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McGriff tries for 500 the hard way

There's a Ray of hope for homer milestone even after knee surgery, after two months off and at age 40.

MARC TOPKIN
Published June 20, 2004

PHOENIX - What Fred McGriff is trying to do is hard.

Hitting 500 home runs is impressive enough; Ken Griffey is one swing away from being the 20th player to do so. More players have 3,000 hits or have won 300 games.

But getting to 500 at the age of 40, after sitting out the first two months of the season pondering retirement, and coming off knee surgery after an injury-marred year?

"What he's doing is not easy," Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella said. "It's not easy."

When McGriff rejoined the Rays last month, Piniella privately had some doubts. He liked McGriff's personally, admired his ability and attitude, and hoped McGriff would hit the nine homers he needed for 500.

But deep down, he admits now, he didn't know if it would work out. "When he came here, I would've said, "The odds are ... ' " Piniella said. "We're going to give him a chance, but ... I wasn't sure; I was hoping, but, boy ... "

Three weeks, 12 games, 30 at-bats and two very significant home runs later, Piniella feels a lot better about the situation.

"I'm starting to like his chances more and more," Piniella said. "I really am."

McGriff won't allow himself to see it that way, claiming 500 looks no closer today than it did before. He's a guy who in 24 years of pro ball never has been satisfied with his swing, and his view is that every day is a battle, every pitcher is trying to get him out, and that there is no guarantee he'll hit one more home run, much less the remaining seven he needs.

"It's hard," McGriff said. "You just never know. You go up there swinging, sometimes you hit line drives, sometimes you hit ground balls. Home runs are always tough. It's not like you can hit them anytime you want to."

McGriff insists he still is trying to make up for the time he missed sitting at his Tampa home in April and May and has yet to get comfortable at the plate. "It's a fight right now," he said. "For me, I've always got to keep making adjustments."

Piniella, though, thinks McGriff has adjusted pretty well.

"It's heartening to me, first of all because I know Freddie personally and I've known him quite a while, to see him doing really as well as he has," Piniella said. "He's swinging the bat pretty good."

Because home runs are unpredictable - they tend to just happen - there is no way to accurately forecast when, or if, McGriff will get the seven more he needs after tying legendary Lou Gehrig at 493 on Thursday night.

Piniella plans to put him in the lineup on a semi-regular basis once the Rays get back to playing with a DH this week (with three more interleague games at Florida on July 2-4), but it still could take months.

McGriff is saving the bat and the ball from each homer along the way; his teammates are treasuring the memories of seeing him approach one of the game's milestone accomplishments.

"Every time Fred steps in the box, history is about to be made," infielder Geoff Blum said. "There's that anticipation every time he picks up the bat."

Pitcher Chad Gaudin, who was born when McGriff was in his third pro season (1983), said, "It'd definitely a blessing to be here with him. ... Every at-bat we're all like, "C'mon Freddie, c'mon Freddie.' We're behind him 100 percent and really want him to get his goal."

Aubrey Huff has been watching McGriff most of his career, and has established himself as a pretty good hitter with 78 homers so far, but he still can't quite relate to what McGriff is about to accomplish.

"I can't imagine hitting 500 homers," Huff said. "I don't know how you do that."

Piniella knows, and he might be more impressed.

"It's a lot of home runs," Piniella said. "I played until I was almost 41 years old; I know how difficult it was for more. I didn't have a goal like that in front of me to push me along, but, gosh, it's not easy."

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