It all began with a kid named Izzy. Izzy was a senior, a first
baseman, and he was not about to step aside for some skinny
sophomore named Fred. If Fred wanted to make the team, well,
Fred would just have to find another position. At Jefferson High
in Tampa, first base belonged to Izzy. "I knew I couldn't beat
out Izzy, so I decided to try the outfield," says Fred, smiling.
"And I was not a good outfielder."
He was so bad, in fact, that the Jefferson coach told Fred to
try again next year and cut him from the squad. It turned out to
be the first in a long history of humbling experiences for
Frederick Stanley McGriff, the unheralded Atlanta Brave slugger
who took the scenic route to the 1995 World Series and then
homered on the first pitch he saw in Game 1.
Traded three times, McGriff has been passed around the major
leagues like a fruitcake at Christmas and treated more like an
aging backup catcher than the premier home run hitter of his
time. His next sneaker commercial will be his first, and if
there are any plans to market a candy bar in his honor, he
hasn't heard about them.
McGriff has hit 289 home runs in his nine big league seasons,
more than any other player over that span, but when the subject
turns to the top sluggers in the game, his name is often left
out of the discussion. It would not be such an egregious
oversight if he were a whiner, a loafer, a boozer, a bat corker
or an all-around bad influence in the clubhouse. McGriff, who
turned 32 on Halloween, is none of those things. He is, in fact,
as popular among his peers as a ballplayer can get without
passing out free golf equipment.
"Maybe the media and the fans don't give him enough credit--but
the players do," says Atlanta teammate David Justice. "You talk
to people in baseball, believe me, they'll tell you Freddie is
one of the best."
It seems the only player who won't say something nice about
Freddie is Freddie. He speaks softly, as if relating a secret,
and prefers to talk about golf or his children or his beloved
Tampa Bay Buccaneers--anything but himself. He has been called
the most underrated player in baseball, and he makes no attempt
to shed the label. He fights off praise like it's a fastball
high and tight, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head
like a teenage boy who was just called cute by the girl next
door. At the mere mention of the Hall of Fame, he practically
curls up and hides in his locker, even though his numbers are
quickly paving the way to Cooperstown.
McGriff is one of only nine players to hit 30 home runs for
seven straight seasons--and the other eight are Hall of Famers.
The strike probably kept him from making it eight straight
years, as he hit 27 homers in 144 games this season. Quick quiz:
Who is the only player since 1908 to win the home run title in
both leagues? Hint: It isn't Frank Robinson, Johnny Mize, Joe
Carter or Izzy ("I forget his last name," says McGriff). It's
Freddie. "He's a great player," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox.
"But he's almost embarrassed by how good he is."
At 6'3" and 215 pounds, without a trace of fat, McGriff has the
body of an NBA guard. As he stands at the plate, he is an odd
array of contradictions: simultaneously stiff and smooth,
mechanical yet graceful, a touch of Wade Boggs blended with a
healthy portion of Ken Griffey Jr. A lefthanded hitter, he
drives many of his home runs to left and left center and always
gets his share of doubles to the gaps. In the Braves' sweep of
the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series,
he hit .438 with four doubles and scored five runs.
McGriff has an unusual hitting style that is punctuated by a
unique follow-through. Has there ever been one like it? Chicago
White Sox hitting guru Walt Hriniak teaches his pupils to
release the top hand from the bat, but McGriff takes it a step
further. He waves the bat with his right hand as if he were
conducting a symphony or swatting a fly. When he connects and
sends a ball out of the yard, he resembles a medieval warrior,
raising his sword in triumph. Los Angeles Dodger catcher Mike
Piazza told McGriff that that swing is the reason he considers
McGriff to be his hero. It is the closest thing to flashy you'll
find in the life of Fred McGriff. "It's a beautiful thing to
watch," says Justice.
Naturally, McGriff downplays his trademark follow-through. The
mere suggestion that someone might interpret the move as an act
of showboating makes McGriff uncomfortable. "It just happens,"
he says. "I don't try to do it. I'm just trying to keep my head
down and get extension. I can't believe some young guys are
actually trying to imitate me."
After Izzy moved on, McGriff flourished as the Jefferson High
first baseman, setting school records that would soon be broken
by a young Tino Martinez, now the first baseman for the Seattle
Mariners. The New York Yankees selected McGriff with the 233rd
pick of the 1981 amateur draft, but with Don Mattingly already
working his way to the big leagues, they had no use for another
young lefthanded-hitting first baseman and traded him to the
Toronto Blue Jays following the '82 season. McGriff toiled in
the Blue Jays' system for four seasons before he was installed
as the lefthanded designated hitter in a platoon with the
righthanded Cecil Fielder.
McGriff hit 20 home runs in just 107 games as a rookie in 1987,
including one memorable clout off Rick Rhoden in Yankee Stadium.
