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Friday, May 6, 2011

Terry McGriff Interview Part 2, Soaked It In

Terry McGriff, left, at the rail during a recent game at Bridgeport's Harbor Yard.

Part 1: Chose Baseball | Part 2: Soaked It In

Soon after being called up to the Reds for the first time, Terry McGriff arrived at his locker and discovered inside were six brand new suits. The suits, he learned, were from another Reds catcher, a former catcher. That was Johnny Bench.

Bench was a player McGriff had looked up to as a young ballplayer, even once brashly telling his father that he wanted to be better than Bench.

Now, in 1987, McGriff was playing for the team that Bench once played for, with a locker full of suits sent by Bench, who had an interest in a local suit store.

With the suits, came a meeting, the Hall of Famer talking to the rookie about about the job, and the responsibilities of a major league catcher.

"You just soak it all in and you do what you can do when you get on the field," McGriff recalled of the meeting.

"It was an honor," McGriff said of making the majors. "It was really a dream come true, I just wish it could have lasted a little longer."

That first season, it lasted 34 games. His major league career lasted parts of six seasons, 126 total games played. And his big league career wouldn't end until August 1994, five days before the start of the 1994 strike.

Terry McGriff, at the rail, watches a Bluefish take a swing May 1, 2011 at Bridgeport

McGriff made the majors
in July 1987, in the midst of his seventh professional season. He hit .225 in 89 at bats for the Reds that year, including two of his three career big league home runs.

While he had butterflies to start, those were gone after his second appearance, first big league start. He got his first home run July 30 against San Diego. The second, a grand slam, came Sept. 15 in a rout against Atlanta.

The feeling of the grand slam, McGriff said, was hard to explain. But the feeling of being a rookie hitting in the majors was easier.

"Every time I see a young kid come up to the big leagues, I just know what he's feeling," McGriff recalled. "I can just see through their eyes because I've been there."

"You just want it to last, you want to stay in the big leagues for 15 years and you want it to be that way all the time."

Bridgeport catcher Luis Rodriguez waits for a pitch May 1, 2011. Rodriguez plays Bluefish bench coach Terry McGriff's old position.

McGriff started 1988 back in Cincinnati, going 4 for 4 in an April 20 outing against San Francisco. It was in that outing that his third and final home run came.

But injuries and other events would intervene. McGriff tried play on a pulled groin for two weeks. But his big league stint in 1988 largely ended by late June. McGriff did work himself back for one last game that year, getting one at bat Sept. 28.

"That's the nature of the game," McGriff said, "You just keep going at it."

McGriff, though, got even fewer big league outings in 1989, six spread between April and September. In 1990, the year the Reds won the World Series, McGriff played just two games for the Reds.

He wasn't even with the organization by the playoff run, traded to the Astros for September, getting into four games with that club.

"It was tough sitting at home watching them play the World Series," McGriff said, "but it is what it is."

A Bridgeport Bluefish scores on a close play at the plate.

After those appearances with the Astros, though, McGriff didn't return to the majors until September 1993, for four games with the Marlins.

It was a three year gap, one that McGriff blamed himself for. He knew the business and he worked hard to get back, going to Venezuela and elsewhere to hone his game and get noticed again.

"What do you do?" McGriff said of his effot to get back. "You just keep fighting, I was still sort of young. ... It's just a matter of fighting, just a matter of keeping working. You never know what's going to happen."

By 1994, McGriff was with the Cardinals. He also went on to play the most games in the majors, 42. He'd had a good spring and key injuries kept him with St. Louis for the entire, albeit shortened, season.

Then the strike came. McGriff played Aug. 7. The strike stopped baseball Aug. 11. His major league career was over.

McGriff played with the Tigers at AAA Toledo in 1995, then the Blue Jays at AAA Syracuse in 1996, ending his career in affiliated baseball.

By 1998, the catcher, his knees hurting from his long playing career, signed on with the independent Bridgeport Bluefish in the fledgling Atlantic League.

"I just wanted to play," McGriff said of his decision to continue his career in independent ball. "That's all I've ever done all my life. I mean, I worked, but what i enjoyed doing was being around baseball."

"I felt like I had a little bit left in the tank," McGriff said.

A photo from the Bridgeport Bluefish 1999 championship celebration, on display in the Bluefish team offices.

McGriff played four years for the Bluefish, helping the team win the 1999 league championship, the championship that McGriff said put him at peace with the end of his playing career.

By 2003, his playing days over, McGriff returned to the Bluefish as hitting coach, a job he held through 2007. He became bench coach in 2009, a job he holds into 2011. He's now coaching under longtime Bluefish manager Willie Upshaw, the same manager he played for.

As a coach on an independent league team, McGriff has the opportunity to work with younger players, as well as older players who've already made it and want to get back. Many have also recently been released by other organizations.

For the ones who've already made it, and even the ones who haven't, independent ball isn't necessarily where they want to be, McGriff acknowledged. They want to be in affiliated ball, with a direct path to the majors.

"You've got to have patience with them," McGriff said. "It takes a while to get them to understand you're here to help, not here to try and play the games that maybe organized ball did."

"You're just here to help them, and hopefully, they'll listen and hopefully they'll have an opportunity."

With independent ball also comes that opportunity, McGriff noted. Scouts often come to games looking for talent other organizations may have missed.

"You never know when they're going to come," McGriff said. "You just tell the kid, 'hey you've got to stay ready man, because you might only get one shot."

Part 1: Chose Baseball | Part 2: Soaked It In

Terry McGriff in his Harbor Yard office.

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