Fred McGriff gives the Blue Jays another deserving Hall of Famer

Fred McGriff, Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
Fred McGriff, Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

Fred McGriff becomes 11th Blue Jays player to earn Hall of Fame enshrinement at Cooperstown

Fred McGriff’s Major League career began wearing a powder blue Toronto Blue Jays uniform in the wind-swept Exhibition Stadium. His journey will end, more than three decades later, on the stage in Cooperstown next summer when McGriff, affectionally known as the “Crime Dog,” is enshrined in bronze in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

McGriff was the only player elected by the Contemporary Era committee on Sunday, earning the votes of all 16 members. It was the reward for a long, productive 19-year career that often got overlooked by Hall of Fame voters. And it began right here in Toronto.

Pat Gillick remembers the first time he saw McGriff, in a rookie league game in 1982 when the then 18-year-old, playing in the New York Yankees organization, hit a long home run. Gillick was impressed with the youngster and, according to a recent Sportsnet profile by David Singh, made it a priority to acquire him. Later that year, Gillick got the left-hander in exchange for Tom Dodd and Dale Murray.

McGriff arrived in Toronto a few years later, getting his first taste of big-league action in 1986 before becoming a regular in the Blue Jays lineup in 1987. He played just four full seasons in a Blue Jays uniform, but his impact was still profound. He’s one of only four players in franchise history with three seasons of at least 34 home runs, along with Carlos Delgado, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. He’s one of seven to hit at least 35 home runs and hit .300 in the same season.

In the three-season span between 1988-90, McGriff hit 105 home runs, batted .284, and had a .927 OPS; only Delgado has repeated that in franchise history. Only Delgado, Bautista, Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson hit home runs at a greater rate than McGriff. More than 30 years after he last played for the Blue Jays, McGriff is still third in franchise history in OPS and first in OPS+.

Blue Jays fans of that era grew accustomed to seeing McGriff’s unique swing, with his long follow-through as he sent another long fly ball into the seats at Exhibition Stadium and, then, the Skydome. But McGriff’s career in Toronto is best remembered for how it ended.

The Blue Jays lost in the ALCS in 1989 before falling to second place in 1990. Gillick knew he had John Olerud coming up to replace McGriff at first base and decided to pull off the most consequential trade in Blue Jays history: he dealt McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the San Diego Padres for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. Carter and Alomar helped the Blue Jays win consecutive World Series titles in 1992-93, while McGriff continued his Hall of Fame career elsewhere.

McGriff’s career can best be described as consistent. He hit 30 or more home runs 10 times with five different teams. Of the other 20 players to do that, 11 are in the Hall of Fame, six were directly tied to steroids, and two, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, will be enshrined one day. He and Mark McGwire are the only players in the last century to win home run titles in both leagues. He finished his career with 493 home runs; if not for the 1994 strike, he would’ve reached 500 and likely been inducted a long time ago. For the men who helped start his career in Toronto, his long wait to get enshrined in Cooperstown was always puzzling.

“I really can’t put a finger on that…He’s just fallen under the radar for some reason,’ Gillick told Singh. “I mean, look at the number of years he played in the big leagues. I think he has all the qualifications and then, he was longevity.”

“He was one of the big guys that had good eyes. He didn’t swing at too many bad pitches,” Cito Gaston, who was the Blue Jays' hitting coach when McGriff made his debut and later his manager, told earlier this week. “He was pretty amazing. He had a great arm at first base, great first baseman. I don’t understand why it’s taking him so long to get him into the Hall of Fame. There are a lot of guys with less credentials than he has.”

McGriff finished his career playing for the Padres, Braves, Devil Rays, Cubs, and Dodgers. He won a World Series title with the Braves in 1995. But McGriff had the misfortune of having his career run up against the steroid era, when muscles and home run totals began to become inflated. In another era, he would’ve been recognized as a great player, his path to Cooperstown ensured. On Sunday, the 16 members of the committee finally ended a long injustice.

McGriff is the 11th Hall of Famer who donned a Blue Jays uniform, and the second, along with the late, great Roy Halladay, who played his first games in Toronto. It’s an honour long overdue for a player who did it the right way for a long time.