Timing is everything. Just ask Fred McGriff, a newly elected member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1994, McGriff was having an MVP season for the Atlanta Braves. By mid-August the left-handed-hitting first baseman had already belted 34 home runs, 25 doubles, racked up 94 RBI and was batting .318. Then on Aug. 12, 1994 major league baseball had a work stoppage that resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the season, the postseason, and the beginning of the 1995 campaign.
For McGriff, the work stoppage couldn’t have come at a worse time. In the 10 games leading up to the strike, the 6-foot-3 slugger batted .421 with seven round-trippers. Fast-forward to July 15, 2004: That’s when McGriff played his last major league game and got his last at-bat. He retired with 493 homers in his 19-year major league career (1986–2004), just seven long balls shy of 500 dingers.
In the not-so-distant past, reaching the 500-home-run plateau meant getting into Cooperstown was a foregone conclusion. But McGriff didn’t tally 500 homers. He only had 493, and when his name first came up on the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) Hall of Fame ballot in 2010, McGriff garnered only 21.5 percent of the votes. That was far short of the 75 percent needed to be elected. He stayed on the BBWAA ballot for 10 years until his eligibility ran out in 2019. He never got more than 38.8 percent of the baseball writers to vote for him.
McGriff was finally elected to the Hall of Fame in December by the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee. He will be inducted on July 23. He will be joined by seven-time All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen, who was elected Tuesday by the baseball writers.
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Would McGriff have gotten 500 home runs if the baseball strike in 1994–1995 hadn’t happened? Consider that the strike cost the red-hot-hitting McGriff 48 games in 1994. The strike did not end until April 2, 1995. Spring training got off to a late start and the 1995 season was shortened by 18 games to compensate for the late start. McGriff had another solid season in 1995, notching 27 homers in that strike-shortened season.
All together, the affable McGriff lost 66 games to the strike.
“Yes, I do think back on that season from time to time because I was having such an outstanding season and then the strike came. But what can you do? It’s not something I had control over. So I always say you just keep going forward, just keep looking ahead,” the 59-year-old McGriff said.
Most baseball experts figure that at the rate he was going in those two seasons, McGriff would have collected the seven home runs he needed to eventually eclipse the magic 500-homer mark.
But Hall of Fame credentials are not based on projections, and the hard numbers showed that the first baseman only had 493 long balls. Until this past December, many baseball fans felt those seven home runs left McGriff on the outside looking in when it came to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As an aside, there was another pretty good first baseman by the name of Lou Gehrig who also finished his career with 493 home runs and the New York Yankee legend made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
McGriff was constantly underrated when it came to evaluating his overall career and many people couldn’t understand why one of baseball’s most consistent players did not have a plaque in Cooperstown. That omission was considered an injustice, especially for a player who got his nickname from an intrepid crime fighter.
McGriff’s moniker “Crime Dog” came from how close his last name sounded to the name of the popular animated bloodhound McGruff, used by the Ad Council and the National Crime Prevention Council to increase awareness of crime prevention and personal safety in the United States.
In December 2022, McGriff’s career got a second look from the Baseball Hall of Fame. This time the shrine’s Contemporary Baseball Era Committee was considering the five-time All-Star. That ballot was loaded with stars like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling. Again, 75 percent of the vote was needed to be elected, but by now the Tampa native’s career was being viewed in a different light.
It wasn’t about not slamming 500 or more home runs; instead, the committee looked at the consistent play that it took to get 493 home runs and the impact McGriff had on all six teams he played with. The Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Chicago Cubs, and the L.A. Dodgers all benefited from having McGriff’s bat in their lineup and the fierce competitor on their team.
“Crime Dog” hit 30 or more homers in a season 10 times with five different teams, had more than 100 RBI in eight seasons, hit over .300 six times, and batted .303 in 10 postseason series. He owns a World Series ring from 1995, when he propelled the Braves to a World Championship and has three Silver Slugger Awards (1989, 1992, 1993).
McGriff was named to the National League All-Star team while with the Braves in 1994. The All-Star Game was played in Pittsburgh on July 12 before the strike started. The National League was trailing 7–5 in the bottom of the ninth inning and McGriff was sent up to pinch-hit. With the Expos’ Marquis Grissom on first and two men out, McGriff slammed a Lee Smith splitter over the center-field wall to tie the game. The game went into extra innings and the National League won, 8-7, in the bottom of the 10th. McGriff was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
The Contemporary Baseball Era Committee elected McGriff to the Hall of Fame unanimously. He was the only player on the committee’s ballot elected for the class of 2023.
