From the ‘Cuse to Cooperstown

In 1985 when I was the 21-year-old voice of the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs, Fred McGriff was the team’s 21-year-old first baseman. Neither of us was ready for the highest level of minor league baseball. Fred batted .227 with five home runs. If broadcasters had batting averages, I would have been below the Mendoza Line.

Thankfully, my bosses – Tex and John Simone – stuck with me as I improved, and the Toronto Blue Jays wisely stayed patient with Fred as he blossomed into a star.

Fred was the youngest player on a team with established veterans like Willie Aikens, Tom Henke, and former Michigan football star Rick Leach. He didn’t say a word. He quietly grinded, embraced coaching (no, Tom Emanski was not on the staff), and showed glimpses of his immense potential.  

McGriff returned to Syracuse the following year where he was joined by another 22-year-old slugger named Cecil Fielder. Since the Blue Jays considered McGriff to be the better major league prospect, Fred played first base and Cecil roamed left field. That decision was not embraced by the pitching staff as Cecil had the range of a professional bowler. But holy hell could they launch bombs. I probably got to call some of the longest home runs in minor league history. And I had no idea that Cecil’s two-year-old Prince would grow up to be a major league stud as well.

I crossed paths with Fred many times over the years when he came through Cincinnati with one of his six major league teams. By then he had been an All-Star several times and a home run champion in each league, and it was always fun to reminisce about those early years in the ‘Cuse. We both received International League championship rings that first year. I’m guessing that Fred’s 1995 World Series ring has a more prominent spot in his trophy case.

I can’t honestly say that I knew I was watching a future Hall of Famer in 1985, but I was certain that the humble, hard-working kid with the big smile was going to maximize his abilities.

Congratulations Fred on a hard-earned trip to Cooperstown.

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