Power Of Love Uplifted by his marriage to a devout singer, Dodgers slugger Gary Sheffield is in the throes of his most productive season

August 13, 2000

Only because a journalist friend had an extra media pass to a
basketball game did DeLeon Richards, a devoutly religious young
woman and gospel singer from Chicago, happen to be in the lobby
of the New York Hilton on Friday, Feb. 6, 1998, at the moment
Gary Sheffield walked through. Some call this fate. Some call it
luck. Sheffield, now the star leftfielder for the Los Angeles
Dodgers, calls it the work of Jesus and Mary and everything
perfect and holy in the world. Maybe he's right.

Earlier that morning Sheffield, who then played for the Florida
Marlins and also was in New York for the NBA All-Star Game, says
he awoke, got out of bed and prayed to God for help in finding a
soul mate. "I had won a World Series ring, I was financially
secure, I had done everything I'd wanted," he says, "but I wasn't
happy."

Strolling through the lobby, Sheffield, who was with one of his
friends, noticed Richards from afar, standing with her friend.
Richards was short and cute and cuddly-looking--less Tyra Banks,
more Nia Long. Her smile said Hello, not Take me. Her wardrobe
was conservative, strictly No plastic pants allowed. She was
clearly not a jock hawk. In Sheffield's world, Richards
was...different.

Sheffield and his friend, who knew Richards's friend, ambled
over. He peeked at Richards, who was shyly hanging in the
background, while his friend chatted with her friend. "Come on
over here and sit down," he said to her, motioning to a nearby
sofa. "I'm not going to bite you."

For 40 minutes Sheffield unburdened himself. He spoke of failed
relationships and his three children by three women, none of whom
he had married. He told her of his too-trusting, oft-foolish
heart and of his desire to find a closer relationship with God.
He told her something was missing in his life, that there had to
be more.

"Before I got up," says Richards, "Gary said, 'You're going to be
my wife.'"

On Aug. 1 DeLeon Richards-Sheffield was sitting in the seats
along the third base line at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium,
picking at a glob of pink cotton candy, the early-afternoon glare
reflecting off her sunglasses. The 31-year-old Sheffield was
batting, and when he smoked his second double of the day, a
sixth-inning liner to leftfield off Pirates lefthander Jimmy
Anderson, she stood and clapped softly. Richards-Sheffield is
only 23, and despite having been a Grammy Award nominee at age 9
and having six albums to her credit, she's awed by how much her
life has changed in such a short time. She knows that Sheffield
is a six-time All-Star and a strong candidate for National League
MVP, but, until recently, she was confused as to why he didn't
run toward third base after hitting the ball. She now knows that
his statistics--through Sunday, a .342 batting average (sixth in
the league), a league-leading 35 home runs and 89 RBIs that rank
fifth in the league--are listed high in the newspapers. But until
that February 1998 morning Richards had never even heard of
Sheffield. She knew that someday she would be married...but to
someone like him?

During the three days they stayed at the Hilton, Richards and
Sheffield spotted each other numerous times. They would chat,
then move on. On the morning of their respective departures, he
asked for her number in Chicago. "I thought he was a nice guy,"
says Richards, "but it wasn't like, 'Oooh, I've got to have that
man.' I certainly didn't think I'd be his wife one day. I figured
it was the type of thing when you run into somebody, then you
never see him again."

Sheffield flew home to St. Petersburg, Richards to Chicago.
According to the Mammals' Rules of Dating Etiquette, it's
required that the male wait two full days before calling the
female. Sheffield called that night. "He said, 'I'm just checking
to make sure you got home safe,'" says Richards. "I'm thinking,
This really is a pretty nice guy."

Richards tested him along the way--hard tests that a playa like
Sheffield could have easily failed. A few weeks after they met,
he invited her to visit him in Viera, Fla., where the Marlins
held spring training. Richards hemmed and hawed before agreeing,
with one condition: Her mother, Deborah, and Yorkshire terrier,
Melody, would also make the trip. "I figured that that would be
it," says Richards.

Wrong. "Grrreeeaaat!" Sheffield replied. "I was happy," he says
now. "I knew she was the one, so why not meet Mom early?"

During the first seven months of their courtship, Richards didn't
allow Sheffield to kiss her. There were awkward hugs and gentle
handshakes and combination hug-shakes, but no lip contact. "I
knew sex before marriage was not going to happen, but I tried,"
says Sheffield, giggling like a 12-year-old who had found Pop's
hidden Playboy. "It was the respect she demanded, and I respected
that right off the bat. A lot of women came at me, saying they
were religious--that's how they would get me. That's how you stop
trusting people. But I did my research on DeLeon, and she proved
to be everything she said she was."

