Blue Jays Flashback: Fred McGriff
Next up on Kevin Glew’s Blue Jays Flashback series is the one and only Fred McGriff. Representing six teams in a career spanning almost two decades, Fred’s story is a compelling one.
If you’re looking for inspiration today, go and listen to Fred McGriff’s National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech that he delivered on July 23 in Cooperstown.
“I’m humbled to be standing on this stage with some of the greatest players ever to play this game,” said McGriff early in his speech. “I honestly would’ve been happy to play just one day in the big leagues.”
Of course, McGriff played far more than one day – 2,460 games in 19 seasons to be exact. And during that time, he belted 493 home runs, the 29th most in major league history.
But success didn’t always come easily for McGriff.
Born in 1963 in Tampa, Fla., McGriff spent many days at the local Little League field and the Boys & Girls Club when he was growing up.
“What is your dream?” asked McGriff during his speech. “Since elementary school, mine had been to play in the major leagues. It’s been a long journey with a lot of hard work put in, thousands of hours trying to get better. But like I tell everyone, a computer can’t measure what’s in someone’s heart and I always had heart.”
And there were times on his way to baseball stardom that he certainly needed that “heart.”
“I could’ve quit playing baseball, but I didn’t,” said McGriff in his speech. “Instead, it motivated me. I started riding my bike about three miles each way to the gym. I got stronger and I continued to play ball. The next year I tried out again and I made the team.”
Two years later, he was selected in the ninth round of the 1981 MLB draft by the New York Yankees.
The raw 17-year-old McGriff was hardly a blue-chip prospect when he reported to the Yankees’ Rookie Ball Gulf Coast League team in 1981, and that was affirmed when he batted just .148 and failed to hit a home run in 29 games.
“It was quite the learning experience, but I realized that you have to treat baseball like it’s a job, so I doubled my effort,” said McGriff of that first pro season. “I was on a mission to improve as a hitter.”
And improve he did.
He returned to Rookie Ball in 1982 and batted .272 with nine home runs in 62 games, and not only impressed the Yankees brass, but also Toronto Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick. The astute Gillick then managed to acquire the 19-year-old McGriff along with outfielder Dave Collins and pitcher Mike Morgan from the Yankees for reliever Dale Murray and third base prospect Tom Dodd that December.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
After four seasons in the Blue Jays’ minors, McGriff belted 20 home runs in his first full season with the big league club and worked extensively with Cito Gaston.
“Cito Gaston was my hitting coach in Toronto. And we hit, hit, and hit,” said McGriff in his speech. “We spent a lot of time working on hitting mechanics. We would hit before spring training games, after spring training games and during the season, we would even take batting practice on the road five hours before the start of the game.”
The practice paid off. In 1988, McGriff enjoyed his first of 10, 30-home run seasons in the big leagues. The next year, he topped the American League with 36 home runs and a .924 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).
In 1990, the powerful first baseman clubbed 35 more homers for the Blue Jays before he was dealt to the San Diego Padres, along with Tony Fernandez, for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar in a blockbuster deal that December.
Despite only playing five seasons with the Blue Jays, McGriff still ranks third in franchise history in on-base percentage (.389), slugging percentage (.530) and OPS (.919). He also clubbed his first 125 major league home runs with the Blue Jays.
“He was just so steady. He was just a calming baseball player that put up numbers year in, year out. He was a great guy in the clubhouse,” said Ernie Whitt of McGriff in an interview in January. “It was just amazing the power he had.”
Cambridge, Ont., native Rob Ducey, who was McGriff’s Blue Jays teammate for five seasons, offers a similar assessment.
“I think along with his very good power, he was just a good hitter,” said Ducey. “He had the ability to drive in runs and he hit for a high average with power . . . And he’s right up there with the best power hitters I’ve ever played with.”
After being traded by the Blue Jays, McGriff continued to be a power threat for the Padres, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers. He belted 30 home runs with the Cubs in 2002 to become the first major league player to hit 30 home runs in a season for five different teams. In all, he was selected to five All-Star Games and captured three Silver Slugger awards.
But despite his impressive resume, McGriff failed to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his 10 years on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot. That snub was remedied, however, when he was unanimously elected by the Hall’s 16-member Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee in December.
“I encourage you, whatever your dream is, to never give up,” said McGriff during his speech.
And coming from a Hall of Famer who was cut from his high school baseball team and hit .148 in his first pro season, you couldn’t help but feel inspired.
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If your thing is Blue Jays nostalgia than Bodog’s series is right up your street. We’ve already covered great Toronto names such as Jesse Barfield, John Olerud and Dave Stieb, with plenty more to come.
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