The reality of Fred McGriff's candidacy for Cooperstown didn't set in until yesterday, when the Rays announced the media availability with him contingent on his induction. It has been half of a decade since McGriff took his last Major League cut before his last Major League cut. Almost 2,030 days have passed since number 493 sailed into the stands. The presence of McGriff in the organization and around the area has faded the memories of his ungraceful exit from playing.
As of this writing, McGriff has roughly 21% of recorded votes. 75% is the minimum for enshrinement. It's not happening this year unless a large contingency of BBWAA voters love the Crime Dog. Love is what a lot of us hold towards McGriff. For many years he was the closest thing we had to a superstar. Heck, to a good player. Carlos Pena invokes memories of the best aspects of McGriff's game; the unmistakable smile, the left-handed power stroke, and bodacious dingers. Truth be told, Pena has done it better as a Ray than McGriff did it as a Devil Ray, but first time experiences always retain more sentimental value.
Truth be told, most of us probably followed McGriff before he ever wore the black and purple threads synonymous with our team. For years McGriff spent time with Atlanta. America's team in the sense that they were one of the few teams with national broadcasts on TBS in times before YES or Extra Innings. Ask the Montreal Expos how big the Braves were during that time. McGriff was the slugging first baseman with a helicopter follow-through and a series of baseball training commercials entrenched in pop culture history. It's called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Numbers, and if Tom Emanski commercials don't constitute fame, then what does?
Joe Posnanski summed up McGriff's candidacy by saying:
McGriff has a powerful Hall of Fame case. He hit 493 home runs. He put up a 134 OPS+, which is excellent. He hit 30-plus homers 10 times -- twice led the league -- and he drove in 100-plus runs eight times. He would not be anywhere close to the worst player in the Hall of Fame.
But McGriff's argument is sort of the opposite of Mattingly's: At no point was Fred McGriff one of the best players in baseball. He only once managed 30 Win Shares, which is sort of the MVP cutoff point, and he wasn't an especially good defensive first baseman, and he could not run and so on. To me, if you are going to get to the Hall of Fame entirely on your bat, you need to hit at a historic pace -- like Edgar Martinez or Mark McGwire did. McGriff, I think, is a notch or two below Martinez and McGwire. I think he's probably a notch below his contemporary Will Clark, who did not get much Hall of Fame consideration.
But McGriff was really good, and I expect to re-examine his case for the next few years.
Here begins the problem with McGriff and the Hall. Rally's WAR has McGriff as the 165th best position player (nearly 100 spots ahead of Jim Rice, mind you) which is respectable, but also below players like Robin Ventura, John Olerud, and even Andre Dawson. Dawson's victory is of the pyrrhic (and undeserving based on your criteria) variety. Still, it stands as one that McGriff can build hope with.
I do not believe the Hall of Fame as the ultimate talent barometer. I do believe Tim Raines is better than Jim Rice and multiple other plaques already held within the storied walls. I do not believe that players should be purposely held back on first ballot votes just because. I do believe the Hall is a fantastic resource for baseball history though, and I do believe the Hall means more to the players than we can even begin to quantify.
McGriff played in a combined 3,048 Major League regular season, post-season, and minor league games. If each game lasted around three hours, then McGriff spent at least 9,144 hours on a baseball field. That does not include All Star appearances, spring training, traveling, conditioning, or just generally hanging out at the ball field. It does not include high school or little league time either. 9,144 hours is a lot of time. There are only 8,760 hours in a year. Fred McGriff has spent more than a year of his life on various diamonds across North America.
No sane individual commits that much of his time towards anything, be it hobby or spouse or even self, unless it's a necessity. Either for money or soul, McGriff needed baseball. He still needs baseball. Old DRB columnist and McGriff co-host Matt Sammon has told me in the past that many voters have assured McGriff that he will one day grace the Halls. Those folks will one day write up McGriff as the clean slugger; the white knight amongst tainted pawns, fraudulent kings, and chemistry major queens. Truth be told, that's like labeling him the dumbest kid in the class. Right or wrong, whether McGriff enhanced or not does nothing for me.
Popular to contrary belief, numbers do not and have never driven my passion for baseball. I was a fan before I read Nate Silver or Jonah Keri, before I bought The Book or made my first WAR spreadsheet, I was a fan in part because of players like Fred McGriff. The Hall of Fame isn't a good measure of performance or talent. In 150 years though, I won't be here (and neither will anyone else who saw McGriff play) to tell folklore about McGriff's swing. But that silly old plaque will. As will part of my baseball fandom.
I'll admit this is an odd situation. I'm someone who prides himself in mostly objective analysis. To wish for someone's entry based mostly on subjective reasoning is probably going to have me labeled a hypocrite or something equally negative. At the same time I didn't even vote McGriff on the SBN HOF ballot because I thought we were trying to produce a true barometer of performance. I guess my only defense is that McGriff is the first player with the potential to get into the Hall who did more than simply suit up as a Ray. The very first player. Don't we all want that first time feeling to come sooner than later?
Fun fact: McGriff finished shy of 500 homers but his HR/AB is higher than five members of the 500 HR club: Eddie Murray, Mel Ott, Rafael Palmeiro, Ernie Banks, and Gary Sheffield. Seven home runs over the course of a career being the difference between HOF and no HOF is silly.