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Reserved as He Is Resolved : Baseball: Fueled by a quiet determination, Fred McGriff has become one of the game's most feared power hitters. The Padres hope he can handle the pressure of a big contract.

April 07, 1991|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I used to get all (the Reds') autographs and broken bats," McGriff said. "I eventually threw them all away. Big mistake. You could make a lot of money with those things now."

When McGriff wasn't watching baseball, he was playing baseball, usually with his best friend, Barry Robinson. In the mornings, they played home-run derby. In the afternoons, they played baseball in the park. And at night, they quizzed each other on baseball trivia.

"I'm telling you, Fred didn't care about anything else," said Robinson, who now works in the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Sheriff's office. "The rest of us would go out and play football or soccer, but Fred never wanted to. It was always baseball. The only time he'd play other sports with us was just to get in shape for baseball.

"The thing about it was that Fred wasn't very good. I mean, he was average at best."

McGriff's mediocrity in Little League only made him more determined. He wanted to be just as good as Al Pardo and the others on his team who eventually were drafted by the pros. And he always dreamed one day of hitting a fastball off that 13-year-old kid who lived across town. Dwight Gooden was his name.

When he became a sophomore, he tried out for the high school team at Jefferson. Emeterio Cuesta, the man they call 'Pop,' told him to go back to Little League for another year.

"He was just this little fella, real frail and skinny, and he wore glasses," Cuesta said. "I mean, he certainly wasn't the same Fred McGriff you see now. It wasn't until his senior year that he started opening some people's eyes."

He grew to almost his current height of 6-foot-3, weighed 190 pounds and began to display the home run swing pitchers have learned to fear. He even hit a homer his senior year off Gooden, a ball that Gooden claims traveled at least 500 feet.

"I swear, that's still one of the longest home runs I've ever given up," Gooden said.

Said Robinson: "It was really a line drive that went over the fence. It might have gone 400 feet, maybe. But the thing about it was that it was so rare to even hit the ball off Dwight, it got exaggerated."

McGriff's homer, though, was witnessed by about a dozen scouts, including the Yankees' Gust Poulas, who were on hand to watch Gooden. All of a sudden, McGriff was being noticed. Teams became curious.

"The Yankees were the ones who first realized his potential," Cuesta said. "They talked all the time to me about Fred. They used to say, 'Now don't tell anybody about Fred. It'll be our secret.' "

A few months later, in June, 1981, the New York Yankees selected Frederick Stanley McGriff with their ninth-round draft pick, the 223rd selection overall. McGriff wanted to sign that day. His parents wanted him to attend college.

"We said, 'Freddie, at least listen to some of the scholarship offers,' " Eliza McGriff said. "Just go to school, and then you could decide if you want to play baseball later."

But then came the letters from Yankee chairman George Steinbrenner. Then came the repeated phone calls. Then came the $20,000 offer.

"He said, 'Mom, I want to play professional baseball, I don't want to do anything else,' " Eliza McGriff said, " 'so I might as well start now.'

"My husband and I looked at each other, and said, 'I hope Freddie knows what he's doing.' "

Once McGriff started playing, he wasn't so sure he made the right move. He batted .148 without a homer in his rookie season at Bradenton, and the Yankees left him in the Gulf Coast League for another year. He improved his second year, hitting .272 with nine homers, but he wondered about his future.

John Mayberry was playing first base for the Yankees. Steve Balboni was their triple-A first baseman. And some hotshot prospect named Don Mattingly was above him in double-A.

Yet, Pat Gillick, Toronto Blue Jays general manager, was tipped by scout Epy Guerrero that McGriff might be a prospect. So during the 1982 winter meetings, when Gillick was in the process of trading for outfielder Dave Collins and pitcher Mike Morgan of the Yankees, he remembered and asked for McGriff to be included. There was little resistance. The Yankees were getting the pitcher they wanted, Dale Murray, and a catcher, Tom Dodd.

It took another four years, including 2 1/2 at triple-A Syracuse, for McGriff to emerge. But once he made the Blue Jays' big-league team in 1987, there was little doubt he was going to be a star. He was the one responsible for the Blue Jays dumping Willie Upshaw. He was the reason the Blue Jays let Cecil Fielder go to Japan. He's why the Yankees have made only one trade with Toronto since, after making four trades with them the previous 13 months.

"We made some deals over the years that didn't turn out," Steinbrenner now says, "but I'm not sure if there was a worse one than that."

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