Reserved as He Is Resolved : Baseball: Fueled by a quiet determination, Fred McGriff has become one of the game’s most feared power hitters. The Padres hope he can handle the pressure of a big contract.
It’s the middle of the night. Padre first baseman Fred McGriff lays in bed, his eyes are transfixed toward the ceiling. He wants to sleep, but his mind refuses to rest.
He slowly gets up, flicks on a light and wanders toward his prized possession, his baseball bat. It brings him so much gratitude, causes so much pain. He gingerly picks the 35-inch long, 32 1/2 ounce piece of wood, and caresses it.
He walks toward a mirror, and crouches into his stance, exactly as if Nolan Ryan were standing 60 feet 6 inches away from him and a crowd of 50,000 was watching.
Standing alone, McGriff, strides and swings. Carefully, he looks into the mirror, analyzing every motion. Over and over, he does this, sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for an hour.
Veronica McGriff, his wife of two years, is starting to become accustomed to these late-night binges. Get used to it, says Eliza, McGriff’s mother. Fred has been doing it ever since Little League.
“Sometimes, when I’m struggling, I’ve just got to do it,” McGriff says. “I want to find out what I’m doing wrong, then I can go back to sleep.”
McGriff, 27, never envisioned that he’d be behaving this way now. It’s spring training, and statistics are meaningless, but McGriff knows he should be hitting not around .200. He should not go 70 plate appearances before hitting his first homer. He should not be striking out 12 times, four times Friday night against the Seattle Mariners.
The Padres see the anxiety in his eyes. They see the concern in his face. They see the tension envelop his body.
“He’s putting a lot of pressure on himself right now,” said Merv Rettenmund, Padre batting coach. “It’s natural, coming to a new team, a new league, and getting a big contract. You want to prove yourself.
“He’ll be all right. Once he gets that first one, he’ll snap out of it. You watch.”
McGriff smiles weakly. He knows it is better slump now than when the season begins Tuesday against the San Francisco Giants.
Perhaps if he still were with the Tortonto Blue Jays, it would be easier to accept. If he hadn’t become the highest-paid player in Padre history--receiving a four-year, $15.25 million contract--maybe he wouldn’t so easily condemn himself. If he weren’t so eager for approval, perhaps he could shrug off spring training just like everyone else.
“But I know things are different now,” McGriff says. “Before if I struggled, it’d be, ‘Oh, he’s struggling, it’s just one of those things.’
“Now if I struggle, it’ll be, ‘Look at the money he’s making. How can they pay him that much.’ It’s almost like I’m in a no-win situation. I can’t sit here and tell you I’m never going to struggle. I guarantee it will happen during the season. But people throw money into it, and that’s not fair at all. I just have to do what I’ve done in the past.
“Right now, the battle is with myself.”
Baseball has never been about money or awards or fame or popularity for McGriff. What he craves is satisfying his own internal ambitions. Sure, he has averaged 35 homers and 87 RBIs the past three seasons. And, yes, he’s considered one of the finest first basemen in the game.
Yet when you’ve devoted your entire life to the game of baseball, your ideals are different.
“You’ve got to understand,” McGriff said, “this is all I ever wanted. Ever since I was 6, this is all I ever wanted to do. Baseball, baseball, baseball, that’s all that mattered to me.
“Maybe that’s why I’m never satisfied. I want to be the complete player. I don’t want to be a guy who just hits home runs. I couldn’t stand being one of those guys who hit 30 to 40 homers and hits .220.
“Even last year, I hit 35 homers and batted .300. Everyone told me what a good year I had. To me, I could have done much better.”
McGriff pauses, closing his eyes, his face showing an odd mixture of reverence and concern, and begins to speak again.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I wonder if I’ll ever be satisfied.”
Earl and Eliza McGriff couldn’t believe the news. They already were raising four children, ages 7 to 12, on Earl’s TV repairman’s salary, and now the doctor was informing them that Eliza was pregnant.
“Freddie was our surprise package,” Eliza said. “Our kids were so much older, that when he was growing up, they’d just push him aside, and Freddie had to play by himself.”
It didn’t matter to Fred. His dad bought him a bat and ball, complete with a batting tee, and that’s all he needed to entertain himself. He’d go outside, tee up the ball and swing till his arms ached.
His favorite time of the year always was spring. That’s when the Cincinnati Reds came to town for spring-training, and Al Lang Field was only four blocks away from the McGriff home in Tampa, Fla.
