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Swinging Away

Oct. 11, 2004
Oct. 11, 2004

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Oct. 11, 2004

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Swinging Away

Coming off an MVP-caliber season, the well-traveled, oft-maligned yet much-admired Gary Sheffield takes his cuts at Pedro, Barry and Ichiro

He has an old gunshot wound in his left shoulder from thwarting an attempted car jacking in his native Tampa when he was 26; a long, jagged scar on a surgically repaired right knee that has slowly deteriorated; a separation of his left shoulder that occurred early this season and randomly stabs him with pain; and the strongest, fastest hands in baseball, with which he once pummeled a teammate so forcefully that the poor guy flew backward into his locker like a sack of dirty laundry. But on the morning of May 26, as the sun began to peek over Baltimore's

This is an article from the Oct. 11, 2004 issue Original Layout

Inner Harbor and into the window of his fifth-floor hotel suite, the 35-year-old tough guy felt a new kind of pain that had kept him up all night and brought him to the edge of tears--and close to quitting baseball. This time the pain was in his heart.

Gary Sheffield was tired. To be specific, he was tired of Gary Sheffield--at least that malcontent, baggage-laden Gary Sheffield whom many people still believed him to be. Five months after New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had personally signed him as a free agent, Sheffield was hitting .265 with only three home runs in 44 games. Worse, he had heard that last off-season general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre had preferred another free-agent outfielder, Vladimir Guerrero. "Guerrero [now 28] was younger, and you heard a lot of [controversial] things about Gary," Cashman says.

That very kind of secondhand judgment--over 17 years and six organizations (he's made the All-Star team with five of them, the only player ever to do so)--had worn Sheffield out. A religious man since meeting gospel singer DeLeon Richards in 1997 and marrying her in '98 (they have a two-year-old son, Jaden), the tough guy prayed for help. He was tired of not hitting, tired of shadowboxing a reputation, tired of not feeling wanted. "Me and God were going at it," Sheffield says about that night in Baltimore. "I said, 'I can't keep going to work like this. I need to know if I want to play or not.'"

God gave him an answer: Think not just of yourself but about the fans and the players around you. "It isn't about you and what you're going through," Sheffield says. "It's about other people you're reaching, about when they see you producing and speaking your mind."

Sheffield decided to keep playing, but not before speaking with Torre. They met in the manager's office at Camden Yards that afternoon. Sheffield needed to hear that Torre wanted him on the Yankees, and the manager said just that.

When he left Torre's office, "I was a new man," Sheffield says. He called his uncle, Dwight Gooden, the former star pitcher and current Yankees adviser. "They ain't seen me [hit] yet, but I'm about to get started," Sheffield said. 'It's time to put all the women and children to bed."

That night he whacked four hits and drove in six runs. The next night he ripped three more hits. It was decided, all right. Since May 26 Sheffield drove in 102 runs in 110 games with one good shoulder--and stamped himself as a leading contender for the American League Most Valuable Player award. Guerrero likely snatched the trophy with his torrid stretch run (box, page 58), but Sheffield's credentials are solid. His Triple Crown category stats are impressive enough (.290, 36 homers, 121 RBIs), but he also hit .342 in the late innings of close games (seventh inning or later with the batting team either ahead by one run, tied or with the potential tying run at least on deck), including two ninth-inning home runs that rescued the Yankees from defeats. Since May 26 New York went 26-5 when its star rightfielder hit a home run and 49--38 when he didn't.

"I've never seen anything like it," teammate Alex Rodriguez says. "It's been movielike the way he comes up in big spots and delivers every time."

With a don't-mess-with-me glint in his eyes, Sheffield belongs in a Clint Eastwood role, his capacity to endure pain inspiring the Yankees and his ability to inflict pain intimidating opponents. Says one AL scout, "Sheffield is the MVP. There's no question in my mind. He is the ultimate warrior." Toronto Blue Jays G.M. J.P. Ricciardi sought out Sheffield during a batting practice session in August to tell him, "I want you to know how much I enjoy watching you play the game. You play the game as hard as anybody in baseball."

From the outset, Sheffield established himself as a commanding leader on the Yankees. When outfielder Kenny Lofton complained on the second day of the season about batting ninth, it was Sheffield who pulled him aside and told him to stuff it. "If you take on Mr. Torre," he told Lofton, "you're going to lose. And you won't just be done with the Yankees. You'll be done in baseball."

After Rodriguez struggled for much of the season with runners in scoring position, it was Sheffield who snapped him out of it in August by telling him to "stop feeling for the ball and let it fly."

And when Boston Red Sox righthander Pedro Martinez flashed his usual machismo on July 1 by nailing Sheffield with a pitch after he had the temerity to ask for time as Martinez prepared to throw, Sheffield stood up to him. "You're messin' with the wrong guy," he warned Martinez, glowering as he walked to first base.

Indeed, during his tenure in Milwaukee (1988 through '91) Sheffield once flattened teammate Mark Knudson after the righthander told writers that he didn't want the ball hit to Sheffield in the late innings. After knocking Knudson into his locker, Sheffield turned around to his teammates and said, "Anybody else got a problem?" The room fell silent.

Martinez, Sheffield says, should be aware that he's been put on similar notice. "I gave him one buddy pass," Sheffield says. "If he says one word to me, he's done. Pedro, your buddy pass is over. I've been playing for 17 years. I will never be disrespected on a baseball field or off. If he tries anything again, I won't hurt my team, but I'm telling you, I will take care of him."

No one swings a bat with more ferocity and seeming menace than Sheffield, and he wields words in a like manner. Says Sheffield, "When you hear it from me, you're going to hear it directly. I've been this way all my life. If you really don't want to know the truth, you better go to somebody else."

