Fred McGriff adjusts the Windsor knot in his tie, sniffs the red rose in his lapel and flashes his brilliant smile as the elevator doors open to reveal a crowd dressed for cocktails in the Time-Out Lounge at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. McGriff steps from the elevator, and the members and friends of the 65 Roses Sports Club happily greet him. McGriff is celebrity cochairman of the club's luncheon to raise money for cystic fibrosis research.
The gathering on this April afternoon will kick off a program through which an individual or a corporation can pledge any amount, from $10 up, to the charity for each home run hit by a Blue Jay. McGriff is well suited to this particular charity event. Last year he had 34 home runs, second in the American League to the Oakland Athletics' Jose Canseco, who had 42. This season McGriff has hit seven homers through Sunday, one less than Kansas City outfielder Bo Jackson, who leads the major leagues.
McGriff is a 25-year-old first baseman whose slugging prowess has been compared with that of such celebrated ball-crushers as Frank Howard, Willie McCovey, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Darryl Strawberry. At least 15 Blue Jays say McGriff has hit a baseball farther than they have ever seen one hit—and they're not all talking about the same home run. Yet with his ever-ready smile, easy accessibility and near naivetè regarding his talents. McGriff comes on like a .230-hitting Triple A lifer who's up for a cup of coffee. Mostly, people say, he's a good guy.
"You know what I always dreamed?" says McGriff as he circulates among the luncheon guests. "I dreamed of being a ballplayer. I guess all kids dream that, don't they? But you know, I dreamed that dream even when I was awake. Now when I hit some of my longest home runs. I don't even swing hard. How I do it, I don't know. But baseball will humble you real quick. I stay prepared for that."
Leo Van Wyk, one of the Blue Jays' more knowledgeable 10-year-old fans, is a spokesman for the cystic fibrosis foundation and a victim of the disease. Now, though, he's just a kid. "'Fred McGriff!" says Leo, mouth agape. McGriff signs an autograph for Leo and later accepts a lapel pin from him as the boy goes to the podium. Leo gives a polished presentation on the need for research, a speech that would humble the most grizzled CEO. It's McGriff's turn to gape.
That evening, Texas Rangers righthander Kevin Brown fires a knee-high 90-mph sinker that's running away from the lefthanded-hitting McGriff. He would love to hit one out for Leo, but if he tries to pull the pitch, he'll bounce out to shortstop. McGriff keeps his hands back, stays on the ball with his eyes, whips his 32½-ounce bat through the zone and neatly lines the good pitch into the leftfield corner for a run-scoring double. It would have been nice to mash one for the kid, but as Mike Schmidt has said, "The pitchers today aren't going to let you be Babe Ruth."
Nobody's comparing McGriff with the Babe, at least not yet. However, Toronto's lefthanded ace, Jimmy Key, has suggested that McGriff could hit 50 home runs this year. "He might," says Key. "I don't think he will, but he might. I don't know if anybody will ever hit 50 in a season again. Pitching's different—better, deeper. But Fred's a hitter, too." Indeed, at week's end McGriff was batting .315, with 17 RBIs and 14 walks.
"Fred had 80 walks last year," says Blue Jay outfielder Lloyd Moseby. "He has a good eye and power, a combination you don't see too often anymore. And the power. You know that highlight reel that shows the Willie Mays catch and then switches to the fan, who grabs his head with his hands in amazement? Fred McGriff does that to you when he hits a home run. Taking nothing away from Canseco and [Mark] McGwire, but everybody knows they lift weights. I wish I could get Freddie to lift weights. The only things he lifts are candy bars."
No matter that the 6'3", 215-pound McGriff hasn't fallen in love with the bench press. On April 24 he smote a Dave Stewart offering, driving it like a nail through the heavy night air and into the rightfield seats of Oakland Alameda County Coliseum for homer No. 5. Says Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, "When he comes up, we hold our breath."
With only 289 major league games under his belt and a mere 61 home runs, McGriff already has a cult following. In a spring training game on March 15, 1985, against the Minnesota Twins in Orlando, he hit a ball that soared out of Tinker Field and bounced off a tower at the adjacent Florida Citrus Bowl. Afterward, Bobby Cox, the Jays' manager at the time and now the general manager of the Atlanta Braves, said, "I played with Mantle in his last years. I saw him hit a few, and I saw Frank Howard hit a few. But I've got to say, I never saw a ball like the one this kid hit. It was still going up when it hit the tower."
On June 8, 1987, during his first full major league season, McGriff began a tradition of Yankee-bashing—four of his seven homers this year have come against New York—by clocking a Rick Rhoden fastball into the third deck of Yankee Stadium. The ball hit a concrete runway, caromed like a pinball and came to rest in the 13th row, an estimated 480 feet from home plate; it was thought at the time to be the longest ball hit in Yankee Stadium since the '76 renovation. "I've never seen anything like that," said Toronto first baseman Willie Upshaw, "and I doubt whether I'll ever see anything like that again."
"I'm just as surprised as anybody when the ball jumps off my bat," says McGriff. "But I can't get too aggressive. I'd be happy to get 25 homers every year. You know how tough that is to do? I look at Darryl Strawberry, whom I admire. He's got a perfect swing—perfect. But he hits 39 homers and people don't think that's enough. Look, it's not like I don't know what I'm doing, like I'm not proud of what I'm doing. But I just let it come. I don't anticipate."
