LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Former Braves standouts David Justice and Fred McGriff began stints as guest spring-training instructors Monday, and for a moment Justice’s competitive juices were stirred.
“I just told Freddy that we’ve got Terry Pendleton, me and Freddy — we’ve got 3, 4 and 5 hitters,” said Justice, smiling. “I’ll take on any coaching staff within a 20-mile radius. And we’ve got [Braves minor league instructor Doug] Dascenzo leading off.
“I said let’s go play somebody – for one inning.”
Justice, 45, and McGriff, 48, will be in camp all week as part of a program the Braves began a few years ago, bringing in team alumni to suit up, observe and offer tips and advice for current players.
Former catcher Javy Lopez was in camp last week for his third consecutive spring, and Justice and McGriff are making their first appearances as guest instructors.
“It’s good to have those guys back, a stroll down memory lane,” said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, a Braves rookie on the 1995 World Series championship team that featured Justice and McGriff. “It’s always good to have the alumni back just kind of spreading their knowledge. Those guys were the guys that took me under their wing and really gave me so much guidance when I was younger.
“And that’s the first thing David said [to the Braves on Monday] – ‘Don’t be afraid to come up to me and ask the questions, because I’ve been through it.’”
Jones had his first September callup in 1993, the year Justice had 40 homers and a career-high 120 RBIs and Justice and McGriff finished 3-4 in MVP balloting.
“No matter how old Chipper gets, he isn’t going to be older than me,” Justice said. “He will never stop looking like the young Chipper when I first met him, know what I mean?
“It’s just always good to come back to any function with the Braves, because this is where my heart is. Even though I played with other teams, this is home for me, the Braves.”
As McGriff and Justice chatted with players between rounds of batting practice on a backfield at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, McGriff felt a bit of a tug.
“I’ve been thinking, let me get my glove, my hat, take a few ground balls,” joked the lean-as-ever former first baseman, whose 493 career homers included 130 in five seasons with the Braves through 1997.
He will commute this week from his home in Tampa.
“The organization was good to me back when I was playing,” said McGriff, who, after being traded from San Diego in July 1993, helped lead the Braves’ famous rally from 10 back to beat San Francisco by one game for the division title.
The pressbox at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium caught fire the day he arrived, and the Braves overcame a 5-0 deficit in that July 20 game against St. Louis, tying the score on a McGriff homer before pulling out the win.
McGriff hit .422 with seven homers and 12 RBIs in his first 12 games for the Braves, who went 51-19 after his arrival.
“Had a lot of great memories from playing with the Braves, going back to the fire,” he said. “Just to come out here today and see Bobby Cox and [John] Schuerholz, Terry Pendleton … I was surprised to see Justice. It’s great seeing Dave.”
Justice was drafted by the Braves in 1985 and had eight often-eventful seasons in Atlanta. He’s most famous for his sixth-inning homer that was the only run in the Braves’ 1995 World Series-clinching Game 6 win against Cleveland.
He had been vilified for his quotes in that morning’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when Justice called out Atlanta fans for not being supportive enough early in the World Series. He turned pregame boos to deafening cheers with his home run.
After one more season he was traded to Cleveland late in 1997 spring training. Justice has been back for some Braves functions but had not worn the full uniform until Monday. He flew in from his home in California.
“They didn’t have to talk me into it, they just had to invite me,” he said. “You invite me, I’ll come…. I’m looking forward to helping out whoever wants to spend some time with me. I’m not going to force myself upon any of the guys, but I’m definitely going to try to make sure I introduce myself to all the guys and make them feel comfortable, especially the young guys.”
McGriff and Jason Heyward went to a backfield for private instruction after Monday’s team workout, and Justice was spotted giving pointers to players ranging from Brian McCann to rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said only good could come out of having the former Braves standouts back in camp. Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro, Tom Glavine and Gene Garber are scheduled to be in later in camp, all having served as guest instructors in the past. John Smoltz might also make his first appearance in the role.
Murphy is scheduled for a double-length 15-day stint March 3-18.
“What greater tool is there than to sit there and talk to Freddy McGriff about playing first base or hitting?” Gonzalez said. “Freddie Freeman’s a first baseman, left-handed hitter – Fred McGriff. Jason Heyward is a right fielder – David Justice. And Javy with some of the young catchers, and on and on. What a great thing.”