To say that “Crime Dog” was thrilled with the news that he had finally made it to Cooperstown would be an understatement.
“What an honor! I finally did it. I got there and it’s beautiful,” McGriff, a lifetime .284 hitter, said. “I’ve been totally blessed my whole life and I continue to be blessed.”
Being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame means McGriff won’t have to answer a persistent question he kept getting every time he went to a charity event or made public appearances.
“Ex-players and fans would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Fred you had a great career. Why aren’t you in the Hall of Fame?’ What can you say to that? You thank people for thinking of you in that way, but I had no control over who got into the Hall of Fame,” he said.
Truth be told, there was a time when a very young Fred McGriff thought it would be great if he could just play a single game in the major leagues. Well, he ended up playing 2,460 big-league games and collecting 2,490 hits, 1,550 RBI and 441 doubles. All this from a guy who, as a teenager, was cut from his high school baseball team.
“When you get cut from your high school team, playing just one game in the major leagues exceeds all expectations,” he said with a wide grin.
McGriff grew up in Tampa, a great place for a youngster who spent a lot of his time on the baseball diamond. He played Little League baseball and in 10th grade tried out for his Jefferson High School baseball team. But because he was undersized and not too strong, the sophomore couldn’t get any pop on the ball when he hit it. So McGriff endured his first disappointment in a sport he loved: He was cut from the team.
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But determined to make the team as a junior, McGriff worked out for nearly a year. When he tried out for the team as an 11th grader, he made the squad.
In the spring of 1981, Jefferson High played nearby Hillsborough High. McGriff was a senior and scouts packed the stands — but not to see him. They had come to see a young Hillsborough pitcher by the name of Dwight Gooden.
McGriff slammed a long home run against the pitching phenom and scouts ran to the pay phones to report what they had just seen. Next thing he knew, McGriff was drafted by the New York Yankees in the ninth round of the 1981 spring amateur draft.
In the summer of 1981, right after he graduated from high school, the 17-year-old prospect was playing for the Yankees’ Rookie team in the Gulf Coast League, but he batted a disappointing .148. A friend told McGriff about Tom Emanski, a private baseball coach who helped players perfect their swings. The coach also ran a baseball school for youngsters in Orlando. During the offseason McGriff lived in Tampa, only about an hour and 15 minutes from Orlando. So McGriff figured, “Why not give Emanski a try?” he recalled.
Emanski tutored McGriff over the winter of 1981–1982 and the two developed a friendship. The 1982 season found McGriff back in the Gulf Coast League, but this time he batted .272 with a league-leading nine homers and 41 RBI in 62 games.
At the end of the 1982 major league season, the Yankees traded McGriff to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“The Yankees were known for trading their young prospects. For me it was an opportunity. It gave me hope that I would get a chance to play in the big leagues,” McGriff said. “For me it didn’t matter whether it was with this team or that team. I just wanted to play in the big leagues and I thought I would get that chance with Toronto.”
From 1983-86, McGriff diligently worked his way through the Blue Jays’ farm system. In 1984, the up-and-coming star divided his time between the Double-A Knoxville in the Southern League and the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs in the International League. Following the 1984 season, Baseball America ranked McGriff the No. 2 prospect in the entire Blue Jays’ minor league system (behind shortstop Tony Fernandez). He was named the No. 1 Blue Jays’ prospect by the same publication in 1985.
In 1986, while still playing with Triple-A Syracuse, the 22-year-old McGriff got called up to Toronto in mid-May. He only stayed in the majors for three games in 1986, but McGriff managed to get his first major league career base hit during his short tenure with the big club that season.
At the end of spring training in 1987, McGriff received news that he had made it to the big leagues for good. He was on Toronto’s Opening Day roster as a first baseman and designated hitter. He shared playing time at both positions with another promising Blue Jays prospect — Cecil Fielder.
“I played against right-handed pitchers and Cecil played against lefty pitchers and they hit us either seventh or eighth, and that was great. It was a great way to break in,” McGriff said. “Instead of putting us right in the fire, they batted us lower in the lineup and we had a chance to learn how to play the game on the major league level.”
Appearing in 107 games in 1987, McGriff hit 20 homers with 43 RBI and compiled a .247 batting average. Those numbers would improve in 1988 when the Blue Jays made McGriff their full-time first baseman. In 154 games, “Crime Dog” hit .282 with 34 round-trippers and 82 RBI. His 34 home runs was second in the American League to the Oakland A’s Jose Canseco’s league-leading 42.
