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Why classy slugger Fred McGriff deserved Hall of Fame nod

Fred McGriff slugged his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His well-deserved election shows that sometimes good guys still get their due.

Fred McGriff was already affectionately known as “Crime Dog” when he arrived in Atlanta on July 18, 1993.

His famous nickname came from ESPN’s Chris Berman, who named him after “McGruff the Crime Dog,” the animated bloodhound who protected neighborhoods by “taking a bite out of crime.”

McGriff was traded from San Diego to Atlanta to protect young sluggers Ron Gant and David Justice and add a bit more bite to the Braves lineup.

He wasted no time filling that role, hitting a home run in his Braves debut in a game delayed by two hours when the press box at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium caught on fire. In 68 games in Atlanta, he slugged 19 home runs and drove in 55 runs to lead the Braves to their third straight NL West championship.

1994 Topps Gold Fred McGriff card.

1994 Topps Gold Fred McGriff card.

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On Sept. 2 that year, McGriff strolled to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning of a crucial game against San Francisco and calmy stroked a single to center to drive in the final run in a 5-3 win. Batting cleanup, he was 2-for-3 with an RBI, a run scored and a walk.

With Barry Bonds lurking in the opposing dugout, McGriff, like McGruff, protected his turf and helped his team secure another key victory.

I was covering the game that night for a North Carolina newspaper in the heart of Braves Country and knew I needed to talk to McGriff. He had already slugged 246 career home runs and at age 30 had helped solidify a Braves lineup that was going to be a contender for a while.

With a crowd of reporters gathered around his locker, the unassuming, soft-spoken McGriff was as accommodating as always. Unlike the slugger in the opposing clubhouse, he was friendly, polite and a pleasure to talk to. He was happy to be in Atlanta, he said, enjoyed mentoring the team’s young players and prophetically predicted the Braves would soon win a World Series.

Two years later, he helped fulfill that prediction, launching a memorable home run off Orel Hershiser in Game 1 of the 1995 World Series to lead Atlanta to its first championship.

1995 Donruss Fred McGriff card.

1995 Donruss Fred McGriff card.

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On Dec. 4, McGriff finally received his due, being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was an unanimous choice by the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee, which ironically included Hall of Famer and former Braves teammate Greg Maddux.

McGriff’s career numbers — 493 home runs, 1,550 RBI — stack up against many Hall of Fame sluggers. He’s one of just four players in MLB history to lead both leagues in home runs and his 52.6 WAR is higher than Orlando Cepeda, Jim Rice and Ted Simmons.

A five-time all-star, McGriff swatted 20 home runs in his first full season with the Toronto Blue Jays and never slowed down, hitting 30 or more in each of the next seven seasons. He hit 30 or more dingers 10 times, including 30 at age 38 for the Cubs.

As a longtime Braves fan, it was nice seeing McGriff join Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Chipper Jones in the Hall of Fame. McGriff was elected not just because of his impressive stats but because of the way he carried himself and played the game.

“He was a great teammate that played the game right and showed up every day to play,” Smoltz told MLB.com.

1995 Fleer Fred McGriff card.

1995 Fleer Fred McGriff card.

The well-respected “Crime Dog” was elected to the Hall of Fame by a committee of his peers, a committee that, ironically, passed over Bonds, a controversial figure that did not play the game the right away. Crime may not pay, but McGriff’s election was a good sign that being a good guy and playing the game the right way still matters.

Finishing just behind McGriff in committee voting was another well-respected Braves star known for his big bat and classy demeanor. Hopefully one day, Dale Murphy will join him in Cooperstown.

Jeff Owens is the editor of SCD and sportscollectorsdigest.com. You can reach him at jowens@aimmedia.com or on Twitter at @jeffowens_jeff.