“The proof is in the pudding,” Jones said. “From the second he got there, everything and everyone caught on fire.”
It still seems fitting the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium press box caught fire a few hours before McGriff was scheduled to play his first game for the Braves on July 20, 1993. The power-hitting first baseman had been acquired from the Padres two days earlier to provide a spark to an Atlanta team that was nine games back in the National League West race.
Safe to say, Atlanta was lit up upon McGriff’s arrival.
McGriff hit a game-tying homer in his Braves debut, and the team went 51-17 down the stretch to win one of the greatest pennant races in baseball history. The 59-year-old legend reminisced about this stretch and the 4 1/2 seasons (1993-97) he spent with the Braves on Monday, when he came to the Winter Meetings to be celebrated as the newest member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was unanimously elected by a 16-person Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee on Sunday.
“The experience in Atlanta was awesome,” McGriff said. “It was just a great bunch of guys.”
McGriff played for six MLB clubs, but he played more games for the Braves (636) than any other club. Well, he actually played one more game for Atlanta than he anticipated. Remember that press box fire? Well, it occurred on a night when he was expecting to rest the sore ribs he suffered while the Padres and Giants brawled a week earlier.
McGriff began his six-plus-hour drive from Tampa, Fla., around noon on July 20, 1993, because he knew he would arrive too late to be put in the lineup. Or so he thought. Not knowing the game had been delayed because of the fire, he entered Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium around 6:30 p.m. and found his name in the starting lineup.
“I was like, ‘Oh boy,’” McGriff said. “I headed to the trainer’s room because my ribs were still sore from the issues we had with the Giants. And then, the stadium catches on fire. The Man Upstairs was down on me and saying, ‘You need to be ready to play.’”
Well, McGriff drilled a game-tying homer in the sixth inning of his debut, and the Braves went on to a 103-win season and won a third straight NL West crown. Atlanta would win a World Series in 1995, return to the Fall Classic in ‘96 and advance to the NL Championship Series with McGriff again in ‘97.
“He was a great teammate, and he always had a smile on his face,” Braves Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz said. “He’s a gentle giant, and those guys don’t come around too often. You enjoyed being around Fred McGriff.”
McGriff hasn’t decided which hat will be on his plaque when he is enshrined into the Hall of Fame on July 23 in Cooperstown, N.Y. But he certainly has a genuine appreciation for the four-plus years spent in Atlanta with Jones, Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz, a group of former Braves teammates who he can now refer to as fellow Hall of Famers.
“Bobby Cox is a great man, and he was a great leader,” McGriff said. “He kept everybody together, and he was the boss man and so forth. It was just a great bunch of guys. [Greg Maddux], Mark Lemke. You go down the list with David Justice. It was just good people. It’s a great honor to be in the Hall of Fame with those guys.”
McGriff hit .284, averaged 32 homers per year and constructed an .886 OPS during his 19-season career. With the Braves, he batted .293, bashed 130 homers and had an .885 OPS.
Among Braves with at least 2,500 plate appearances for the team, McGriff ranks fourth in career slugging percentage (.516), fifth in on-base percentage (.369) and seventh in batting average (.293).
“He was the prototypical cleanup hitter of that time,” Jones said. “I know this. I was [darn] glad to have him as my protection in the lineup. This is long overdue. When you sit down and look at the numbers, that guy was some kind of consistent.”