As McGriff recalls it, the ball landed in the rightfield upper
deck, and as he rounded the bases, he realized that there might
be a place for him in the big leagues. "I mean, this was Yankee
Stadium, with all the tradition and everything, and here I was,
hitting one into the third deck," he says. "I remember that day
just thinking to myself, Yeah, I can do this. I can play in this
McGriff became Toronto's regular first baseman in '88 and
cranked out 34 home runs, followed by a league-high 36 and then
35 the next two seasons. Boston Red Sox second baseman Marty
Barrett dubbed him the Crime Dog after the anticrime cartoon
character called McGruff, and McGriff, it seemed, was on his way
to relative fame. The Blue Jays won the American League East in
1989 and would soon win a couple of World Series. All they had
to do was swing one more big trade, and they don't get much
bigger than the one made on Dec. 5, 1990: McGriff and shortstop
Tony Fernandez to the San Diego Padres in exchange for
outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Robbie Alomar. The
Crime Dog's North American tour moved west. McGriff didn't fall
off the baseball map, but he sure was close to the edge.
"Baseball today is all about markets," says McGriff. "When I
first started playing, I was in Toronto, and before they won the
World Series, no one knew anything about them. A lot of people
thought the players were Canadian. Then I went to San Diego, and
sometimes it seemed like nobody cared. But I learned a long time
ago that trades are part of the game, and one of the reasons you
get traded is that another team wants you."
McGriff hit 31 homers in his first season as a Padre and 35 the
next, tops in the National League. He drove in 106 and 104 runs
those two years, and he finally made his first All-Star
team--after hitting 30 homers four years in a row. "When I'm all
through in this game, I just want to be remembered for one
thing: being consistent," says McGriff. "I don't want to be a
guy who just had one great year. Cito Gaston was my hitting
coach in Toronto, and he taught that you've got to be in the
lineup every day. You get five months in the off-season to rest.
During the season you've got to go hard every day."
When McGriff was growing up, his mother, Eliza, was an
elementary school teacher, and his father, Earl, ran a small
electronics repair business. Freddie never learned how to call
in sick. As a kid, McGriff would hang around Al Lopez Field and
collect the broken bats the Cincinnati Reds left behind during
spring training. "He was just raised right," says Jimy Williams,
who managed McGriff in Toronto and is now the Braves' third base
coach. "Fred is an outstanding citizen who happens to be a good
McGriff says that as a teenager he earned a few extra dollars
"selling Coke." But before your jaw touches the floor, he
explains: He was a vendor at Tampa Stadium during Buccaneer
games. He says he was there from the beginning, when the Bucs
went winless in their inaugural season, and he says slinging
soft drinks was a great way to stay in shape. "It turned out to
be a blessing because I'd make two bucks commission on a tray of
Cokes, and I had to hustle if I wanted to make any money," he
says. "Have you ever seen the steps in Tampa Stadium? Believe
me, it was a workout. It really strengthened my legs, and the
money wasn't bad either."
The money has gotten a little better for McGriff. On July 18,
1993, three months before his 30th birthday, Atlanta sent three
minor leaguers to San Diego in exchange for McGriff. The
cash-poor Padres were looking to lose McGriff's $4.25 million
salary, and the Braves were hoping to win a National League
pennant. On the evening he arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County
Stadium for his first game, the club level caught fire, a
metaphor for the remainder of the season. McGriff homered in his
third at bat, and the Braves won 51 of their last 68 games. They
are 92 games over .500 (209-117) in the regular season since the
arrival of McGriff. "When he came over here, he was exactly what
we needed, on the field and in the clubhouse," says Atlanta
righthander Tom Glavine. "It's mind-boggling how much of a
difference he's made in our team."
There's something else about McGriff that boggles the mind. He
will be a free agent after the World Series, and there is reason
to believe the Braves will not re-sign him. So what does this
guy have, anyway--a rash?
Maybe it's a matter of style. Some teams prefer their first
basemen to be big and beefy, sort of like 24-year-old Ryan
Klesko, McGriff's anointed successor at the position in Atlanta.
Klesko hit 23 homers and drove in 70 runs in 107 games this
season, but he often played leftfield like a born DH.
McGriff's agent, Jim Krivacs, believes the Braves still "might
make a run" at his client, but he says McGriff is prepared to
pack his bags and move yet again. He will be looking for a
long-term deal, perhaps five years for as much as $30 million,
and the Braves could decide to spend their money elsewhere and
hand the job to Klesko, who is still a couple of years away from
a real big contract. "I predict all 25 of our players will be
back next year," says Atlanta president Stan Kasten. "But I
don't usually hit on 100 percent of my predictions."
McGriff raves about Yankee Stadium and the Yankees' new spring
training site in Tampa, and speaks reverently of his Tampa
neighbor George Steinbrenner. McGriff would be a nice fit in
New York if the Yankees choose not to hold on to Mattingly.
"I learned a long time ago that baseball is a very humbling
game," says McGriff. "Every time you think you have it figured
out, it turns around and slaps you in the face. So I stopped
trying to figure it out. Now I just go out and play."
Nevertheless, the unassuming McGriff relished his first
opportunity to play in a World Series. "I wonder where Izzy is
today," he says, still smiling.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA [Fred McGriff]
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE (2) McGriff finishes his home run swing with a trademark follow-through. [Fred McGriff]
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE (2) The much-traveled Crime Dog is a hit in any park. [Fred McGriff signing autographs for fans]