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Give Us a SMILE, Hit It a MILE
Ralph Wiley
May 08, 1989
Fred McGriff of the Toronto Blue Jays is Mr. Nice Guy—until he punishes opposing pitchers with his tape-measure home runs
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May 08, 1989

Give Us A Smile, Hit It A Mile

Fred McGriff of the Toronto Blue Jays is Mr. Nice Guy—until he punishes opposing pitchers with his tape-measure home runs

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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."

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