Ichiro Suzuki? "Two hundred singles? Come on. That doesn't make you a great hitter. If I didn't care about hitting the ball hard and hitting it out of the park, I'd hit you singles all day long. Any guy can go out there and get a single if that's all you try for. I ain't impressed."

Performance-enhancing drugs? "I know guys are not that much better than me naturally. There's no way possible. I'm not going to say any names, [but] six years ago I had the same number of home runs as another player, and I have had my best [home run] years since then. And you mean to tell me he outhomered me by 250? No way possible. Ain't no one in the world who can convince me that is possible."

The MVP? "If it was A-Rod [having the year I'm having], it would be unanimous. If it was someone else, it would be unanimous. But why isn't it? Because it's Gary Sheffield. And I'm supposed to be flattered [by being mentioned]? My uncle [Gooden] said, 'Man, don't say anything' or 'Do this or do that' to get it. If I have to kiss your behind to get an award, guess what? I won't win it."

Sheffield understands that such frank talk has contributed to people's wariness of him, as it did with Cashman, for instance. The G.M. knew that Sheffield had played himself out of Los Angeles in 2001 by calling team chairman and CEO Bob Daly a "liar" and identifying the mistakes the Dodgers made on contracts for several of his teammates, such as the five-year, $55 million deal given to injury-prone righthander Darren Dreifort.

Cashman also had heard the well-worn story about Sheffield's throwing balls away purposely while with the Brewers to hasten a trade. (Milwaukee dealt him in 1992.) Sheffield himself started the legend that year when he told the Los Angeles Times that he hated Milwaukee so much that if the official scorer gave him what Sheffield thought was an undeserved error, "I'd say, 'O.K., here's a real error,' and I'd throw the next ball into the stands on purpose."

Sheffield later recanted the statement, explaining that he said it "out of frustration." Indeed, there is no documented evidence of any such willful transgression. Sheffield was charged with two errors in a game three times in Milwaukee. In none of those instances did the second error by Sheffield put the batter on second base, which would have occurred on a throw into the stands.

Now Sheffield says the story originated at Stockton of the California League in 1987, his second year of professional ball. Then a shortstop, he was charged with an error on a relay throw from outfielder Darryl Hamilton because, Sheffield claims, the official scorer wanted to protect Hamilton's errorless streak. Sheffield was so angry over the call that on his next fielding chance he tried to throw the ball as hard as he could to first base, resulting in a wayward throw. He was 18 years old at the time.

beneath a brilliant midday sun the undulating harbor water throws off specks of light. It's September, and Sheffield is back in the same Baltimore hotel suite in which he was so despondent four months before. The tough guy, his thick, bridge-cable arms exposed from a sleeveless Tshirt, is ironing.

Sheffield had no doubts about his standing as a Yankee now. He has even tied Joe DiMaggio's record for most home runs in a season at Yankee Stadium by a righthanded hitter (19). His teammates are drawn to him, inspired by his grit and humbled by his ability. They still talk in reverence about the home run he hit off Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan on Aug. 19. New York was down to its last two outs. Sheffield decided Nathan's breaking ball that night was unhittable, so he looked for something hard and away.

"You have to appreciate how much conviction that takes," Torre says. Nathan throws 97 mph. If he threw his fastball inside while Sheffield was committed to it away ... well, that's why they have ambulances standing by.

"If you come inside you're really doing me a favor," Sheffield explains, "and do you really want to do me a favor? Do you want to deal with your teammates and your manager who know I'm an inside hitter?"

Nathan threw a 97-mph fastball low and away, out of the strike zone. Sheffield hooked it over the wall in leftfield for a game-tying homer. His teammates couldn't believe that he took a pitch that fast and that far away from him and pulled it so far. But Sheffield had been so amped for that very pitch that he thought he'd hit a 90-mph slider. "I'm able to slow things down in my brain," Sheffield says. "I don't know if you can explain that. It's a gift from God."

In August, Braves closer John Smoltz called Sheffield the one man "I feared facing more than any other righthanded hitter."

Says Rodriguez, "He can do something I've never seen anybody else do: He can sit on a breaking ball and still react to a fastball and get to it out front. He's amazing."

After 17 years and 415 home runs there is still a sense of discovery about Sheffield as the Yankees begin their quest for a fifth World Series title in nine years with a Division Series against the Twins. "He's been everything we could have hoped for and more," says Cashman. "He's a better defensive player than I thought. He's been a perfect fit."

Late at night, after road games, Sheffield and reliever Tom (Flash) Gordon, his closest friend on the team, order in food and play cards. The games last longer if one of them had a bad night at the park. One night Sheffield interrupted the card game for a moment and said, "Flash, this is the happiest year I've had in baseball."

Sheffield, the iron now upright in his hand, a black linen shirt spread out on the board, is reminded of that comment and asked if he really meant it. "Yeah," he says, "because you can't hide anything playing in New York, you can't pretend. You can't hide what kind of player you really are."

He drops his head and gets back to work, back to ironing out the wrinkles, setting things straight. ■

SHEFFIELD ON PEDRO

"If he says one word to me, he's done. Pedro, YOUR BUDDY PASS IS OVER. If he tries anything, I will take care of him."

SHEFFIELD ON ICHIRO

"Two hundred singles doesn't make you a great hitter. ANY GUY CAN get a single if that's all you try for. I ain't impressed."
 
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Michael O'NeillCOLOR PHOTOTOM DIPACEDOUBLE CLUTCH Since May 26 the Yankees were 26-5 when Sheffield homered. "I've never seen anything like it," Rodriguez says. COLOR PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (MARTINEZ)COLOR PHOTOKEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP (ICHIRO)