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JIM MURRAY

His Stock in Trade Is Rising

September 12, 1993|JIM MURRAY

Frederick Stanley McGriff, first baseman for the Atlanta Braves, is a pleasant, cheerful young chap with a nice smile he's not afraid to use, an affable mien and an optimistic outlook on life. He shows up for work, never misses batting practice, logs more than 150 games a year. But you look at his record and you wonder what's wrong here. Did he vote communist? Poison bird baths? Set fire to an orphanage? Start the Johnstown Flood? Rob poorboxes?

Maybe he threw firecrackers at little girls?

The problem is, you check his pluses and they're irreproachable, almost unapproachable. He has hit more than 30 home runs for six consecutive seasons. Can I tell you something? Henry Aaron never did that. Neither did Ted Williams. He has driven in more than 100 runs two seasons in a row. He hit a robust .286 last year.

You'd figure he'd be a statue in the outfield some place by now. At least, a fixture with some team. The front office would send him a blank contract each year with instructions to fill in the amount he wanted.

But some archivist is going to look down Fred McGriff's record some day and see where he has been traded around like a hot diamond--or a .220-hitting utility infielder--and figure there are some flaws around here that don't show up in the record book.

There aren't. But the record shows that McGriff was originally the property of the New York Yankees. They traded him away for a 7-11 pitcher and a couple of resident who-dats of the game.

At Toronto, he hit 20, 34, 36 and 35 home runs in consecutive seasons. He batted .300 one year--and they traded him to San Diego. With the Padres, he hit 31 and 35 home runs, and thereby became the only guy since the turn of the century to wind up leading both leagues in home runs in a career. He drove in 106 and 104 runs, he got 105 walks one year and 96 the next. Pitchers respected him.

But the Padres? They traded him to Atlanta.

What, you ask yourself, is going on here? What does this guy have to do to get respected? More to the point, what's wrong with this guy? Must be something. Is he a clubhouse lawyer? Hard to get along with? Off-field peccadilloes?

You don't trade guys with McGriff's numbers. But three teams have. You have to ask yourself what they want in a ballplayer.

It isn't even that old bugaboo--free agency. Or arbitration. McGriff signs up. Then, he honors his signature. No renegotiation. No holdout.

The guy is one of the top stars of the game. His trade to Atlanta is not quite on a par with the celebrated trading of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees, but it's close. It has had the similar effect of turning an already pretty good Atlanta team into what may be a dynasty, a mini-Murderers' Row.

Pity the poor pitcher who must now face Ron Gant, McGriff and David Justice in a row. Each has hit more than 30 homers this season, and together they have driven in more than 275 runs. That's the kind of threat to make a pitcher feel as if he's walking through Central Park at midnight wearing a Rolex.

The Padres might have handed the pennant to Atlanta. They might have handed several pennants to Atlanta.

Because McGriff's off-field behavior is as exemplary as his attitude on it. He's a Lou Gehrig-type of ballplayer. Pencil his name in the lineup and forget about it. First base will be taken care of. So will the cleanup spot in the batting order. The next sound you hear will be balls bouncing off the center-field fence. Or seats.

If you had to think about it, there is one characteristic of McGriff that might raise an eyebrow: He is one of the great power hitters of the game but he doesn't look it. Oh, he's 6 feet 3, 215 pounds, healthy as a Derby colt--but his left hand flies off the bat as he completes his follow-through on his home run swing. He has hit more one-handed home runs than any player since Frank Howard.

It is astonishing to see. You would swear he was fooled on the pitch--except the ball is usually sailing over the wall.

Baseball, to its credit, has ceased to try to correct it. A man who has hit 222 home runs in a little more than six seasons must be doing something right, never mind the aesthetics.

But there has always been a sentiment abroad in the grand old game that there is only one right way to do a thing. For instance, a swing must be level. You stride with your front foot but shift your weight as you come through the ball.

And you keep both hands on the bat at all times.

The only trouble with all these dictates is that some of the greatest hitters violated one or all of them.

This reporter always harkens back to a time in the press box he was reading a book put out by a panel of experts for Sports Illustrated on how to bat. In the course of reading, he looked down on the playing field where a St. Louis Cardinal player was taking batting practice. He was violating every precept of the text. He was crouching, coiling, holding the bat wrong, his feet were too close together.

His name was Stan Musial.

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