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McGriff on his way back

Tampa resident heads to minors and will rejoin punchless Rays nine homers short of 500.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published May 20, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - In a time of trouble, the Devil Rays are turning to an old friend.

Hoping to add life to their struggling offense, the Rays plan to bring back Fred McGriff and have the 40-year-old in their lineup by the end of the month.

McGriff, who has been working out on his own since the end of spring training, will report to Triple-A Durham today for what amounts to a 10-day conditioning period. If he gets through that healthy, he will join the Rays for a road trip that starts in Minnesota on May 31 and resume his pursuit of the final nine home runs he needs for 500.

"I'm excited," McGriff said from his Tampa home. "A lot of people have been telling me to keep going and to hang in there. I'm looking forward to the chance to compete and to help the team. You've got to have faith and believe."

The Rays, in theory, are trying to build for the future with younger players, but as much as they have struggled to score runs, team officials figured they had nothing to lose by bringing back McGriff.

"I think three left-handed hitters in the lineup hitting .200 or below prompts us to make this move," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Aubrey Huff, after the year he had last year; Robert Fick, not only with the year he had last year but the way he was swinging the bat in spring training; and Jose Cruz, I think he had six home runs this spring; who would have guessed those three guys would swing the bat so poorly and (have) the starts they've gotten off to?"

McGriff was limited to 86 games for the Dodgers last season because of injuries that landed him on the disabled list for the first time in his 17-plus year career. The Rays signed him to a minor-league contract (for the $300,000 minimum, plus about $450,000 in incentives) before spring training to give him an opportunity to showcase himself for other teams. None showed interest, and he has been working out with a batting tee at home and more recently at the Rays training complex waiting for a chance to add to his 491 career homers, .285 average and 1,543 RBIs.

The Rays hope it turns into a win-win situation.

"Hopefully he goes down (to Durham), gets some good at-bats, stays healthy, swings the bat well and comes up here and helps us in a couple weeks," manager Lou Piniella said. "That would be a nice scenario for us and for Freddie. ... I'd love to see him come back and help us out and at the same time accomplish what he wants to career-wise."

McGriff, an original Ray who was traded in 2001, will be used primarily at DH but may also get some time at first base. He said he welcomed the opportunity to play again, especially at home, and to resume the chase for 500.

"It's still important for me," McGriff said. "The chance to fulfill a dream."

LaMar said the Rays were not signing McGriff to boost attendance or interest in the team with the worst record in baseball.

"This has nothing to do with boosting anything but trying to score some runs," LaMar said. "We feel like truly if we can get started and get some momentum, there is no way some of these players and this ballclub are as bad as what our record indicates. We've just got to get some momentum going, and if he comes up here and hits a couple home runs and creates that spark, so be it. ... "Everyone is aware of his pursuit of 500 home runs. If we were going to be charitable in that cause we would have done it out of spring training. But we did this because we think Fred McGriff can still play in the major leagues and, more importantly, because of the lack of performance by some players on this team."

[Last modified May 20, 2004, 01:01:12]

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