They married in the Bahamas on Feb. 4, 1999, in a small ceremony
that followed one of the great proposals of all time. Two months
earlier Sheffield had told Richards that he wanted her and her
parents to come to Tampa for Christmas. On Dec. 23 he took her to
Ruth's Chris Steak House for a quiet dinner for two. "After we
ate, I told DeLeon that we should check out the dessert room,"
says Sheffield. "She was like, 'There's no dessert room here.' I
said, 'Trust me, there's a dessert room.'" When DeLeon opened the
door to a large room, she was greeted by 65 of the couple's
relatives and friends. On several TV monitors throughout the room
Sheffield showed a video featuring snapshots from their early
lives, and then he called his son, six-year-old Gary Jr., to the
front of the room. (Sheffield's two daughters, Ebony, 14, and
Carissa, 12, were also in attendance; the three children live
with their mothers and spend time with Sheffield during vacations
and in the off-season.) As Dad got down on one knee, Gary Jr.
held out a ring. DeLeon began to sob. "I've always been a
romantic person, but it took a certain type of woman to bring it
out," says Sheffield. "You don't want to expose all of yourself
to a woman that you're not going to marry, but I knew there was
one person who could complete my life. She was standing in front
of me, beautiful, crying. It was the best day I've had."

Sheffield loves speaking about love. He likes speaking about
baseball. He loathes speaking about the past. He made his major
league debut as a 19-year-old shortstop with the Milwaukee
Brewers in 1988. He has never been able to cleanse his bio of
transgressions committed during a career that includes stints
with the Brewers, the San Diego Padres, the Marlins and the
Dodgers. At various times he blasted veteran teammates; ignored
advice from coaches, managers and executives; claimed to
intentionally botch a throw (or two); and even, in a fit of pique
last year during spring training, hinted that he was ready to
retire. Most articles about Sheffield's career--which includes a
near-Triple Crown season with the Padres eight years ago--go into
detail about these early misdeeds. "No matter what I do nowadays,
I'm always reminded of things from when I was a kid," he says.
"The truth? I was an immature 19-year-old playing in the majors
and I was scared stiff, but how long will guys keep digging it
up?"

Bitterness might be too strong a word, but it has taken love and
marriage and Richards-Sheffield's sweet touch to ease some of her
husband's antipathy toward the media, whom he blames for twice
costing him the National League MVP award: in 1992
(league-leading .330 average, third in home runs with 33 and
fifth in RBIs with 100 for the Padres) and in '96 (.314, 42
homers and 120 RBIs for the Marlins). However, Sheffield, who
came to L.A. in the blockbuster '98 trade that sent catcher Mike
Piazza briefly to the Marlins before he was rerouted to the New
York Mets, is now, by all accounts, the leader of the Dodgers, a
Yoda-like clubhouse presence who speaks out whenever the need
arises.

On July 26 Sheffield approached shortstop Alex Cora, who was in
an 11-for-62 slump. The 24-year-old Cora didn't feel comfortable
reaching out, and Sheffield sensed that. He gently advised Cora
to adjust his stance and stop pulling off the ball. "He told me I
should pick a player and watch his approach to things," recalls
Cora. "So I picked him." The next night, in a game against the
Colorado Rockies, Cora went 4 for 5 with two home runs and five
RBIs.

"Sheff's very smart about it all," says Los Angeles manager Davey
Johnson. "He picks things up quickly, and he communicates them
well. He's a natural guy to follow."

However, once again, Sheffield isn't a cinch to win the MVP
award, even if he has seemingly gotten on the good side of the
media. Perhaps it's because the Dodgers, with a 58-52 record
through Sunday, were only in third place, 3 1/2 games out in the
National League West and 5 1/2 games out in the wild-card race.
Also, with the arrival this year of rightfielder and Southern
Californian Shawn Green and the continued dominance of ace
righthander Kevin Brown, Sheffield has shared the spotlight on
his own team. Whatever the reason, while Piazza and St. Louis
Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds are hyped as MVP favorites 1
and 1A, Sheffield remains the third option, grouped with the
Montreal Expos' Vladimir Guerrero, the Rockies' Todd Helton and
the San Francisco Giants' Jeff Kent. What voters would be
ignoring by not selecting Sheffield, says Johnson, is a man who
plays no matter what ails him--and never complains about it.

