McGriff still has desireNearing 500 homers, the ex-Jay remains one of the game's good guys
By BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun
It seems like yesterday.
Fifth inning. Two on and two out. There were 36,400 fans at Exhibition Stadium. Bob Stanley pitching.
DH Fred McGriff hit his first major-league homer to help the Blue Jays beat the Boston Red Sox 10-5 on April 17, 1987.
And 51 nights later on ABC's Monday Night Baseball, McGriff hit a two-run moonshot off Rick Rhoden into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium.
"After that, I thought, 'I hit a home run at Yankee Stadium, I can play in this league,'" McGriff said.
He was as humble and as "aw shucks" at the Ex after his first, or at Yankee Stadium after his sixth-career homer, as he was last night.
Hitless in this one, he is seven homers away from 500.
Plenty has happened between 1987 and 2004. McGriff's woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl; McGriff's woeful Tampa Bay Lightning won a Stanley Cup; McGriff has gained, oh, maybe six or seven ounces; the Jays moved into a new home, filled it, and now play to an average of 20,374 fans.
"You don't envision hitting 500 homers," McGriff said after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays beat the Jays 5-1. "When you start out, you just want to play.
"Back then Cecil Fielder and I platooned at DH. I learned how to play from Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby and George Bell."
Bell, in the SkyDome house last night, was on his way to winning the American League most valuable player trophy.
Back then, Fielder and McGriff playfully took turns hiding then-hitting coach Cito Gaston's glove after early hitting workouts. It was fun until the glove was lost. McGriff blamed Fielder. Fielder blamed McGriff.
"Cito taught me the most about hitting and weight shift, in the minors we just went up there and swung," McGriff said.
McGriff entered the 2003 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, 23 homers shy of 500. He played only 86 games and hit 13 homers, heading to the disabled list with a pulled groin.
"Since I've never been hurt before, I came back too quick, ran differently and hurt my knee," he said.
After knee surgery in October, he went to the Rays camp this spring as an invitee. He didn't make the 25-man roster that headed east -- to Tokyo -- to open the season.
The Rays had Tino Martinez at first and Aubrey Huff DHing. McGriff went home and kept rehabbing. Wife Veronica encouraged him to look for work.
"First base is tough with Carlos Delgado, Jeff Bagwell and Jason Giambi. The New York Mets moved Mike Piazza to first," McGriff said.
With the Rays averaging 3 1/2 runs a game and needing help in May, McGriff's phone rang.
"We were struggling, so we got Freddie out of moth balls," joked manager Lou Piniella. "We want him to get to 500, but we want him to help us win."
McGriff hit a two-run homer Thursday for a 4-1 win over the San Diego Padres. He homered in a win over the Minnesota Twins, had a game-winning single in the 11th inning on June 4 in an 8-7 win in Baltimore and hit a two-run homer in a 7-3 win in Minneapolis on May 31.
McGriff, one of the true gentlemen we've ever met, is tied with Lou Gehrig for 21st place on the career list. Wow.
Rays owner Vince Naimoil, Piniella and McGriff all live in the Avila section of Tampa. Says Piniella: "I don't know whose house is bigger, Freddie's or the owner's."
The Rays are 17-4 since he arrived on May 28.
McGriff was told of a 1989 conversation with Gaston:
"Does McGriff change his stance from one at-bat to another?" Gaston repeated. "You mean does he change from one pitch to another?"
Replied McGriff: "Look at the tapes, I'm still doing the same thing."