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For McGriff, it's prove it or lose it

Millions hinge on performance in walk year.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- You might say this is a big year for Fred McGriff.

He has a chance to re-establish himself as one of the game's top sluggers. He can get considerably closer to the 400-home run milestone (he needs 42). And he could make himself a little money -- like, oh, say, $15-million.

McGriff, like five other Devil Rays veterans, is entering the final year of his contract, a four-year, $20-million pact he signed with Atlanta. Players respond in different ways to those situations, and the 35-year-old Tampa-born slugger would appear to have the most to gain -- or lose.

If McGriff can return to his previous form, when he averaged 35 homers and 96 RBI for seven seasons, he could land another big guaranteed contract, perhaps a three-year deal for about $15-million.

But if he continues his recent slide in production, his offers may be limited to a one- or two-year deal that guarantees a small salary (of $1-million or so) and forces him to earn more through incentives.

* * *

Players in the final year of a contract can be an interesting case study. For some, it can be literally a golden opportunity, the chance to earn a rich contract which allows them to buy all the gold, and diamonds, and high-priced toys, they could ever want. For others it's a high-anxiety reality check of realizing that they actually have to play for their next season's pay, and that millions of dollars and years of security are riding on the outcome.

"The last year of a player's contract, especially the closer he is to the end of his career, can be a two-edged sword," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "On one side it is a motivator to have as good a year as he possibly can have and hopefully prolong what already has been a successful career. On the other hand, there is pressure that if I don't perform this year, this might be the end of the road. I think it is a motivator in both cases."

McGriff says he sees no pressure in the situation.

"I know I can play the game; I don't have anything to prove," he said.

"I've been playing 12-13 years and I had one so-so year. I held my own through the years. I'll be fine."

McGriff refuses to talk much about his contractual situation, or the possibility of free agency, except to say -- repeatedly -- that he treasures the opportunity to determine his future. It's a mysterious tease, and he seems to find it amusing.

"It's my choice," he says with a smile. "I get to call my shots."

Later, he adds: "I've got options. A lot of options."

McGriff did not take kindly to criticism of his 1998 performance, when he posted a career-low 19 home runs, drove in 82 runs and hit .279.

He said all the right things about the opportunity to play at home, but he never gave the impression that he was happy here, or that he particularly was interested in coming back.

"I control my own future," he said. "I can decide what I want to do."

There are those in the Devil Rays organization who feel McGriff is primed for a big year. They look at the extra work he is putting in, the conviction he takes onto the field, the fire they say they see in his eyes.

He says the financial rewards are not what's driving him -- "Money ain't the issue" -- so one assumes it's something else.

"I think Fred, every game, every time out, has gone out with a purpose," manager Larry Rothschild said. "I don't know what the difference is, but it looks like there is a difference. He's been a very good player for a long time and he has a lot of pride in playing. I think he wants to prove this year there is a lot left for him to play, and I think that's what you're seeing."

It is not uncommon for players in the final year of their contract to turn in huge seasons and reap humongous rewards. What gets prickly is determining whether it just happened to work out that way.

"I'm sure if you look at both sides of it, there's been guys who signed a four-year deal and in the first three years they don't do very much and at the end of their deals they do a lot," Rays veteran Wade Boggs said. "So everyone sits there and goes, "Why give guys long-term deals because they don't try in the beginning and then they try because their contracts are up.' I think it's a small number that that comes about."

Jose Canseco goes further, insisting there is no such premeditation. "It's coincidence. A lot of things are based on coincidence," Canseco said.

"People say it has to do with Nostradamus, clairvoyance, ESP. It's all bull----. It's the law of averages."

Perhaps. But the players are human, and human nature can be an issue -- at least in some cases. In other words, getting out of bed for that 7 a.m. middle-of-the-winter workout might not seem quite as vital when the next three years' salaries are guaranteed at $5-million per.

"I would think there's more pressure on an individual to perform because they want another contract. That might heighten their performance a little bit," Boggs said.

"You sign a four- or five-year deal and the first three years you're comfortable. It's not that you're not going to try and put up the numbers you normally do in the past. You're relaxed and there's really nothing to worry about. Then all of a sudden you go, "Oh, man. I'm at the end of my deal here. If I don't put up some numbers then we've got a problem. I'm not going to get that big three- or four-year again.' Then they come out and hammer a .320, .330 (batting average) with a bunch of home runs and a bunch of RBI and they get another four- or five-year deal."

Sometimes it works out better for the player and/or the team to avoid this situation and negotiate an extension before or during the final season. Though a player has a potentially rich upside in playing out his contract, there also is considerable risk, since injury or a prolonged slump could be extremely costly. And teams avoid the uncomfortable situation of seeing their player have such a good season that he commands too hefty a price on the open market and splits town.

McGriff and catcher John Flaherty are six months from unfettered free agency, while the Rays hold options on the others in their final year -- Dave Martinez, Paul Sorrento, Boggs and Canseco. LaMar said that he would prefer to avoid having so many players in this situation, and that it's still possible some of these veterans could receive extensions during the season, but that he needs to be convinced by their play on the field.

LaMar said there have been no talks of a new deal with McGriff. Agent Jim Krivacs says McGriff would be open to the possibility of coming back but plans to play several more seasons and is willing to wait and see what happens.

LaMar is, too.

"Jim knows how I feel about Fred, why we brought him into the organization, what we expect of him on and off the field and, like all the other veterans, I hope Fred places us in a situation where we have to consider extending his contract," LaMar said. "But they have to place us in that situation, and the only thing that can do that at this point is performance.

"I cannot let emotions get in the way. I can't worry about my personal emotions, the emotions of the organization or the emotions of the fans who want to see this group of veterans stay because they are a class act and because they are so instrumental in the community off the field, but this is a business decision."

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