McGriff’s perseverance illustrated in Minors
Fred McGriff was a model of consistency through 19 seasons in the Majors, but his Minor League tenure could not be described the same way. McGriff spent six seasons in the Yankees and Blue Jays’ farm systems, enduring injuries, platoon competitions, struggles at the plate and a trade before reaching
Fred McGriff was a model of consistency through 19 seasons in the Majors, but his Minor League tenure could not be described the same way.
McGriff spent six seasons in the Yankees and Blue Jays’ farm systems, enduring injuries, platoon competitions, struggles at the plate and a trade before reaching The Show. He finally cracked the Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster in 1987 and then went 16 years before returning to the Minors -- at that point, with nothing left to prove.
The defining characteristic of his baseball journey was his perseverance, which he displayed often during his Minor League career. This past winter, the 59-year-old was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame by the Contemporary Era Baseball Committee.
“When I first played that one day in the big leagues, [the Hall of Fame] was my goal,” McGriff told reporters after receiving his Hall of Fame jersey and cap at the Winter Meetings in San Diego last December. “It's time to just enjoy myself. As you know, this ain't my Tom Emanski hat, but this is a whole lot better.”
The magnitude of McGriff’s Major League exploits became as well-known as those baseball skills infomercials during his Hall of Fame candidacy. In his final year on the BBWAA ballot in 2019, McGriff received 39.8 percent of the total vote. Four years later, the entire 16-member committee -- made up of Hall of Fame players and current team executives -- agreed that McGriff belonged in Cooperstown.
But long before the “Crime Dog” learned he’d be a Hall of Famer or the first Tom Emanski commercial hit the airwaves, the first hurdle of his baseball life was in high school.
Congratulations to newly-minted Baseball Hall-of-Famer Fred McGriff, who played for the Syracuse Chiefs from 1984-86! He won the International League pennant with the Chiefs in 1985 & was inducted into the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame in 2007. Let's hear it for the Crime Dog 👏 pic.twitter.com/3QdMwPoA1b— Syracuse Mets (@SyracuseMets) December 5, 2022
McGriff was raised in the shadow of Al Lopez Field in Tampa -- then the Reds’ Spring Training home. He was a skinny kid that could barely hit the ball out of the infield when he got to Jefferson High School. Pop Cuesta, who coached at Jefferson for 43 years, cut McGriff from the team his sophomore year, advising him to continue playing in a local Little League before giving it another shot.
“Once I got cut, I could have just called it a day,” McGriff told Rays radio broadcaster Neil Solondz during the Winter Meetings. “But I said, 'No.'”
McGriff was a legitimate prospect upon his return. He hit a notably long homer off Dwight Gooden -- then a prospect at a rival school -- during his junior season and set school records that would eventually be broken by fellow Jefferson alumnus, Tino Martinez.
McGriff earned scholarship offers and was drafted by the Yankees in the ninth round in 1981. His father, Earl, was told that the chances of a ninth-rounder cracking the Majors were “slim and none.” His parents urged him to attend college, but McGriff took a chance on himself and signed with New York for a $20,000 bonus.
McGriff had a forgettable first season in the Gulf Coast League. He finished with a .148 average and .428 OPS, collecting only two extra-base hits -- both doubles -- in 94 plate appearances. Those “slim and none” odds thinned out even further, so McGriff sought extra at-bats in winter ball in Puerto Rico, where he met Emanski, the director of a company that made instructional baseball videos.
"He slowed [my swing] down and broke it down on video,” McGriff told ESPN in 2003. “I learned a lot about hitting from it."
Whatever he and Emanski saw seemed to help. McGriff bounced back to slash .272/.413/.456 in 1982 while managing to tap into his power, bashing nine homers with 11 doubles and 41 RBIs over 62 games.
“When I was young, it's all about making adjustments,” McGriff said. “Just having to keep developing and working on my game and trying different stuff … the Minors were huge for me.”
As McGriff got on track, he ran into a first baseman logjam in the Yankees’ pipeline and was dealt to Toronto at the Winter Meetings that year.
“To have an opportunity to get traded to the Blue Jays then, [it gives] you a lot of hope,” McGriff said.
In terms of future production, the trade from New York to Toronto -- the first of three trades in his career -- became one of the most lopsided in baseball history. But before he could make it such, McGriff still had quite a lot of work to do in the Minors.
He experienced a power breakout in the South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues in 1983. Still just a teenager, McGriff bashed 28 homers and drove in 83 runs with Kinston and Florence. His power potential made him an exciting prospect, especially for the Blue Jays, whose home ballpark was extremely inviting for a lefty hitter with some pop.
The following season with Double-A Knoxville and Triple-A Syracuse, McGriff further proved his home run-hitting prowess, belting 22 long balls -- 13 of which came with Syracuse, who played in MacArthur Stadium, which, unlike Exhibition Stadium, was no friend to power hitters.
“Center field was huge,” McGriff recalled. “Probably 434 feet back then.”
Hall of Famer Fred McGriff shown in his days with the Syracuse Chiefs (Photo-Post-Standard Archive) pic.twitter.com/mpkwOG6DXg— Brent Axe (@BrentAxeMedia) December 5, 2022
While combining for 50 homers over his first two seasons in the Blue Jays’ system, McGriff also whiffed 291 times. Baseball America ranked him as Toronto’s No. 1 prospect before the 1985 season with some apprehension. McGriff turned to winter ball to sort out his issues in 1984, this time in the Dominican Republic.
“It was the best thing I ever did because I got a chance to get extra at-bats,” said McGriff, who played with three different clubs from 1984 until the 1986-87 season. “It's like the World Series for folks. And if you don't perform well, they’re like, ‘Hey, Griff! Malo, malo, malo.’ That gets you.”
In 1985, McGriff sustained a stress fracture in his right ankle and was limited to just 51 games with Syracuse, where he batted a paltry .227 with five homers and a .711 OPS.
Similar to his experience with the Yankees, McGriff was somewhat blocked at first base at the big league level, this time by Willie Upshaw, who sustained an injury in May 1986, leading to McGriff’s first call to the Majors. But he had just five at-bats during his first stay in the Majors before returning to Syracuse for the rest of the season. Over 133 games with the Chiefs that year, McGriff slashed .259/.369/.447 with 19 homers, 23 doubles and 74 RBIs.
“I was in a tough situation,” McGriff said. “So what are you going to do?”
Once again, McGriff persevered, and that 1986 season would be his last in the Minors for a very long time.
An entire baseball life passed by before he returned to the Minors in June 2003. Having sustained injuries to his knee, hip and groin while playing with the Dodgers, McGriff played three rehab contests, two in the Gulf Coast League and one with the Vero Beach Dodgers of the Florida State League.
McGriff entered the 2004 season just nine homers shy of 500 for his career, unwittingly carrying the résumé of a Hall of Famer. He signed a Minor League deal with Tampa Bay and took on one more fight to extend his career in his hometown and get to 500 homers.
He played just seven games with Triple-A Durham before cracking the big league roster and hit just two homers before being released two months later. After 24 years in the professional ranks, he announced his retirement during Spring Training in 2005.
McGriff will be joined by Scott Rolen as Cooperstown’s Class of 2023 at this summer’s Hall of Fame induction. In the years since McGriff’s name fell off the BBWAA ballot in 2019, there was some campaigning on his behalf. The lobbying was just one last fight in a baseball life full of them. And by overcoming those seemingly insurmountable odds, he put the finishing touches on a career that began the same way.
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.