How he loved the Reds. He could recite their batting averages. His favorite player was Pittsburgh’s Dave Parker, who could hit homers further than McGriff thought possible. Besides, Parker was left-handed, just like him.
“I used to get all (the Reds’) autographs and broken bats,” McGriff said. “I eventually threw them all away. Big mistake. You could make a lot of money with those things now.”
When McGriff wasn’t watching baseball, he was playing baseball, usually with his best friend, Barry Robinson. In the mornings, they played home-run derby. In the afternoons, they played baseball in the park. And at night, they quizzed each other on baseball trivia.
“I’m telling you, Fred didn’t care about anything else,” said Robinson, who now works in the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Sheriff’s office. “The rest of us would go out and play football or soccer, but Fred never wanted to. It was always baseball. The only time he’d play other sports with us was just to get in shape for baseball.
“The thing about it was that Fred wasn’t very good. I mean, he was average at best.”
McGriff’s mediocrity in Little League only made him more determined. He wanted to be just as good as Al Pardo and the others on his team who eventually were drafted by the pros. And he always dreamed one day of hitting a fastball off that 13-year-old kid who lived across town. Dwight Gooden was his name.
When he became a sophomore, he tried out for the high school team at Jefferson. Emeterio Cuesta, the man they call ‘Pop,’ told him to go back to Little League for another year.
“He was just this little fella, real frail and skinny, and he wore glasses,” Cuesta said. “I mean, he certainly wasn’t the same Fred McGriff you see now. It wasn’t until his senior year that he started opening some people’s eyes.”
He grew to almost his current height of 6-foot-3, weighed 190 pounds and began to display the home run swing pitchers have learned to fear. He even hit a homer his senior year off Gooden, a ball that Gooden claims traveled at least 500 feet.
“I swear, that’s still one of the longest home runs I’ve ever given up,” Gooden said.
Said Robinson: “It was really a line drive that went over the fence. It might have gone 400 feet, maybe. But the thing about it was that it was so rare to even hit the ball off Dwight, it got exaggerated.”
McGriff’s homer, though, was witnessed by about a dozen scouts, including the Yankees’ Gust Poulas, who were on hand to watch Gooden. All of a sudden, McGriff was being noticed. Teams became curious.
“The Yankees were the ones who first realized his potential,” Cuesta said. “They talked all the time to me about Fred. They used to say, ‘Now don’t tell anybody about Fred. It’ll be our secret.’ ”
A few months later, in June, 1981, the New York Yankees selected Frederick Stanley McGriff with their ninth-round draft pick, the 223rd selection overall. McGriff wanted to sign that day. His parents wanted him to attend college.
“We said, ‘Freddie, at least listen to some of the scholarship offers,’ ” Eliza McGriff said. “Just go to school, and then you could decide if you want to play baseball later.”
But then came the letters from Yankee chairman George Steinbrenner. Then came the repeated phone calls. Then came the $20,000 offer.
“He said, ‘Mom, I want to play professional baseball, I don’t want to do anything else,’ ” Eliza McGriff said, “ ‘so I might as well start now.’
“My husband and I looked at each other, and said, ‘I hope Freddie knows what he’s doing.’ ”
Once McGriff started playing, he wasn’t so sure he made the right move. He batted .148 without a homer in his rookie season at Bradenton, and the Yankees left him in the Gulf Coast League for another year. He improved his second year, hitting .272 with nine homers, but he wondered about his future.
John Mayberry was playing first base for the Yankees. Steve Balboni was their triple-A first baseman. And some hotshot prospect named Don Mattingly was above him in double-A.
Yet, Pat Gillick, Toronto Blue Jays general manager, was tipped by scout Epy Guerrero that McGriff might be a prospect. So during the 1982 winter meetings, when Gillick was in the process of trading for outfielder Dave Collins and pitcher Mike Morgan of the Yankees, he remembered and asked for McGriff to be included. There was little resistance. The Yankees were getting the pitcher they wanted, Dale Murray, and a catcher, Tom Dodd.
It took another four years, including 2 1/2 at triple-A Syracuse, for McGriff to emerge. But once he made the Blue Jays’ big-league team in 1987, there was little doubt he was going to be a star. He was the one responsible for the Blue Jays dumping Willie Upshaw. He was the reason the Blue Jays let Cecil Fielder go to Japan. He’s why the Yankees have made only one trade with Toronto since, after making four trades with them the previous 13 months.