During spring training Sheffield routinely sets statistical goals
for himself. This year was no different. He wanted 40 to 50 home
runs, 120 RBIs, a .300-plus average. "But the one I was really
set to go after," he says, "was 40 stolen bases." Sheffield
salivated at the thought of him and Green, L.A.'s No. 3 and
cleanup hitters, respectively, lighting up Dodger Stadium with
singles and doubles and steals, turning the place into a giant
pinball machine. "I would've done it--40 steals," says Sheffield,
whose career high is 25 with Milwaukee in 1990. "I know it."

But in the first inning of an April 8 game against the Mets,
Sheffield went back for a deep fly ball and stepped awkwardly on
the Shea Stadium warning track, twisting his right foot. He came
out of the game in the next inning and was diagnosed with a high
ankle sprain and stretched ligaments. It appeared unlikely that
he would make a quick return to the lineup. Though he was
hobbling, Sheffield missed nary a game. In fact, during batting
practice on May 1, he told Green that he was finally back to full
speed. "He said he was ready to start running fast again," says
Green. "That's the difference between him and me. When Sheff says
what he's going to do, he does it."

Not this time: Just minutes after the declaration, Sheffield,
collecting baseballs following his turn in the cage, stepped on a
ball that had rolled under a tarp. Again, his right ankle buckled
and swelled. Still, he missed no time. But on May 22 Sheffield
rolled the ankle again while trying to break up a double play in
a 4-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds. He finally missed two
games--both of them Los Angeles losses--a remarkable performance by
someone who should have been on the disabled list. Through Sunday
he had only four stolen bases in eight attempts.

So he has found other, more subtle ways to help out. With Green
struggling (through Sunday he was hitting only .207 since the
All-Star break), Sheffield has been increasingly pitched around.
Against Milwaukee last Friday night he came to the plate with no
outs in the bottom of the eighth and Mark Grudzielanek on first.
Sheffield didn't get much to hit from righty reliever Juan
Acevedo. On 3-and-2 he hit a slow roller down the third base
line, moving Grudzielanek, who was running on the pitch, into
scoring position. Two batters later Eric Karros drove in
Grudzielanek with what would be the winning run in the Dodgers'
2-1 victory. "Whatever it takes," said Grudzielanek, "that's what
Sheff is willing to do."

That's why Sheffield had been walked a league-high 81 times ("I
hate walking," he says, "but if they're not going to pitch to
me.... ") and why he had struck out only 48 times. "Guys who hit
for that much power aren't supposed to have that discipline,"
says Green. "It's remarkable." It's also why his ankle, routinely
in need of pre- and postgame treatment, doesn't prevent him from
playing day after day. "I believe in the Dodgers' winning a World
Series," he says. "Just not with me watching from the bench."

When he was with the Marlins, Sheffield owned a limousine service
and a graphic arts company. Both have been shut down because
Sheffield didn't want the distraction from baseball. He owns a
swanky 15,000-square-foot St. Petersburg home--"my dream house,"
he says. That home is on the market, and DeLeon and Gary are
looking at land in Orlando's Isleworth community on which they'll
build their dream house. Once he was a regular on the club scene.
Not now. "I've decided that I'm a baseball player, a husband and
a father," he says. "That's enough."

Sheffield belongs to two churches, one in Los Angeles and one in
Tampa. They each are receiving 5% of his six-year, $61 million
contract. "We went to church one day," he says. "We were going
over the Scripture about doing something you never thought you
would do. I never thought I'd be giving away 10% of my money."

He says this with a sarcastic grin. It was late last Friday night
in Los Angeles. The Dodgers' clubhouse was emptying. Sheffield
grabbed his portable CD player and wrapped the headphones around
his neck. He was about to listen to My Life, Richards's 1996
release. "My wife is going to be a star," says Sheffield. "I have
no doubt about it."

With that he exited the stadium. Sheffield had a wife to get
home to. He could hardly wait.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA Joyful noise DeLeon already has a Grammy nomination, but Gary wants her to aim even higher. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JON SOOHOO/LOS ANGELES DODGERS (2) All out A repeatedly reaggravated right ankle injury has prevented Sheffield from stealing bases but not from stealing hits. COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA

"Guys who hit for THAT MUCH POWER aren't supposed to have that
discipline," says Green of Sheffield.

"I was an IMMATURE 19-YEAR-OLD playing in the majors," says
Sheffield, "and I was scared stiff. How long will guys keep
digging it up?"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)