Advertisement

Things Looking Up for Padres’ McGriff : Baseball: He gets career-high 92nd RBI to help Padres beat Giants.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were times, Padre first baseman Fred McGriff now admits, when he was scared. Maybe he was set for life with his four-year, $15.25-million contract. Maybe it seemed preposterous that a man could be unhappy making so much money.

But when you’re contractually committed to a franchise for the wonder years of your life, then see a team resembling little more than a tryout camp, the situation can be disconcerting.

“That ran through my mind a lot,” said McGriff, who equaled his career high Saturday by driving in his 92nd run in the Padres’ 3-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. “I second-guessed myself a few times, thinking maybe I shouldn’t have signed. It’s just that I’m so used to playing for a winning team, and coming here, well, let’s just say it was different.

“It wasn’t so much that we just were having a bad season, it’s that I’d see all of the young guys we were playing. I’d look at our bench, and see guys who are all making the minimum salary, and say, ‘Wow.’

Advertisement

“Thank, God, that’s changed. We’re headed in the right direction. We’ve shown we can compete in this division, and if add a few players here and there, I know this team can win.

“You can say what you want about the money, but nobody wants to play for a loser.”

The Padres (73-70), whose victory was their ninth in the past 11 games, firmly believe they will contend next season. Their starting pitching has proven to be solid. And Andy Benes (13-10), who won his ninth consecutive decision--the longest winning streak of any National League pitcher this season--has been nothing less than unbelievable.

Benes, who once was 4-10 this season, has a 0.77 ERA over his past six starts, lowering his ERA to 3.11. The only key mistake he made during the game was allowing a fifth-inning triple to Matt Williams, who scored on Kevin Bass’s grounder. Benes yielded four hits in seven innings, and Mike Maddux pitched a perfect two innings for his fourth save of the season.

Advertisement

“He’s got good stuff,” Giant first baseman Will Clark said of Benes, “and as soon as he harnessed everything, he broke out of the pack. He’s focused on the mound now. Before, if you stayed close, he’d make a mistake, and that would cost him the game.”

The Padres were hardly overpowering at the plate, collecting only five hits off rookie Gil Heredia and Don Robinson, but still had no problem putting away the Giants. The Padres scored two runs in the fourth inning on RBIs by McGriff and Benito Santiago, and Darrin Jackson hit an opposite-field homer to right in the sixth. It was Jackson’s 18th homer of the season, 12 more than his previous career high.

“I’m not going to say I thought I could hit this many homers,” Jackson said, “but then again, I didn’t think I’d play this much, either. It’s just a thing where you have to believe in yourself, and I always have.

“If you don’t believe in yourself, you’re going to have doubts in your mind. I’m very confident, not cocky, and there’s a big difference.”

Advertisement

Padre leadoff hitter Bip Roberts, who hiked his batting average to .286, also helped ignite the offense by leading off two innings with singles. Most important, Roberts said, he was able to loosen an adhesion in his left knee, which should allow him to run full speed.

“It’s a good feeling knowing I should be able to hit against right-handers again,” Roberts said, who’s coming off surgery on his left knee. “It’s nice knowing I’ll be healthy enough to play the rest of this season.

“But when this season is over, this one is going in the garbage.”

It’s too late for the Padres to make a run for the National League West title. They are 8 1/2 games out with only 21 games remaining. However, they believe they’re only a player or two shy of contending in 1992.

Advertisement

The Padre management has vowed to acquire a player in the off-season to bat behind McGriff, perhaps a free agent such as Danny Tartabull or Bobby Bonilla. If they do, McGriff says, the Padres will be much improved.

In a season in which McGriff has had little protection in the lineup, the Padres to a man believe he is their most valuable player, batting .279 with 27 homers and 92 RBIs.

He’s put up the numbers despite being walked 95 times, second-highest total in the league. Of the 55 intentional walks issued to the Padres, McGriff has been put on base 22 times.

“It’s really amazing what he’s done for us,” said Merv Rettenmund, Padre batting coach. “They haven’t given him anything to hit all year. The only fastballs he’s seeing are high and tight, and the breaking balls are all on the outside part of the plate. What they’ve done is force Fred to open his stance.

Advertisement

“Believe me, the sacrifices he has made for this team are incredible. Every one of his homers and every one of his RBIs are deserved. There’s not a cheap one in the bunch.”

McGriff, who arrived with shortstop Tony Fernandez from Toronto in the celebrated winter-meetings trade for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar, indeed has been everything the Padres imagined. He has power. He hits for average. He’s one of the top defensive first basemen in the league. And his demeanor has made him one of the most popular players in the clubhouse.

“What people don’t realize about Fred,” said Atlanta third base coach Jimy Williams, his former manager in Toronto, “is what a quality person he is. I tell you they don’t make them like him, anymore. Forget his talent, he’s one of the finest people I’ve ever been associated with.

“When people ask if I’d like to have my sons emulate anyone, I always say, ‘Yes, Fred McGriff.’ I don’t care if they end up sweeping floors, selling cars, or teaching school, I wouldn’t be happier if they wound up to be like Fred McGriff, the person.”

Advertisement

Nothing in McGriff’s disposition, however, revealed the frustrations he endured this season. When you come from a team that over the past few years has featured George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby and Kelly Gruber, and suddenly are asked to carry the offensive load by yourself, the stress can be overwhelming.

“It’s been a long, tough season,” McGriff said. “I can’t even describe how tough it’s been.

“I struggled so bad in spring training, and then coming to a new team, I had to prove to people I could play. Then, signing the new contract, I knew if I didn’t hit people would be saying how I didn’t have the incentive to play.

“I’ve survived it all right, better than I thought, but I can’t wait until this season is over.

Advertisement

“Hopefully, when I see what we’ve done this winter, I won’t be able to wait to start next year.”


Advertisement
Advertisement