From 1987-90, McGriff had four solid seasons with the Blue Jays. He hit 125 home runs, knocked in 305 runs and batted a respectable .278 over that four-year span.
In 1989 McGriff won his first Silver Slugger Award and led the American League with 36 home runs. The first baseman hit .300 for the Jays in 1990 with 35 homers. He was establishing himself as one of the game’s elite power hitters.
But after the 1990 season, Toronto got a trade offer for McGriff the team just couldn’t refuse. The Padres wanted McGriff and Toronto shortstop Tony Fernandez in exchange for second baseman Roberto Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter. It was considered a blockbuster trade and both teams benefited from the deal.
“Getting traded is tough. But, for me, it was an honor to play with the Padres,” McGriff said. “They had some great players there — Gaylord Perry, who passed away recently; Benito Santiago; Gary Sheffield; and Tony Gwynn. Who wouldn’t want to be on a team with Tony Gwynn?”
The slick-fielding first baseman was with the Padres from 1991 until mid-July of 1993.
“We had some good teams when I was playing in San Diego, just a great lineup. When I got traded to Atlanta in 1993, the Braves’ players told me they were scared of the Padres,” McGriff recalled. “They were like, ‘Man, you had a good team.’”
McGriff has many great memories of his playing days in San Diego, including getting a chance to watch Gwynn every day.
“He was just awesome and for me to just watch him swing the bat every day, well, what can you say? He was a magician,” McGriff said. “He was so good. He loved the hit-and-run and if he saw the shortstop move over to cover the runner, he’d hit the ball in the hole the shortstop just left open. If the second baseman went to cover the runner, he’d hit the ball in that hole. He was just unbelievable.”
With the Padres, McGriff hit another 84 dingers, batted .281 and had 256 RBI.
In 1992, the slugger made the National League All-Star team and hit 35 home runs to lead the league in round-trippers. By putting up the most home runs in the National League in 1992 and having led the American League in homers in 1989, McGriff became the first player in the 20th century to lead both leagues in home runs.
Though the Padres had a very competitive team in 1993, they had a heavy payroll. In cost-cutting moves, many of the team’s top players were traded mid-season and McGriff was one of them. The Braves needed a hard-hitting first baseman and McGriff fit the bill perfectly. But there’s a funny story that goes along with the trade.
The slugger was traded to Atlanta on July 18, 1993. The Braves were second behind the San Francisco Giants, nine games out of first in the National League West.
“They needed me, but I was injured. My ribs were sore and I felt I wouldn’t be able to play right away,” McGriff remembered. So the new member of the Braves took his time getting to the club.
He flew from San Diego to his home in Tampa to give his ribs a few days to heal. McGriff left Tampa around noon on July 20 and planned on driving to Atlanta for a game with the Braves that night. Since the game was scheduled for 7 p.m., McGriff figured he wouldn’t have enough time to warm up before playing. That would keep him out of the lineup and he’d get another day to rest. Or so he thought.
“I arrive in Atlanta and I go into the locker room and my name is in the lineup,” McGriff said. Not knowing how he was going to be ready by game time, McGriff suddenly heard confusion erupting in the clubhouse. A fire had accidentally broken out in the stadium’s press box. No one was hurt, but the game between the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals had to be delayed several hours. That gave the newest member of the Braves a chance to have Atlanta’s trainers work on his sore ribs and get him ready for the game.
With the Braves down 5–0 in the bottom of sixth, the newest Brave made his presence felt — sore ribs and all. First, with two men on, Braves’ shortstop Jeff Blauser hit a three-run homer. Then Atlanta left fielder Ron Gant singled and McGriff tied the game with a long home run.
“I spent most of my time before the game in the trainers’ room, and then I came out and hit a home run my first night in Atlanta. That’s the kind of stuff you don’t forget,” McGriff said, calling that game one of his most cherished memories with the Braves. More importantly, McGriff wasted no time showing the Braves his ability to get a hit in the clutch — one of the key reasons they traded for him.
The Braves stayed hot for the rest of the 1993 season. With their new first baseman leading the charge, Atlanta challenged the Giants for the division title. After McGriff came to the club in mid-July, the team went on a tear, compiling a 51–17 record in the second half. For his part, McGriff batted .310, with 19 homers and 55 RBI in 68 games.
