July 22, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
In 1981, his first professional season in the New York Yankees’ organization, a 17-year-old Fred McGriff batted .148 and failed to homer in 29 games for their Rookie Ball Gulf Coast League (GCL) affiliate.
His manager in that campaign was Carlos Tosca, who wasn’t particularly worried about his teenage first baseman’s numbers.
“He was very young and right from the get-go, he had tremendous ball-strike recognition. Freddie did not chase pitches – to the point where I had to push him, to tell him that ‘Look you’re the only guy in this lineup who always has the green light because I want you to swing the bat,’” said Tosca in a recent phone interview. “But you could tell he was going to be a special player.”
Tosca, who later managed the Toronto Blue Jays, says McGriff’s poor numbers that first year after the Yankees had selected the young slugger in the ninth round were largely due to the wildness of GCL pitchers.
“Most of that was because he was not going to swing at a ball and there were a lot of balls thrown in the Gulf Coast League,” said Tosca. “A lot of those guys didn’t know where the ball was going and he just wasn’t going to chase. And the umpires were rookies, too. But I think the main thing that first year was he was just feeling his way through because he was so young.”
And just as Tosca had anticipated, McGriff was much improved in his second season when he rejoined the GCL Yankees and batted .272 with nine home runs and a .413 on-base percentage in 62 games.
“He went to spring training in 1982 and didn’t make a team out of spring training,” recalled Tosca. “So, I had the extended spring team and he played in extended spring training and tore it up. And we, the staff at the extended [spring training], recommended that he go to [class-A Short-Season] Oneonta and the powers that be said, ‘No, he’s going back to repeat [Gulf Coast League].’ And to his credit, he didn’t go down there and mope. He went back, and if I’m not mistaken, he led the league in home runs and won a championship and just took off from there.”
Tosca, who was McGriff’s manager in the GCL again in his second season, saw McGriff’s confidence grow.
“I didn’t know he was going to be a Hall of Famer of any of that. I’d by lying if I said that,” said Tosca. “But I will say this: after that second year, I put in my report that this guy is not only going to be a major leaguer, but he’s going to be an all-star major leaguer. I wrote that he had a Yankee Stadium swing and a couple of months later he was traded.”
Tosca was spot on with his assessment and clearly Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick felt the same way. On December 9, 1982, Gillick managed to have the budding 19-year-old slugger included a trade that saw the Blue Jays acquire outfielder Dave Collins and pitcher Mike Morgan in exchange for reliever Dale Murray and third base prospect Tom Dodd.
Tosca wishes the Yankees would’ve asked for his input before making that deal.
“George [Steinbrenner] didn’t know who McGriff was,” said Tosca. “I wasn’t real happy, because this kid, he had done everything to get himself into a position to being a prospect you shouldn’t even consider trading.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
With the Blue Jays, McGriff blossomed into one of the best home run hitters of his era. He hit the first 125 of his 493 big league round-trippers with the Blue Jays. In total, McGriff had 10, 30-home run seasons, 12, 90-RBI season and was selected to the All-Star Game five times. For his efforts, he will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.
After McGriff was traded, Tosca continued to manage in the Yankees organization for three more years, before becoming a skipper in the Kansas City Royals system. He would also be a minor league skipper in the Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves organizations prior to becoming the bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks managed by Buck Showalter from 1998 to 2000.
In 2002, Tosca was hired as the Blue Jays third base coach and when the team went 20-33 to begin the season, manager Buck Martinez was fired and Tosca took over.
Tosca led the Blue Jays to a 58-51 record down the stretch in 2002 and then to a better-than-expected 86-76 record the following year, which earned him American League Manager of the Year votes. But after the team stumbled to a 47-64 record in 2004, in one of those seasons where everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong for the Blue Jays, Tosca was let go.
As skipper with the Jays, Tosca managed Carlos Delgado, another powerful left-handed hitting first baseman.
“They’re both very similar,” said Tosca when asked to compare Delgado and McGriff. “They both had great knowledge of the strike zone. They never panicked. They always gave you a professional at bat. They had a lot of similar qualities that made them great.”
After his tenure as Blue Jays manager, Tosca landed back with the Diamondbacks as their third base coach. His final major league gigs were as a bench coach with the Florida Marlins (2007 to 2010) and with the Atlanta Braves (2011 to 2016). The 69-year-old Tosca has now been retired for three years and lives in Inlet Beach, Fla.
Throughout his coaching and managerial career, Tosca followed McGriff and stayed in touch with the slugger. They even golfed together a couple of times.
“I kept in touch with Freddie,” said Tosca, “and I still do. I congratulated him when he made the Hall of Fame.”
And Tosca will be watching McGriff deliver his Hall of Fame speech on TV on Sunday.
“I love Freddie and he is so deserving of this that I get emotional,” said Tosca. “We had a very good relationship and I’m very proud of him . . . He was a pleasure to coach.”