Tampa, Fla., has become renowned as a breeding ground for future major leaguers. But the Tampa where McGriff spent his childhood is unlike the one that produced Dwight Gooden, Floyd Youmans and Gary Sheffield. McGriff was born and raised in West Tampa, five miles from Belmont Heights, where the others played ball amid graffiti and broken glass. McGriff lived four blocks from Al Lopez Field, the former spring home of the Cincinnati Reds. "I can't remember going to my first game," says McGriff. "I mean, I was always at a baseball game. I lived at ball games. I always loved the game."
"That's true," says McGriff's mother, Eliza, who has been a teacher at Robles Elementary for 20 years. "He'd come home with all these cracked bats and scarred-up baseballs. They were like jewels to him."
Fred, his older brothers, Michael and Dexter, and his older sisters, Sandra and Terrie, were similarly treated, loved and cared for by their parents. "We didn't spoil them, and we didn't neglect them," says their father, Earl, the owner-operator of Earl's TV Repair in Tampa. "Freddie's well adjusted. They all are. We let our children produce at their own speed. We didn't push them. We didn't hold them back. There are no bad children, only bad parents."
"They let me do what I wanted to do, within reason," says McGriff. "And when I wanted to play ball, they drove me to the diamonds."
Play ball he did, both in Little League and at Jefferson High. "He was a fine pitcher when he was young," says Earl. "They called him Fabulous Freddie." Of course, Freddie's teams were not to be compared with the Belmont Heights teams, which were led by Gooden. But for the record, one afternoon when McGriff was 17, he homered far and deep against young Dwight.
In 1981, after he had completed his senior year in high school, McGriff was drafted in the ninth round by the Yankees. Eliza hoped that getting picked so low would steer him toward college. A recruiter from Tuskegee University was one of many who offered McGriff a baseball scholarship. "The recruiter explained everything, told Freddie all he had to do was sign," says Eliza. "Freddie said, 'I'll think about it.' He's calm, never lets anything get to him. I was the one upset. I said, 'Freddie, this is your education!' He said, 'Mom, I'm going to play pro." All we could do was go along with the program."
Freddie smiles and says, "Life's a gamble."
"I was let down by his decision," says Earl. "A ninth-round draft choice: I didn't know if Freddie knew what he was getting into. I went down to Bradenton [Fla.] to that rookie league, and I asked a member of the Yankee organization what kind of chance Freddie had. He told me, 'Slim and none.' But Freddie told me, 'Don't worry. I'll make it.' Then one day he was at home and we were playing around with a tennis ball and a bat. I pitched him that tennis ball, and he hit it out of our yard, over the next yard, and the next yard. We never found that tennis ball. A tennis ball! I said. Well, O.K."
The Yankees did not, however. On Dec. 9, 1982, New York general manager Bill Bergesch traded outfielder Dave Collins, pitcher Mike Morgan and a kid named McGriff to Toronto for relief pitcher Dale Murray and minor league outfielder Tom Dodd. Nine months earlier, during spring training, Toronto general manager Pat Gillick had asked Epy Guerrero, the Jays' highly successful director of Latin American scouting, if he had seen any good young players on other clubs. Guerrero mentioned McGriff. Gillick and Guerrero went to see him play a rookie league game in Bradenton when McGriff hit a ball that went over the rightfield fence and beyond a runway to the top of a clubhouse roof. The Yankees apparently didn't pay attention that day, and with each ball that McGriff blasts out of Yankee Stadium. New York's regret only deepens. In fact, last winter there was some talk of trading Don Mattingly to the Blue Jays—and the key player on the other side of the deal was a kid named McGriff.
Don't expect the Jays to lend much of an ear to the Yankees or anyone else. Last year, McGriff led all American League first basemen in fielding percentage. And on a team that has been plagued by injuries, he has been a stalwart. Aside from fiat arches—he wears an orthopedic lift in his spikes—McGriff is a veritable picture of health. Moreover, his easygoing attitude has been a welcome relief in Toronto, where the Jays are often seen as a covey of brooding talent. Says Earl, "It's gratifying when people say they've never met a finer young man than your son. You don't forget that."
Fred and and his wife, Veronica, who met at a Burger King in Tampa (just like Doc and Monica Gooden) and were married last October, live in a quiet condominium complex in downtown Toronto. Only a few blocks away, the Toronto SkyDome, a $486 million structure with a retractable roof, will make its debut as the Blue Jays' park on June 5. Exhibition Stadium will be relegated to a place of memories, a place where McGriff once hit a ball off Scott May of Texas over the rightfield fence and into the end zone of the Toronto Argonauts' field—473 feet on the fly.
But McGriff may find Toronto's latest architectural wonder a more fitting showcase for his talents. Although it is not the House That McGriff Built, the SkyDome certainly seems to have been crafted to his specifications—330 feet down both lines, with, presumably, the interior air that has made home run palaces of the domes in Minneapolis and Seattle. "Still air. Guess I might hit one or two out," he says with that smile. "If I'm lucky."