If you’re of a certain age or frequently stay up past what most consider “a reasonable time,” you are likely familiar with the above image. I fit both of those criteria, so “Major League Super Star” Fred McGriff sticks out for me as the quintessential 1990s first baseman.
Who could be more 90s than the star of the most 90s infomercial ever (“used by Baseball World‘s back-to-back-to-back AAU national championship teams!”)? Fred McGriff was consistently very good and occasionally excellent. He was the Bravesiest Brave during a decade in which the Braves’ very-goodness defined baseball, and during a time when I considered giving up on the sport all together, McGriff became the reason I stuck around.
One of my early baseball memories is attending a late-September game at Wrigley Field in which the Cubs defeated the Mets behind Mitch Williams’ only career home run. Or maybe it isn’t. I had a Mitch William autograph and maybe my dad only told me it came from that game to make it even more exciting.
Either way, I was a Cubs fan, and that homer stuck with me as I watched Mitch, by then a Philly, give up a walk-off home run to Joe Carter in Game 7 of the 1993 World Series. 1993 was one of the first years I starting watching baseball actively. The Cubs had a fun team. Sammy Sosa broke out; Mark Grace provided his steady hand and seemed to hit only doubles; Ryne Sandberg was there. The team finished 84-78, and the future seemed relatively bright. Very-goodness was right around the corner.
Tuffy Rhodes homered three times on opening day in 1994. Sosa was a year older. Dunston was back from injury, Steve Trachsel presented himself as a perfectly acceptable starting pitcher; they still had Ryno; they still had Grace hitting only doubles. Hell, in 1994, I’d have put Randy Myers up against any closer in the game. “Dennis Eckers-who? Lee Smith what? Randy had 53 saves last year.”
Then Ryne Sandberg shocked Chicago and abruptly retired in June. The team was already mired in a disastrous campaign and stood at 23-37. In all honesty, I had checked out of 1994 well before the strike rolled around. And with the retirements of Sandberg and Michael Jordan happening within a year of each other, I was in danger of losing two of my favorite Chicago icons. Scottie Pippen still kept me warm at night, but my interest in baseball threatened to disappear altogether.
This is where my internal Behind The Music narrator says something like, Little did he know, his salvation would come from a most unlikely source.
Enter Fred McGriff.
Around the time of the strike, my family ordered cable TV for the first time, and with the new baseball season, I discovered the weird and wonderful world of Atlanta Braves on TBS: The Superstation. I had never realized that the Cubs were not the only team on TV—a very solipsistic Cubs fan notion, I know. But there were the Braves, playing the same game in the far off land of Atlanta, and playing it remarkably well.
Greg Maddux, so recently a Cub, went HAM that year; Smoltz and Glavine turned in routine seasons by their own high standards; Chipper Jones came very close to winning Rookie of the Year; David Justice was not yet known exclusively as the man Halle Barry had to file a restraining order against; Ryan Klesko seemed like a name to keep an eye on. That team had Javy Lopez, too. The good Javy Lopez. These Braves were very good, and what’s more, their very-goodness hadn’t dropped out of the sky. It wasn’t contingent on a couple of splashy free-agent signings. It was home-grown, by and large, the result of a lot of careful cultivation, and for that reason, the Braves’ very-goodness in the mid-1990s looked like nothing less than a permanent condition. They were everything my Cubs weren’t.
Yes, Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace were both phenomenal that season. But Todd Zeile was not Larry Jones; Scott Servais would never be confused with Javy Lopez; and, bless him, Jamie Navarro (14-6/3.28/200.1 IP/1.248 WHIP) was not Greg Maddux. My predominant Cubs memories from that season are of Howard Johnson hitting a few pitch-hit home runs; Howard Johnson having a name like the motel chain (something I could relate to; and Brian McRae stretching an opponent’s single into a double one afternoon on account of some lackadaisical centerfield play. Even with Grace and his doubles and Sosa looking faintly like the next Clemente, that Cubs team defined tedium. They were aggressively mediocre, and that was probably the only aggressive quality about them.
His style was the absence of style.
But over on TBS, the Braves were a machine. And the central cog on offense was Fred McGriff. He led the team in hits, doubles, total bases, and RBIs. He was the ur-Brave: unassuming, efficient, somewhat silly when you thought about it — a nickname based on a cartoon anti-crime advocate? C’mon — never the best but always around. I suppose you could say McGriff was swag before we knew what swag was. His style was the absence of style. “This is the video that gets results,” he once said in a commercial, and people still talk about it. And can sports get any more banal than this?
McGriff’s nickname “Crime Dog” was bestowed on him by ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman, noted for his unusual and idiosyncratic player nicknames. … At first, McGriff stated he would prefer “Fire Dog” (a reference to a fire in the press-box of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the day the Braves acquired him from the Padres; symbolically, the then-slumping Braves “caught fire” and ended up winning their division), but since has stated that he actually is fond of the “Crime Dog” nickname.
In 1995, the Braves took down the Indians (oh, those poor, poor 90s Indians) in six. Even if you didn’t cheer for them, you had to respect what they had accomplished. The Braves made very-goodness look easy, and they had done so long enough that they had finally achieved, in the form of a World Series victory, greatness. Why couldn’t my Cubs replicate their success? How come the closest they came to playing Atlanta Braves baseball was when they foolishly imported putative Cub-killer Jeff Blauser? Why masochistically follow the Cubs when quality was just the next superstation — and television station — over?
Later, it would occur to me that baseball fandom didn’t have to be so self-lacerating, that it didn’t have to be about waiting endlessly for that one, great, dizzying orgasm, that it could be about watching home-grown very-goodness, year after year after year. Cubdom was and still is predicated on attaining that orgasm, from the fans up to the front office, even if it means mortgaging the team’s future; Bravedom, McGriffdom, was about brutal consistency, about staying out of the valleys, about simple competence and, as the man himself said, getting results.
In 1998, McGriff decamped for the Tampa Bay Baseball Collective Previously Known As Vinny Castilla And The Devil Rays, where he played well, grinding away in a backwater no one cared about.
In 2001, the Cubs were contending. John Lieber was flirting with the idea of becoming an ace; Sosa had seemingly slugged his way past Clemente and was enjoying the best season of his career; Kerry Wood was showing Kerry Woodian flashes of brilliance; things were looking like they tend to look when Cubs fans become more optimistic than usual. But first base was a hole. Grace was let go the previous offseason. Matt Stairs was an admirable player (very grok, that man), and Julio Zuleta was too raw for the here-and-now; they wouldn’t cut it.
They need to make a move. Look at that, Fred McGriff is toiling away in obscurity, but he looks like he’s putting it all together again. Ed Lynch, Andy MacPhail? You know what you have to do: whatever it takes to get the Tribune Co. to open their coffers. You let Grace walk away, you bastards, do what’s right. McGriff was there when I saw how a real team could play well together for the first time. McGriff is why I like baseball. You need to make that trade.
In my bones I knew this trade would be just another Cubs trade—the sort of move the very-good Braves never had to make: something splashy to momentarily achieve maximum levels of fan optimism; a Band-Aid stretched over a fracture. McGriff was just the latest in a long line of quick-fixes. The Cubs importing the epitome of 90s Braveness was the epitome of any-decade Cubness. Still, without those quick fixes, Cubs fans would be forced to more closely examine what they allowed to happen to themselves each and every year.
You need to make that trade.
And they did. He came over. He raked. The Cubs lost. He left. I didn’t. The sun rose.