represented on his Hall of Fame plaque, he should wear the Emanski hat. (He actually decided to go in with a blank cap to spread the love and appearance opportunities.)

Also well known is the “Crime Dog” nickname borrowed from the animated crime-fighting canine McGruff. And how his arrival to Atlanta in a July 1993 trade from San Diego coincided with a stadium fire that, well, sparked a recurring narrative of how the Braves got hot that year.

But beyond what McGriff did, what stood out to many around the game was how he did it — quietly, even-tempered, as a good teammate, often with a smile and a laugh you can’t forget.

“Freddie’s the man," Roberts said. “Very mild-mannered. Soft spoken, but carried a big stick. …

“His laugh was the best laugh I’ve ever heard. You’ve got to get him to laugh."

And to smile.

“I love Freddie to death,” said Wade Boggs, another Tampa Bay-produced Hall of Fame player. “Freddie really didn’t get his due. I tell him all the time, I said, “I wasn’t flamboyant at all either. I just went out and did my job, boom, like this.”

“The thing about Freddie — I can’t wait to see that smile on his face when he gets to Cooperstown."

“He’s just always had that smile," added now Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, a longtime rival.

‘A very pleasant assassin’

Fred McGriff, who never seem fazed by the ups and downs of the game, flashes his trademark smile.
Fred McGriff, who never seem fazed by the ups and downs of the game, flashes his trademark smile. [ Times (2001) ]

Astros manager Dusty Baker, another longtime rival, had a quite colorful description: “I think of him as a clutch man and a very pleasant assassin.

“Fred was something; I’m just glad that he’s in the Hall of Fame because he deserved to be there a long time ago if I had a vote. He’s a very, very pleasant person to be around. And I remember this guy has one of the loudest bats in the world because when the ball hit his bat it sounded like an explosion.”

Jimy Williams, who managed the Blue Jays when McGriff first came up in the late 1980s, was impressed from the start with how calm he handled success and failure.

“He was basically that from the beginning,” said Williams, who later was a coach for the Braves when McGriff was there (and is the father of Rays third base coach Brady Williams.)

“When you play that many games, you have tough times. Things don’t always go your way. If he ever struck out, he brought his bat and helmet back to the dugout, put the bat in the bat rack, put the helmet back in his slot, went over and sat down. He got his hat and his glove and never said a word."

Bill Livesey, a long-time scouting and player development executive with the Yankees (and later with the Rays), saw it even before that, as scout Gus Poulos was pushing for McGriff to be drafted by New York.

“He was one of my favorite guys — just quiet, hard-working, diligent," Livesey said.

McGriff signed for $20,000, went to play in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old and struggled mightily, hitting .148 in 29 games with no homers, nine RBIs and a .428 OPS.

“He wasn’t strong enough," Livesey said.

The Yankees had McGriff repeat the level over a full season, and he did much better — .272, nine homers, 41 RBIs, .870 OPS over 62 games. And that December, they tossed him into a deal with some big-leaguers and sent him to Toronto.

“Needless to say, Freddie made us pay,” Livesey said. “He was hard-working, dedicated, a fine young man. And when he came to us with the Rays (in 1998), he hadn’t changed a bit. It was amazing.”

None of them, of course, knew then where McGriff would end up now, with a plaque on the wall in the sport’s most hallowed hall.

“He had those intangibles," Livesey said. “And he had a great body he just hadn’t grown into yet. …

“So you could dream on him."

Nor could McGriff have imagined standing on a stage Sunday surrounded by the game’s best, and about to join them.

“I’ve just been totally blessed," McGriff said. “It’s been a long journey, but it’s been an awesome journey."

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Team history

The Braves' Fred McGriff singles to drive in Mark Lemke in the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 21, 1996, in New York.
The Braves' Fred McGriff singles to drive in Mark Lemke in the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 21, 1996, in New York. [ AP (1996) ]

Fred McGriff played for six teams, including the hometown Rays twice, during his 19-season career. Here is a breakdown of what he did for each:

Blue Jays (1986-90): 578 games, 125 homers, 305 RBIs, .278 average, .919 OPS

Padres (1991-93): 388 games, 84 homers, 256 RBIs, .281 average, .906 OPS

Braves (1993-97):* 636 games, 130 homers, 446 RBIs, .293 average, .885 OPS

Rays (1998-2001, 2004): 577 games, 99 homers, 359 RBIs, .291 average, .864 OPS

Cubs (2001-02): 195 games, 42 homers, 144 RBIs, .276 average, .879 OPS

Dodgers (2003): 86 games, 13 homers, 40 RBIs, .249 average, .750 OPS

*Won 1995 World Series

Homer log

Most off opposing team (of 29 total): Astros 41; Reds 31; Giants, Cardinals, Phillies, 22 (None off Rays)

Most off opposing pitcher (of 350 total): Darryl Kile, Jose Rijo, Mark Portugal, 5; Doug Drabek, Melido Perez, Jimmy Jones, Greg Maddux, Allen Watson, Mark Gubicza, Woody Williams, Denny Neagle, 4

By pitcher handedness: 367 vs RHP, 126 vs. LHP

Most by stadium: Fulton County (Atlanta), 58; Qualcomm (San Diego), 53; Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay), 52

Most by location*: Rightfield, 198; centerfield, 121; right-center, 74; leftfield, 48; left-center, 42

*per baseball-reference.com (not every homer was tracked)

Trade chip

McGriff was traded five times during his Hall of Fame career:

• From Yankees to Blue Jays, Dec. 9, 1982 (with Dave Collins, Mike Morgan and cash for Tom Dodd, Dale Murray)

• From Blue Jays to Padres, Dec. 5, 1990 (with Tony Fernandez for Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter)

• From Padres to Braves, July 18, 1993 (for Vince Moore (minors), Donnie Elliott, Melvin Nieves)

• From Braves to Rays, Nov. 18, 1997 (for cash and in part because he was the favorite player of then-GM Chuck LaMar’s son Charlie)

• From Rays to Cubs, July 27, 2001 (for Manny Aybar and a player (Jason Smith) to be named later)

Tampa ties

Fred McGriff on Sunday becomes the fourth member of baseball’s Hall of Fame from the Tampa Bay area, joining:

Al Lopez, Class of 1977

After catching 1,918 games over 19 seasons with Brooklyn, Boston, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Tampa-born El Senor embarked on an even more successful career as a manager starting in 1951, leading Cleveland to a then-record 111 wins in 1954 and an American League pennant. Over 17 seasons with the then-Indians and White Sox, Lopez posted a 1,410-1,004, .584, record, and in his 15 full seasons never had a losing record.

Wade Boggs, Class of 2005

Having moved to Tampa as a kid and playing at Bayshore Little League and Plant High, Boggs cobbled together a career as one of the game’s best hitters, winning five AL batting titles and posting seven consecutive 200-hit seasons with Boston, winning a World Series with the Yankees and getting his milestone 3,000th hit with his hometown Rays. He retired after 18 seasons with 3,010 hits and a .328 average and .415 on-base percentage.

Tony La Russa, Class of 2014

La Russa acknowledges he was one of the worst big-league players to come out of Tampa, but he turned into one of the best managers in the game. La Russa spent 33 seasons leading the White Sox, A;’s and Cardinals, winning six pennants and three World Series, including one in each league, while posting a 2,728-2,365, .536 record. He came out of retirement in 2021 to return to the Sox for parts of two seasons.

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