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McGriff optimistic about 1999 season

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Fred McGriff showed up at spring training Friday and admitted he didn't have much of a happy homecoming last season. The Tampa native struggled on the field and was stung by the accompanying criticism.

"I thought I had an average year," McGriff (.284, 19 HRs, 81 RBI) said. "For 11 years, 12 years, I had a lot of success the majority of times. This was the first year that at times I struggled, but I know that I went 100 percent every day. I didn't ever quit and shut it down. Even when we were losing, I went out there every day fighting and trying to make a difference."

McGriff said his efforts weren't portrayed properly by the media. "It was tough because you guys were saying, "Fred doesn't care.' Do you really think guys want to hit .260 or .270? Do you really think guys are not trying? I didn't think that was real appropriate, but everyone's entitled to their own opinion," McGriff said. "No one wants to go out there and struggle."

McGriff, 35, predicts better things are ahead. He made a change in his mechanics, which should improve his balance, and has been working hard, especially on leg strength, for this season, the last of a four-year, $20-million contract.

"I'm ready to play," he said. "I'm very confident right now I'm going to have a good year."

There have been no talks about a contract extension, but McGriff says he isn't concerned. "I've got it just the way I want it," he said. "I'm happy to go out and play and see what happens."

FREE SWINGER: Julio Franco, a former AL batting champ who played last season in Japan, signed a minor-league contract. Franco, 37, has a .301 average over 15 major-league seasons, including a .341 mark for Texas in 1991 when he led the AL. He also played for Philadelphia, Cleveland and most recently for Milwaukee in 1997. Franco hit .290 with 18 home runs and 77 RBI for Chiba Lotte in 1998.

Manager Larry Rothschild said the Rays will take a look at Franco but that if he doesn't make the team he likely will play for the club's Mexico City affiliate. "We'll have to see where he is," Rothschild said.

Franco is a former All-Star second baseman but has been used primarily at first base and as a DH in recent years.

"Julio Franco is an established right-handed batter," GM Chuck LaMar said. "Like some of the other veterans we're bringing in, we'll truly see if he can still perform at the major-league level."

Franco is expected to report with the other position players Tuesday.

BRAVE MOVE?: Andres Galarraga's illness leaves the Braves in sudden need of a first baseman, but LaMar says there have been no talks with his former employers about McGriff or Paul Sorrento. That might be a tough match anyway, because both are lefties and the Braves would prefer to fill the void with a right-hander.

COMINGS AND GOINGS: RHP Albie Lopez and C Cesar Devarez joined the team Friday, one day late because of personal reasons. Devarez said he had trouble getting from the Dominican Republic to Florida because of American Airlines' scheduling difficulties. Lopez attended to personal matters at his Arizona home, then took an overnight flight to Tampa, arriving at the complex as the team took the field at 9:30 a.m. . . . Former major-league manager George Bamberger visited camp Friday. . . . ESPN analyst Peter Gammons also was on hand.

RAYS SIGHTINGS: Aaron Ledesma, Bobby Smith, Rick White and Randy Winn are scheduled to attend the Sant'Yago Knight Parade in Tampa tonight. . . . 2B Miguel Cairo throws out the first pitch at the Tampa Little League today and SS Kevin Stocker does the same at Clearwater National.

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