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 naiveté 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."