“We made some deals over the years that didn’t turn out,” Steinbrenner now says, “but I’m not sure if there was a worse one than that.”
Take a look at the numbers. During the past three seasons, McGriff has hit 105 home runs, with a .283 batting average. The only player in baseball able to match his home run total since 1988 is Darryl Strawberry, and his batting average has been .258.
“I really don’t know how he does it,” said George Bell, McGriff’s teammate in Toronto, who now plays for the Cubs. “He’s not that strong. I think he can only bench-press 150 pounds. But when he hits that ball, man, it takes off.
“I thought he was going to get a few people hurt last year when he kept hitting them off the Hard Rock restaurant (in the Skydome).”
Said Padre second baseman Marty Barrett, who played against McGriff the past years at Boston: “Whenever Fred came up, I’m thinking to myself, ‘This guy is going to hit a bomb.’ Every time up, I’m thinking, ‘This ball can go five miles.’
“You got guys like Mattingly who can beat you with a single or double into the gap, but they didn’t scare me half as bad as Fred.”
Ask a fan to reel off the names of the great home-run hitters in the game, and the names of Jose Canseco, Darryl Strawberry, Kevin Mitchell, Mark McGwire and Eric Davis roll off the tongue. Talk about the best defensive first basemen in the game, and the immediate response is Will Clark, Don Mattingly and Wally Joyner.
“I think the best part about Fred being traded,” Robinson said, “is that people might start recognizing him now that he’s in the states. I think up in Toronto, he just got lost in the shuffle.”
The Blue Jays have been loaded with stars. There was George Bell. There was Jesse Barfield. And Lloyd Moseby. And Dave Stieb. And Tony Fernandez. And Kelly Gruber.
“No one really knew about me,” McGriff said, “but that was OK. I liked it that way. I let everybody else do the talking.”
McGriff’s shyness and modesty has kept him out of the spotlight. No asks asks him to do commericals. There are no endorsement opportunities. And the fans, not knowing who he is, don’t bother voting for him to the All-Star team.
“You know what I think?” said Eliza McGriff. “When guys start running their mouth, or yelling at umpires, people want to see that foolishness in the All-Star Game, so they vote for them.
“You never hear a peep out of Fred.”
Said McGriff: “Being quiet and laid-back may hurt me with the awards. I’m not the type to run to reporters and give them the scoop. But I’m not going to change. I’ll let my play on the field do my talking, and let everyone judge me on that.”
But friends, and teammates will describe another side to McGriff. He bought his high-school team a new outdoor batting cage during the winter. He has the same core of friends as he did growing up, never abandoning a single one. He celebrated the signing of his contract by spending a quiet night at home with his wife, Vernonica, and four-month-old son, Erick.
“He’s such a quality person,” said Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager, “and that was a big factor when we signed him. Here’s a guy who never has played for the Padres, never played in the National League, but we thought that highly of him where we wanted to keep him here for a long, long time.”
The only flaw in McGriff’s game is, well, excelling in pressure situations. He owned a .213 batting average with seven homers in 235 at-bats in the months of September and October during the Blue Jays’ three pennnant stretches in 1987-1989. He batted .143 without a homer in the 1989 playoffs against Oakland. And he hit .208 with two outs and runners last season in scoring position.
Some say he now faces the greatest pressure of all. He comes into a new town, in a controversial trade--sending Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter to Toronto for shortstop Tony Fernandez and himself--and is being paid higher than any of his new teammates. He is expected, like it or not, to be the team savior.
“History says that a player on a long-term contract,” McIlvaine said, “is not as effective in the first year as the rest of his contract. But we’ve got him for a long time. We’re not worried.”
McGriff smiles. He knows all about expectations. When he hit 34 homers in 1988, Tortoto fans wanted 40. When he hit 36 homers the next year, they wanted 50. When he hit 35 homers last season, they asked what was wrong.
“This is all new to me,” he said. “In Toronto, I heard people say I was lucky because I always had guys like George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby, and there was no pressure. There was always someone to pick me up.
“I know it’s not the same now. I’m batting cleanup for the first time. People will be looking for me to carry the load. But I like it. I like people saying I can’t do something, and then going out and doing it.
“When I think about it, why should there be pressure? I mean, I dreamed of playing in the big leagues my whole life, and here I am. How often does your dream become realized?
“And you know something? No matter what happens, they can never take that away.