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McGriff is an island of sanity

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


At the locker in the back corner, there is calm. Thank Fred McGriff for the brief respite.

Outside, there is madness. Outside, there is noise.

Already, this spring training has been dominated by the moaners and malcontents, by the drips and dullards, by petty players pouting petulantly. These days, the whining seems more important than the winning, and the gamesmanship more important than the game.

It is a spring about money. Give him a second, and Alex Rodriguez will tell you, golly, he is plumb embarrassed about the money he is making. How much? So much that when Derek Jeter signs a contract for roughly the same as an expansion fee, reporters ask him if he considers his contract amazing enough, as if perhaps a collection should be taken up in the stands to make up for the shortfall.

It is a spring about mercenaries. Give him a second, and Gary Sheffield will tell you that, gee, he is plumb embarrassed that he's only making $10-million a year. It is a sentiment echoed by Frank Thomas and Barry Bonds, an indication that if money does buy happiness, it doesn't come as cheaply as a mere $10-million a year. After all, could you live off that?

It is a spring of medicine. Is Albert Belle gone, and where does the parade begin? What about Mike Sirotka's shoulder and Nomar Garciaparra's wrist? It is a time to pay attention to new faces in new places, of has-beens and will-bes, of tomorrow's hope and yesterday's pain. It is about implied threats and Carl Everett's watch. You know the old line that the spring is when everyone hits .300 and everyone wins a pennant. Well, when they do, it better pay a darned sight more than $10-million a year.

This is why it is nice to visit the locker in the corner, where McGriff is pulling a pair of cleats out of a bag with the same expression you see, oh, when he doubles into the gap. McGriff sits, talking in hushed tones, his face passive and unlined.

In the quiet of the morning, no one seems to notice him.

Of course not. No one ever seems to notice McGriff in springtime. He is one of those guys in the shadows, quietly doing his job, talking only about chasing that elusive swing. He does not thump on his chest. He does not gripe about his contract. He does not make a list of potential landing sites.

He just keeps sneaking up on the Hall of Fame.

Only that.

Even in the Rays' camp, there is so much to grab your attention as you walk through the doors. Is this guy ready? Is that guy finished? What about the pitching? What about the lineup? What about the lack of people asking what abouts?

Then there is Fred, the easiest guy in the game to overlook. His voice never changes, his face never changes, his performance never changes. Just watch. McGriff is going to hit about 30 home runs this year. He's going to drive in about 100 runs. He's going to hit about .280. Because that is always the kind of year McGriff has. The guy's career was constructed on a Xerox machine, and each season seems merely a copy of the one that came before it.

You want to know how quiet McGriff is, really? No one even heard him ask directions to Cooperstown.

Is McGriff a Hall of Famer? You can debate that now if you wish. Another three seasons, however, and his numbers might insist. McGriff has 417 homers, and 500 always has been considered a passkey to the front door.

Mention the Hall to McGriff, and he grins widely, and he laughs, and he changes the subject. "I'm just going to glide on by that question," he says, laughing gently, as if he talked about it, they might move the darned thing to somewhere he couldn't find it.

This is the way it is with McGriff. Because his moments happen without chest-thumping, few of us notice him enough. Because they happen without drum-beating, few of us appreciate him enough.

Throughout his career, there have been those who would change McGriff. If we are honest, you and I are among them. Oh, just a bit here and there, so he wasn't quite so distant, so he was a trifle more embraceable. He doesn't need to be one of those guys who assaults the game, who plays it as if he were the life of the party. But he has been a hard star to embrace at times, because whatever boils inside him does so deeply.

That said, what's so wrong with being quiet? What's so wrong with the same bottom line, next year? Especially now, where so many people in the game seem so unhappy.

Let's face it. If McGriff wanted the attention, he could get it. He could grumble about his contract, which has this year and an option left on it. He could moan about the suggestion the team might try to trade him this year if it gets off to a slow start. He could rip his organization for whatever popped into his head and spend three weeks slinging his helmet and beating up the water cooler.

And people would write reams and reams of copy and he'd be all over SportsCenter. Look at Fred, people would say. Look how much he cares. Look at his passion.

This is better. This is a dignified man at the end of an honorable career showing us that silence really is golden. Maybe it's going to end up with a bust inside of Cooperstown.

Who knows? Maybe they can put it in the corner, too.

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