With McGriff leading the way, the Braves caught the Giants and, with 104 wins, took the division in one of the last great pennant races. “It was awesome,” McGriff said.
The Braves met the Philadelphia Phillies, the NL East winner, in the 1993 National League Champion Series, but lost the best-of-seven series 4 games to 2. Had the Braves won the NLCS, they would have met the Blue Jays in the World Series and would have been in the Fall Classic three years in a row.
The Braves lost the 1991 World Series, 4 games to 3, to the Minnesota Twins. Then, Atlanta faced the Blue Jays in the 1992 Fall Classic and lost 4 games to 2. It was not until 1995 that McGriff and company won the World Series, defeating the Cleveland Indians 4 games to 2.
“The Braves kept coming up a little bit short,” said McGriff, who belted two home runs in the 1995 Fall Classic. “And so the pressure was always on us to get over the hump and win it all. To finally do that in 1995 was just awesome.”
McGriff stayed with the Braves through the 1997 season and batted .293 during his stay there. He made the National League All-Star team three times while with Atlanta (1994–1996).
McGriff found out that you can go home again after the Tampa Bay Rays bought his contract just before their inaugural season in 1998. The first baseman was thrilled to be playing in front of his hometown fans.
McGriff had some solid campaigns for the Rays between 1998 and the middle of the 2001 season. He smashed 32 homers with 104 RBI in 1999 and hit 27 more round-trippers with 106 RBI in 2000. In 2001, he had 19 homers by mid-season when the contending Chicago Cubs came calling. They traded for McGriff on July 27, 2001 in hopes that he would help them attain their long-sought-after World Series title. In addition, the Cubbies wanted a strong cleanup hitter batting behind Sammy Sosa, who was on his way to blasting 64 homers.
McGriff crushed 12 homers for the Cubs after coming over from Tampa Bay and then hit 30 more in the 2002 season for the Wrigley Field faithful. But while Chicago showed promise in 2001, the team did not win their division, finishing third, five games out of first. The Cubs’ hopes of getting to the World Series were dashed yet again.
“That hurt a bit. I wanted to get them their World Series title. Every player wanted to be on the Chicago Cubs team that finally won it all,” McGriff said.
The Cubs had an off year in 2002 and finished fifth in the NL Central. The first baseman played with the Dodgers in 2003 and then finished his career back with the Rays in 2004.
One of his fondest takeaways from his 19-year career is “going out there every day, playing the game like it should be played and being consistent.”
Many of his former teammates thought the humble hit man should have been in the Hall of Fame long ago.
When elected to the Hall in December, McGriff said, “It was a dream come true. From my goal of playing just one game in the majors to this, it’s just a great honor. It’s Crime Dog’s time.”
Throughout his pro career, McGriff stayed in touch with Emanski. He used many of the tips the private hitting and fielding coach had given him and they worked. During the 1991 season, McGriff got a call from Emanski. The coach was producing an instructional video, “Tom Emanski’s Defensive Drills,” and wanted to feature McGriff in a commercial promoting the video.
The Padres were playing in Chicago against the Cubs and Emanski flew to the Windy City from Florida. He picked up McGriff after the game and they went to a Little League field not far from Wrigley Field.
“He gave me a T-shirt and a baseball cap and said, ‘Here, put these on.’ Then he set up a small video camera,” McGriff remembered.
Six years later, Emanski made a deal with ESPN to start running the commercial in 1997. ESPN was the perfect place for the ad to run. The video taught baseball fundamentals and people were looking for a tutorial to help their kids learn the game the right way. And, by the time the ad debuted, McGriff was a big star whose endorsement carried weight.
“More people know me for that ad than for playing major league baseball,” McGriff jokes.
The ad was aired on ESPN for more than 10 years. The network estimates the commercial ran more than 50,000 times, making it one of the longest-running sports ads in TV history. A generation of baseball-playing youngsters grew up with the ad. ESPN once called the 60-second spot the No. 1 athlete commercial of all time.
“Whoever thought the ad would run all that time?” said McGriff, who admits that teammates would good-naturedly kid him about his television commercial. The ad made the video a big success and it sold well.
“I was happy for Tom and I always appreciated what he did for me,” McGriff said.
Emanski was quick to congratulate McGriff, his “prize pupil,” after he was elected to the Hall of Fame. “Long overdue and ’bout time,” Emanski said. Many McGriff fans echoed that sentiment.