Fred McGriff’s first visit to baseball Hall of Fame: special, humbling, awesome

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Fred McGriff never previously had a reason or an opportunity to visit baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Tuesday’s orientation tour ahead of his July induction proved to be a most fitting occasion.

“Cooperstown, it’s a little tough getting here,” McGriff said. “Living down in Tampa, you don’t get the opportunity to get up here very much. So it’s very special. It’s humbling.

“(Tuesday) morning, walking through the museum, seeing the artifacts and so forth. Over the years, all the great players that are in here, and then to be a part of this, it’s awesome. It’s a blessing. It’s been great for my first time here.”

McGriff’s enshrinement will become official on July 23, when his plaque will be unveiled at the induction ceremony he will share with Scott Rolen.

One of the highlight’s of Tuesday’s two-plus-hour tour (McGriff invited along the Tampa Bay Times) was signing a placeholder in the corner space where his plaque will hang, joining the 340 there now. McGriff boasted to his wife, Veronica, about how legible his signature was and that he dotted the “i”.

“He’s been preparing for that,” she said.

As the McGriffs walked into the Hall, the usual smile on Fred’s face gave way to a look of wonderment at what Hall of Fame vice president Jon Shestakofsky calls “the holiest place” in all of baseball.

“This is so, so cool,” Veronica said. “And I keep telling him, we’re going here.”

Hall curator Tom Stieber steered McGriff, 59, to plaques of note, such as the one for Jackie Robinson.

As he walked through the exhibits, McGriff sought out plaques for people he knew, such as former managers, teammates and opponents from his time with the Rays, Braves, Padres, Blue Jays, Cubs and Dodgers.

He also looked for those with whom he shared Tampa ties, mentioning aloud that 2014 inductee Tony La Russa also is a Jefferson High alum.

And he was interested in those of former Reds stars, such as Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench, who he watched daily when the team held spring training at Al Lopez Field, near the current Raymond James Stadium site and within a mile of McGriff’s childhood home.

To know he now will be considered among their contemporaries?

“It’s amazing,” McGriff said.

Walking through the Hall, McGriff asked questions about everything from the lengths of bats and weights of balls to the backgrounds of specific jerseys and caps.

He was particularly drawn to exhibits for former home run champion Hank Aaron, whose advice he sought early in his career; and Lou Gehrig, noting the oft-made comparison that they both finished their careers with 493 homers and posing for a photo in front of Gehrig’s recreated locker.

“Everybody was always like, you’re tied with Lou Gehrig,” McGriff said.

McGriff said his life hasn’t changed dramatically since December, when the Hall’s 16-member Contemporary Era (since 1980) committee made up for the 10 years McGriff languished with little support on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot by making him a unanimous selection.

For the most part, he has handled it well.

“He has his moments,” Veronica said.

McGriff gets recognized more often, both around Tampa and when traveling (he does some scouting for the Braves), and is asked to sign more autographs by everyone from golf buddies to random people, such as a man waiting in the parking lot of the restaurant where McGriff had lunch with Hall officials.

Sometimes, when he’s thinking about it, he will add HOF ‘23 to his scrawl.

“It’s a little different,” he said. “But it’s a beautiful thing.”

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