I’d love to tell you the sentimental story about how Fred McGriff became my favorite baseball player when I was a nerdy kid growing up.
About how one time he flipped me a baseball during a Blue Jays batting practice. Or about witnessing his towering home run in my first Rangers game at Arlington Stadium.
But those would be lies. The truth is, I have no idea why a 6-year-old boy from Richardson, Texas became enamored by a first baseman playing in Toronto.
I loved the color blue. Maybe I got a bunch of McGriff baseball cards when I first started collecting them (man, did I love collecting baseball cards. There was nothing more important in my life as a grade schooler than ripping open Topps, Donruss and Upper Deck packets and seeing what new cards I was getting).
How do we choose our sports heroes? It’s an easier question to answer these days with the abundance of sporting events broadcasted and with athletes being more accessible on social media.
Why did I choose Fred McGriff as my favorite baseball player? I’ll never be able to answer that, but what I can tell you is that I couldn’t have imagined picking someone better.
McGriff is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. It won’t generate many headlines around this part of the country, and it’s been almost 20 years since McGriff’s last MLB at-bat.
But if you followed baseball during the pre-Steroid Era of the early 1990s, before guys like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds made home runs look ridiculously easy, then you knew who McGriff was.
He had a cool nickname, even if “Crime Dog” stemmed from an animated crime-preventing dog named McGruff. He had a cameo in Tom Emanski’s baseball instructional videos that flooded the late-night ESPN airwaves.
The left-handed first baseman had a unique helicopter-like swing that helped contribute to his 493 career home runs. While Ken Griffey Jr.’s was as smooth as silk, McGriff’s was a little more loopy and violent.
Not that I knew much about his swing growing up. There were no national baseball highlights on the local news, you rarely even found scores. And there certainly weren't cell phones keeping you instantly updated.
So I’d dash to the front yard before breakfast, grab the Dallas Morning News sports section and immediately scan the MLB boxscores. My mornings started off a smidge better or worse depending on how McGriff had fared the night before.
At first, it was Toronto’s results I was most interested in. Then stops in San Diego and Atlanta, where he helped the Braves win a World Series. He returned to his hometown of Tampa when the Devil Rays were born, spent some time with the Cubs and even had a brief appearance with the Dodgers.
There are many reasons why it took McGriff so long to be inducted into the HOF, and his nomadic career in mostly smaller markets is one of them. I’d always wondered what would have happened if the Yankees hadn’t traded McGriff after drafting him.
What do you want from your sports heroes? It’s a wide-ranging answer that usually includes personal and team success. Maybe I’m naive, but I’d assume most fans want their heroes to be genuinely good people too.
McGriff made headlines in 2001 because he hesitated leaving his family in Tampa and accepting a trade to the Cubs, who were in the thick of a pennant chase. He was humble, unassuming and well-liked by everyone.
And while many of his contemporaries couldn’t avoid the allure of steroids, McGriff stayed clean. All of a sudden, hitting 30 homers — something McGriff accomplished 10 times in a season — didn’t seem to matter as much.
For a long time, it looked like Cooperstown wouldn’t come calling. McGriff was seven homers shy of 500, a milestone that almost guarantees induction if you stayed away from performance enhancers. He never came close to getting 75 percent of the BBWAA’s vote.
Critics pointed to McGriff’s WAR (it’s only 52.6) and the fact that he wasn’t a defensive marvel or the smoothest baserunner. He never hit 40 homers in a season, either (although he would have if not for the 1994 work stoppage).
But for almost two decades, he was a feared slugger in the middle of every lineup he was in. McGriff thrived in the postseason — about the only time I could watch him on television because we lacked cable — batting .303 with 10 homers in 50 games.
When the Veterans Committee unanimously voted McGriff into the HOF in December, it unquestionably was a joyous moment for his family and friends.
It was also vindication for at least this McGriff fan who spent his younger years engrossed in the national pastime, whether it be wearing a custom-made Padres T-shirt after his trade from Toronto or reenacting the swings of the Braves’ batting lineup (who still remembers Mark Lemke was a switch-hitter?) during backyard baseball.
A recent audit of my collection showed 66 McGriff baseball cards compared to one of Griffey Jr. because I had a buddy who exploited my affection for the Crime Dog.
I’ve never been to Cooperstown. I’d kill to be there this weekend, but once I do make it to upstate New York, I know the first plaque I’ll look for.
This article originally appeared on Wichita Falls Times Record News: Fan favorite Fred McGriff enters the Baseball Hall of Fame