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McGriff is still needed

Rays erase veteran's doubts as Tampa native resumes chase for 500 homers.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published May 29, 2004

There were times the past few months when doubt found its way into Fred McGriff's psyche. Those occasional days when the veteran first baseman/DH wondered whether he would ever get another chance to play.

Being 40 years old and out of the game a couple of months can do that to you.

But there sat McGriff on Friday afternoon at Tropicana Field as the Devil Rays prepared to open a three-game series against the Yankees.

"Might as well start with the best," he said.

One day removed from his week-long stint at Triple-A Durham, McGriff was getting ready to make his 2004 major-league debut and acknowledged he wasn't always sure this day would come.

"Of course, every once in a while you get your doubts and you're not sure what's going to happen," said McGriff, in his 18th season. "I just kept going hard and had everybody pulling for me and praying for me."

McGriff wasn't expected to play Friday night but pinch-hit for Rey Sanchez in the eighth. He received a standing ovation before popping out to third base. Manager Lou Piniella said McGriff likely will start tonight and will play primarily at DH. He's expected to be in the lineup every other day to get back in shape.

"It's nice to have Freddy here," Piniella said. "He's a classy guy. His presence in the clubhouse will be important to us, not to speak of his contributions on the field."

In the twilight of his career, McGriff finds himself on the precipice of Hall of Fame numbers. He has 491 career home runs, and he and Ken Griffey (493) are trying to become the 20th and 21st players to reach 500. McGriff is also in line to become the 13th to reach 500 homers and 2,500 hits; he has 2,477.

He would be the fourth to reach 500 HRs after the age of 40, joining Ted Williams, Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray.

McGriff said he views 500 as a "personal goal."

But Yankees outfielder and friend Gary Sheffield said the accomplishment would be much more than that. And he hasn't hesitated to tell McGriff about it.

"I was one of the people trying to encourage Fred to keep playing," Sheffield said. "He's so close to 500 home runs and he'd be the first guy from Tampa to do that, and it would kind of put him in an elite class. I just felt like when you get this close, you should go for it. A lot of times players just don't have the edge anymore to do what we do for so long, but to reach a goal like that is incredible. I've been letting him know that it's not just for him, it's for all of us (major-league players from Tampa)."

McGriff was brought to spring training and signed a minor-league contract with the Rays on Feb. 8 but didn't attract interest from other teams. He has spent the past two months working out and hoping for another opportunity. He went 5-for-20, including a home run and five walks in six games at Durham.

"This past week playing every day was good for me," he said. "I've just got to continue what I've been working on and keep getting in my swings."

McGriff is one of the original Devil Rays and is the team's all-time leader in batting average (.295). Friday, he sat at his old locker, wearing his old No. 29, and talked about bringing back special memories.

McGriff and Rays first baseman Tino Martinez have known each other for years and attended the same high school, but Friday was the first time they had been on the field as teammates. Martinez said McGriff's return is more than sentimental.

"He can still hit, he can still play, he can still help the team win and it's great," Martinez said. "It's a great thing for us; I'm glad to have him. He's going to help us win some ballgames, and at the same time he gets to continue his career."

How long depends on how well he plays. McGriff is optimistic this is where he's supposed to be.

"The last week or so things started coming together for me, and this is a good situation for me," he said. "I couldn't ask for anything better."

- Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 29, 2004, 01:00:33]

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