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05/31/2004 Archived Entry: "MLB news: 500-club preview: Fred McGriff"

500-club preview: Fred McGriff

By Michael Toeset

The 2004 season has already provided a book’s worth of thrills. There’s been a perfect game, improbable starts by teams like the Rangers and Reds, a record-setting cycle and, oh, yes, that guy named Bonds has done some special things.
But perhaps the most exciting moment this season was an 0-for-1 performance on May 28. That otherwise banal pinch at-bat marked the return of Fred McGriff, the 40-year-old first baseman who’s just nine home runs shy of 500.
McGriff, who’s healthy and still has something to contribute to a team (especially a team like the Devil Rays), was finally called up by Tampa Bay in late May. The Crime Dog signed a minor league contract with the club in February, then hit .250 in spring training but was unceremoniously demoted to the minors. He worked out on his own and joined the AAA Durham Bulls in late May and hit .250 for them as well.
McGriff is within a hot streak of becoming only the 20th player ever to hit at least 500 home runs (Ken Griffey is currently two ahead in the race, with 493 home runs). For the woeful Devil Rays to have denied the Tampa native a chance to play thus far is practically a crime, not to mention a lack of marketing foresight (the free press McGriff will generate on his pursuit is the most ink the Devil Rays will get all year). It always boggles my mind when a team treats its most fan-friendly face with disdain. I’m thinking also of the treatment Ozzie Smith received as his career wound down and the way Barry Larkin was handled last year by the Reds. Sure, conventional wisdom says a team should give prospects a shot at a big-league job, but nothing draws in the fans like an old favorite. It simply makes good business sense to treat your most popular commodity with respect. Excellent case in point is the Devil Rays: Tampa residents aren’t coming out to watch their team lose night after night, and the apathy is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. But when McGriff nears 500, fans will come to the park in greater numbers to cheer on their hometown hero.
Since being called up, McGriff is 0 for 5 in two games, and it isn’t likely he’ll register a lot of playing time. But all the five-time All-Star needs is a couple hundred at-bats to reach the lofty 500-homer plateau. While the 6-3 slugger has obviously succumbed to the ravages of Father Time, he is still capable of hitting the ball out of the park; in 297 at-bats last year, McGriff pounded 13 home runs, and the season before, he hit 30.
As someone who became a baseball fan when McGriff was in his heyday, it’s at once painful and a thrill to watch him play. At-bats where McGriff looks hapless almost physically hurts me, but there would be no greater thrill this season than seeing the Crime Dog hit his nine home runs, even if it is accompanied by a .200 average.
McGriff, now in his 19th season, has seen his career span several eras, including the homer-happy era that baseball is presently in – in which 30 home runs is nothing to get excited about. Since he has never breached the 40-homer mark, McGriff is relatively anonymous for someone with his career numbers. And although he has contributed mightily in several World Series games, McGriff still has never received the nationwide respect he deserves, and his attempt to join the 500 club has been largely ignored and will continue to be, especially if Griffey and he get there about the same time.
McGriff’s season highs pale in comparison to the Mark McGwires and Barry Bondses of this era, but McGriff was always consistent; he had 80 or more RBI in 15 consecutive seasons. His season-high numbers read: .318 average, 111 runs scored, 107 RBI and 37 home runs.
The debate has been simmering in recent years as to whether McGriff deserves admission to the Hall of Fame. While his season highs won’t be enough to get him in, his career numbers would appear to be the ticket. What follows is a comparison with a few HOF first basemen.

Player Avg. Hits R RBI HR
McGriff .285 2,477 1,342 1,543 491
Cepeda .297 2,351 1,131 1,365 379
Foxx .325 2,646 1,751 1,922 534
Gehrig .340 2,721 1,888 1,995 493
Killebrew .256 2,086 1,283 1,584 573
McCovey .270 2,211 1,229 1,555 521
Mize .312 2,011 1,118 1,337 359
Murray .287 3,255 1,627 1,917 504

The only player whose stats McGriff’s don’t hold up to is Gehrig, but whose do? In my humble estimation, McGriff deserves entry into the Hall. And perhaps getting to 500 home runs would seel the deal.
No matter if you want to see the Crime Dog get in the hallowed Hall or not, you’ve got to admit, it would be a crime to see him denied a shot at 500 homers.

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note: McGriff hit home run No. 492 on Monday.

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