McGriff's quest for 500 slipping away

  • There is open and rather spirited debate about whether Fred McGriff should be in the Hall of Fame if he collects the seven home runs he needs to join the 500 Club.

    There is a dwindling chance he will get the needed home runs or that he will find another team now that his hometown Devil Rays cut him loose. Except for last season's first-ever visits to the disabled list, twice, with the same groin injury, and a degenerative knee condition, combined with the difficulty of hitting balls out of Dodger Stadium, or a handful of homers here and there in his 16 previous seasons, McGriff would be there already and not hanging on trying to somehow hit the final seven to reach 500.

    Take away the 1994 strike season -- McGriff had a .318 batting average with 34 homers, and he was well on his way to what would have been his only 40-home run season -- and we wouldn't be having this discussion. He would have been in Houston last week rubbing elbows with Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, and contemporaries such as Barry Bonds, Eddie Murray, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro.

    Jose Canseco knows the lure of the mystical 500 number and made an ill-fated and bizarre attempt to make the Dodgers this spring at a tryout camp. Canseco claims he's being "black balled" and refused an opportunity, rather than acknowledging the toll aging, lack of commitment and admitted steroid abuse has had in crippling his Adonis-like physique, and in putting a premature end to his enigmatic career. He too passed through Tampa in a fleeting attempt to attract attention and add to his power numbers, and had his last productive season there in 1999, hitting 34 home runs. While Canseco added more homers in stops with the Yankees, and White Sox, and wasted brief spring trials with the Expos and Angels, McGriff isn't likely to find another opportunity.

    Even the once lowly Devil Rays have improved too much to accommodate a personal crusade for glory, with budding talent like B.J. Upton knocking at the door, and Joey Gathright and Jorge Cantu having just joined Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Aubrey Huff in the big leagues. Asked whether he thought about how close he came to being at that gathering of the 500 Club, and in the photos and celebrations, McGriff said "I can't allow myself to think about that."

    He never publicly considered his inevitable release either, even though Devil Rays general manager Chuck Lamar candidly acknowledges that "no one wants Fred to get 500 home runs more than we do," but that McGriff's future in Tampa had rapidly evaporated. McGriff doesn't even expect to retire after he gets to 500, if he ever gets there, saying he's going to play next season, and maybe after that, and that his ability to hit is "getting better every day."

    The decision has been made for "the Crime Dog." As one veteran Devil Rays follower summed it up, "the baseball gods have a way of deciding these things, who gets in to these exclusive fraternities and who doesn't. They don't seem to like it when someone tries to cheat the system, or achieve immortality the cheap or easy way, or by gift." In other words, if McGriff belongs in the 500 Club, he'll get there, and Cooperstown too. Otherwise, it has been a very productive, significant 18-year career, that may have lasted just a little too long.

    What the Devil Rays have done this year has been amazing, considering they're still operating with a $29 million payroll. Lou Piniella is openly upset about that, along with his starting pitching in general for its inability or refusal to throw strikes and challenge hitters. Lamar affirms that if the club stays in sight of a wild-card berth, it will spend to add a veteran pitcher, but that almost every contending team is in the market for pitcher and the team will not sacrifice any of its growing cache of young talent to get one.

    The Devil Rays have a "surplus of outfielders," but Tampa's not likely to stay in playoff contention long enough to consider a move this year. By September, the nucleus of a dangerous offensive lineup will be united on the Gulf of Mexico. Upton put on a jaw-dropping display at the Futures Game in Houston during batting practice, hitting the All-Star Game sign Sosa plunked high above the railroad tracks during the Home Run Derby. Upton, 19, possesses the poise of a Derek Jeter and an Alex Rodriguez, with the power potential of Rodriguez, and more speed than any of them, except perhaps younger brother Justin, who's a month away from his senior year at Virginia's Great Bridge High School, and likely to do his big brother one slot better and be the No. 1 overall pick in June. Incidentally, B.J.'s name is Melvin Emanuel Upton, just like his dad. So what's the B.J. for? "Bossman Jr." The "original Bossman" is a part-time scout for the Royals.

  • The Devil Rays not only no longer have use for sideshow attractions like past-their-prime-veterans making a last stop hoping to reach a milestone, but they apparently also don't have room for "the beach." Until recently, the area along the very top of the canvas-lined Tropicana Field dome was known as the beach, with sand in the far left-field corner and a spa for group parties at the other end above center field. It's still about five bucks for the bleacher seats way up top, but the kids and beer-soaked patrons occasionally got too frisky throwing the sand and other objects, and now, just like the surrounding Gulf beaches, it's a family area. The spa's been drained and removed, at least temporarily. The product is getting better on the field, but the Rays still need all the help they can get to lure fans into the building. Having 13,000 fans is still considered a healthy crowd, and the acoustics make it so that one can hear every comment from fans in the lower levels. Although it's brighter than any other indoor park, it just doesn't have a baseball feel or any kind of stadium atmosphere.

