Even Larry Sheets has a hard time explaining exactly why he's not playing leftfield for the Rochester Red Wings now, swinging the bat scouts have called one of the quickest they've ever seen and giving the home folks in Staunton, Va. an excuse to carpool over to Richmond to watch him during the Wings' swings South. The Baltimore Orioles, who picked Sheets, a left-handed power hitter, in the second round of the 1978 amateur draft and watched him hit .379 in the low minors last season, can't explain his absence from Rochester, their Triple A team, any better. "Every scout who has ever seen him has come away raving about him," General Manager Hank Peters has said. "It breaks your heart to think about it."
To the Orioles, Sheets' former high school Coach Jim Goodloe, and the rest of the folks in Staunton—which nurtured Woodrow Wilson and isn't used to its talented offspring shrugging off larger responsibilities—the shame is that Sheets' biggest accomplishment in pro baseball so far has only been the league-leading home run total of 14 he ran up at Bluefield, W. Va., the Orioles' rookie league farm club, in barely half of last season. In their eyes he could be a lot more than the 21-year-old student he is now at nearby Harrisonburg's Eastern Mennonite College, playing some softball and working toward a degree in phys ed.
"When I got out of high school I thought baseball was the only thing I'd want out of life," says Sheets. "And if I'd gone straight on to college, I'd probably wish that I'd played pro baseball. I have no regrets. Baltimore has always left it so I can come back when I want to. It's kind of like the thing going on with Ralph."
But it isn't, really. By staying at Virginia, Ralph Sampson, who was Sheets' basketball rival for three years in high school, is enhancing his skills and his value. But Sheets sees no lefthanders' curves playing softball, and he won't graduate before turning 23—the age when baseball people feel that prospects who haven't made a commitment to the game should be forgotten.
June 14, 1981
In fact, Sheets isn't so much attracted to college life as turned off by baseball life, which makes him so homesick that he can't abide it. "You're supposed to be an adult so soon," he says. "In college, people go home on weekends, but you don't do that playing baseball. Always being on the go, being gone six to nine months of the year, that bothers me more than anything. You're 18 years old, but you're supposed to be 23 or something."
Less than two weeks after Sheets' graduation from Robert E. Lee High, the Orioles packed him off to Bluefield, where he hit .267, led the Appalachian League in RBIs and tied for second in homers. But that November, after two good months in the Florida Instructional League, he went home, not to return to baseball until the Orioles lured him back to Bluefield for the last three games of the 1979 season. "They said they wanted to see how it would work out mentally," says Sheets. After the season ended, the Orioles sent him to a Baltimore psychiatrist. "He made me feel like a little kid," Sheets says. "It's a hard thing to cope with, to think I'm nuts. I know I'm not."
Sheets planned to sit out the 1980 season, too, until a friend, Jeff McCauley, persuaded him to join a team in a local amateur league. After six games Sheets decided to report to Bluefield. "If I was going to get involved at all," he says, "I wanted to do it professionally."
Last summer, again playing in the Appalachian League, where hitters dig in at their own risk because of all the wild, young arms, Sheets did to baseballs what he'd done to Wiffle Balls and softballs back in Staunton: hit long ones more consistently than anyone else. He homered every 8.9 at bats before being called up to the Orioles' Double A club in Charlotte, N.C., where he played in 13 games. Despite his success, Sheets was less than enthusiastic about the game. "Sometimes I feel bad because I'm here," he had said at Bluefield, "and a lot of other people would really like to be here."
Even though he had earned assignment to Rochester for this season, Sheets skipped spring training, again citing homesickness as an excuse, along with an operation for bone chips in his right elbow that sapped his confidence. (His throwing arm is considered only average when healthy.) Then early last month an episode began that typifies Sheets' professional career. He told Dick Bowie, the scout who stalked and signed him, that he wanted to give baseball another try as soon as the spring term ended. But after agreeing to report to the Class A Hagerstown (Md.) Suns on May 29, Sheets never showed. He had packed, but didn't leave home. He recited to himself his usual litany of reservations: loss of school time, dislike of travel, the arm surgery. As of last Sunday Sheets was still in Staunton, set on returning to Eastern Mennonite next week for summer school.
Through it all, Sheets has never blamed the game. "While I was playing—playing—it was great. I just want to be a secure person, to have something to fall back on," he says, referring to his decision in 1979 to enroll at Eastern Mennonite. "Does that make any sense?"
Even with a bat in his powerful hands. Sheets seeks security. He's a first-ball hitter to a fault because, he says, he doesn't like to be behind in the count. And he instinctively choked up on the bat whenever there were two strikes against him during his first year at Bluefield until the late Clyde Kluttz, then Baltimore's director of player development, told him sternly never to do it again.
"It bothers me a bit that one day I'll knock on the Orioles' door and say, 'Hey, I want to play ball,' and there'll be no one home," he says. "But as I told them, I'm tired of making promises and keeping them on the hook. Baltimore is the best organization in baseball. I was happy to sign with them, and they've been great to me."
Goodloe can't figure it out. "Larry gets picked by his favorite team," he says. "It was his dream. He was a lazy student who hated school, and now here he is in college doing very well. But I have to admire him for making up his own mind. It's easy to buckle under to peer pressure or society's pressure."
There has been plenty of that since Sheets' senior year at Lee High. Goodloe would talk umpires into playing in rainstorms just so scouts who had made the trip could see Sheets hit. When one sensible pitcher disappointed the scouts by walking Sheets three times in one game, Sheets stayed afterward while the coach pitched to him. "He was just about the oldest guy on the team," says Goodloe. "The young guys who'd shag flies for him wanted to see him succeed more than anyone."
When it seemed that Sheets had become the only obstacle to his own success, some citizens of Staunton reacted unkindly. "They would call the house and tell my parents that they should make me do this or that," Sheets says. "In the street some would ask me about it or cuss at me, like I'd let them down. You can only be nice for so long. They've got their lives to live and I've got mine."
For the last seven months that life has been a happy one. As a 6'4" forward on Eastern Mennonite's basketball team last winter, he was the seventh-best rebounder in the NCAA's Division III. He especially enjoyed the daily chapel services. "I have a lot of faith in prayer," he says. "I know some people can't understand how you can be led to do something. I just have that faith."
"He's a person of high morals," says Bowie, the scout who has remained in exasperating contact with Sheets the past four years. "But he shouldn't be throwing this away. It's a shame if someone with that much ability doesn't use it."
"I really feel bad about it because I hate to see good people get upset," says Sheets. "I hope they see that what I've done isn't meant to get them upset."
For now, back in Staunton, good people like Goodloe are more resigned than upset at what a good person, Sheets, has chosen to do. "You admire him and you respect him," says Goodloe. "But you still wonder why."