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Inside Baseball | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

He May Be Dodgers' First Sack

September 21, 2003|Ross Newhan

Who's on first?

It will be only another week before the Dodgers can plug in that old Abbott and Costello routine again.

Barring an unlikely wild- card advance, the Dodgers can unleash the Crime Dog as a free agent after next Sunday's season finale and renew their search for a productive first baseman.

General Manager Dan Evans reiterated that no decision on 2004 will be made until the 2003 season is over.

It would be a shock, however, if 2003 didn't represent Fred McGriff's first and last year in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers won't re-sign the 39-year-old first baseman whose pursuit of 500 home runs and overall productivity were derailed by injury, and McGriff might not opt to return even if invited.

Among the many undercurrents in a Dodger clubhouse in which Alfred Hitchcock would feel at home is one suggesting that the Dodgers contributed to the two months that McGriff sat out because of a groin injury in two ways:

1. Failing to have him undergo an MRI test when first on the disabled list;

2. Pressuring him to come off the list and help pump up a comatose offense only to have him soon aggravate the injury and be forced back on the DL, losing most of the second half.

Evans rejects the suggestion -- "we would never compromise a player's health," he said -- but there is one certainty:

An air of urgency pervades the undercurrents. Maybe it stems from the fact that the club is for sale. Maybe from the uncertain job status of Evans and Manager Jim Tracy.

If McGriff feels his injury was mishandled or that he was forced to play before he was ready, he won't say it.

Smiles mask his cautious words when discussing the injury.

"After all," he said, "I'm not a doctor. I just go by what people tell me and go from there. That's the tough part, but life is short and sweet. You just deal with things and go on."

OK, but was he ready to play when he came off the DL that first time?

"I felt decent," he said.

Not 100%?

"I felt decent," he reiterated.

The injury put McGriff on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

He said it seemed to him to be a slight strain and only discovered with the MRI during the second DL stint that it was a tear. He seemed, in so many words, to say that an earlier MRI might have enabled him to stay on the DL longer the first time and ultimately might have put him back on the field to stay quicker and stronger. Head trainer Stan Johnston said that a strain is basically the same as a tear and the extent is known only through an MRI.

However, Johnston said, when McGriff came off the disabled list that first time "he had passed all the tests as far as we were concerned. He felt he was ready and so did we. If there was pressure, it was pressure he put on himself to come back and help the team."

Aside from the few days he was active in between DL stints, McGriff was basically sidelined from June 14 to Aug. 22.

He has started only 17 games since, is still not 100%, and said it's difficult trying to play when you're not sure how "this move or that move might affect the leg."

McGriff had slugged 30 or more homers in 10 of 16 big league seasons, driven in 80 or more runs in 15 consecutive seasons and came in needing 22 homers for 500, but he has 13 homers, 40 RBIs and a .247 average in 292 at-bats.

"It's been disappointing and frustrating," he said, "but once you miss two months your season is done. You need at-bats to have a big year, and two months represents 200 at-bats. Baseball is all about playing every day. I don't think the numbers on my baseball card lie."

Among the things attracting the Dodgers to McGriff was his consistency, his injury-free track record and his comparatively low price ($3.75 million for one year) at a time when the Dodgers made a philosophical decision not to surpass the new luxury tax threshold. Let Philadelphia sign Jim Thome for six years and $85 million. The Dodgers weren't interested.

They also saw in McGriff a ready-made publicity machine as he closed in on 500 homers. In a season of milestones, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro made it to the plateau that has guaranteed admission to the Hall of Fame, but McGriff is at 491 and counting -- on 2004.

"Is it important to me? Of course," he said. "Five hundred has a lot nicer sound to it than 499, and I would have had a good chance to reach it if I hadn't been hurt.

"I mean, my main goal has been to get back to the World Series one more time, but 500 is an objective that would put me into very select company and elevate what I feel has been a strong career to an even higher level.

"I had never said this would be my last year if I got it, so retirement isn't an issue. I'll keep going, keep swinging and, God willing, one day I'll get it."

In his last two years as the Dodger first baseman, Eric Karros hit a total of 28 homers, which means he and McGriff produced 42 from a corner power position over the last three years compared to the 43 Thome and Albert Pujols have hit in that position this season.

Then again, McGriff was affected by the injury just as his and Brian Jordan's absence affected the oft-criticized offense.

Of that criticism, McGriff said, "around here they keep preaching pitching and defense. That's their strategy. I don't know if it's really fair to pound the offense when that's not the type team they have."

Of course, he's not a doctor. Nor did he prescribe the roster.

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