    Orioles first base coach Rick Dempsey showed me the makeup of the bizzare turf in Tropicana, bending down to dig his fingers into the surface that resembles the lining of a golf pro shop. If you dig down far enough, you get some sand to come up, and what Dempsey says are pieces of old tires. It's strange.

  • With the activation of Melvin Mora from the disabled list on Sunday, Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli inherits one of those "good problems to have": too many starting-quality players for nine positions. The first-year skipper has already been juggling the difficult situation of finding playing time and a place to play for Brian Roberts and Jerry Hairston. B.J. (not Bossman Jr.) Surhoff and David Segui are close to being activated, too. What was more difficult was what to do when his best hitter, Mora, went out with a hamstring injury.

    In a remarkable turn of events, David Newhan became Mazzilli's solution at third base and has batted over .400, hitting so consistently well from the left side of the plate that the Orioles have to find a place for his bat, not to mention his grit.

    Newhan is 30 and batted a combined .163 in stints in San Diego (1999-2000) and Philadelphia (2000-2001). After winning a spot on the Phils' roster, Newhan suffered through a series of injuries to his throwing shoulder and battled to find a baseball home until this season. He was tearing it up with the Rangers' Triple-A team in Oklahoma City when he asked for his release June 18 to seek a big league job. That day the Orioles signed him, he joined them for an interleague game at Coors Field, and he delivered a pinch-hit home run in his Orioles debut.

    Until Saturday, Newhan had a hit in every game he started, separating 15 and nine-game hitting streaks with a hitless pinch-hit at-bat on July 4 against the Phillies. Newhan says, "Melvin's gotta play," but so does he. Thursday night in the first action of the second half, Newhan greeted Devil Rays lefty reliever Bobby Seay with a two-run, tiebreaking triple in the seventh inning, his third hit of the game, and what proved to be the game-winner.

    The son of Hall of Fame baseball writer Ross Newhan of the L.A. Times, David grew up around baseball and was a batboy for the Angels in their '80s heyday, when they were led by Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor, Rick Burleson, Rod Carew and Bobby Grich. Although Newhan admires his famous father's work and was able to go to Cooperstown in 2001 for Ross Newhan's induction because he was on the disabled list as a member of the Phillies, he always wanted to play the game, not write about it. As David put it when asked whether he ever thought of following in his father's footsteps, "Nah, it always looked too much like homework." But his experience with his dad did help him in one area where many other professional players struggle: the media. As David said, "I know you guys are human too, and not all players think that."

  • Miguel Tejada didn't find out he was in the Home Run Derby until 1 a.m. on the day of the event. Tejada couldn't believe he got the invitation and was pinching himself as he was introduced alongside Sosa, Bonds and Jim Thome. His only goal was not to embarrass himself, and at least hit one. As he was still saying days after his record-setting performance, "I'm a line-drive hitter, not a home run hitter." In batting practice, Tejada typically hits most of the pitches the other way and works on contact and going with the pitch. In his first B.P. after the Derby, he hit one home run. When Mazzilli overheard him telling me that his prodigious production in Houston won't affect how he approaches at-bats in the second half, his manager said, "don't be afraid to hit a few out for us!"

    So what does Miggy do with the hard-fought hardware he won so impressively July 12? He lets his kids, Alexa, and tiny Miguel Jr., parade around the room with it, doing their best to hold up the trophy their diminutive dad won by out-homering the completion at Minute Maid Park.

  • Dmitri Young's "little" brother, Delmon, got stranded by weather, trying to go to Texas from Georgia the day before the Futures Game after his last Class A game. Young and Clint Everts, a pitcher with the Expos' Class A team in Savannah, Ga., were stuck in the Atlanta airport and spent all day and night together. Everts had served up a "hat-trick" to Young against Charleston that day, striking him out three times.

    Delmon was good-natured about it, and it gave him something else to tell Dmitri about when he called to wish him well in a game that didn't exist when the elder Young was coming up through the Reds' system.

  • As the Diamondbacks completely change direction, and contemplate trading not only Randy Johnson but also Steve Finley and even Luis Gonzalez, outfielder Conor Jackson gets that much closer to the big leagues. He was in the "big time" as an adolescent, appearing in various television commercials and programs, with a famous father of his own, John Jackson.

    Conor's dad has played Admiral A.J. Chegwidden on the hugely successful CBS show "JAG." After seven and a half years in series television, which Conor himself says can be a pretty boring life during his set visits; John said it has run its course. So he's grown a moustache, donned a Diamondbacks cap and watches his son whenever he can, and whenever he's not volunteering with the El Camino Real High School junior varsity baseball team.

    John says Conor got his athletic ability from his mother, Jana, and the "lil' bit of acting" that his son did as a kid, was exactly that, "just a little." It looks like he won't have to fall back on his acting roots, no matter how "little," for a while at least.

    Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.