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Gary Sheffield, Reconsidered — Part I

“There aren’t five hitters I’d rather see swing the bat than Gary Sheffield, but there aren’t five ballplayers I’d less rather root for…”

Back in December, as his handshake agreement with George Steinbrenner appeared to unravel, I wrote those words about Gary Sheffield, along with several others even less favorable. I stand by the first part of that statement. Sheffield in the batter’s box, bat twitching back and forth as he waits for the pitch, is pure menace, a tiger waiting to pounce. His violent swing is the tiger’s ruthless attack on its hapless prey, dismemberment in a single bound. Foul balls scream down the third-base line, threatening mayhem to coaches, ballboys and spectators. Liners speed at fielders so quickly that they’re too stunned to do more than keep the ball in the infield, bobbling it for an error or simply shaking their stinging hands while he takes first base unchallenged. Home runs leave the playing field without a moment’s doubt as to whether they’re long enough. Balls off of Gary Sheffield’s bat are unequivocal.

Sheffield’s ferocious swing, tremendous plate discipline and physical toughness have positioned him as the fulcrum of a Yankee offense that for all its talent has been scrambling to live up to this season’s lofty expectations. Derek Jeter’s slump, Bernie Williams’ appendectomy, Jason Giambi’s illnesses and Alex Rodriguez’s subpar situational hitting have all dragged the Yankee lineup down ant one point or another, but it’s been Sheffield, hitting .295/.404/.532 wth 27 homers and a team-high 85 RBI, who’s picked them up.

As for the second part of that statement above, it’s as gone as a Shef homer. Watching him play on a daily basis has forced me to re-evaluate everything I know about Gary Sheffield. The bottom line is that the guy can play for my team any day, and despite the occasional off-the-cuff remark that has generated controversy, he’s been a model citizen since donning the pinstripes and a pleasure to follow. In this two-part article, I decided to stroll through Sheffield’s past, examining the highs and lows of his career, placing some of his more notorious incidents in context and looking for patterns which might provide insight into this complex ballplayer.

Sheffield came to the Yankees with 379 career homers, a .299/.401/.527 line, seven All-Star appearances, a batting title and a World Series ring under his belt. He also arrived carrying more baggage than the overhead bin of a DC-10, baggage that included:

• a troubling admission that as the 19-year-old shortstop of the Milwaukee Brewers, he deliberately made errors to force his way out of town

• a gunshot wound in his non-throwing shoulder which apparently resulted from a failed car-jacking in 1995

• three-and-a-half seasons of being a both a devastating hitter and a bona fide pain in the ass for the Los Angeles Dodgers, agitating for either a huge contract extension or a trade

allegations that he had received performance-enhancing substances from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO)

• questions about his durability such that he’d averaged only 136 games a year over the past 12 seasons (a period that includes the ‘94-’95 work stoppage) and has only topped 150 games three times

Add it up and you’ve got one of the most notorious players of… well, of my lifetime, at least. “An urban legend in his own mind,” wrote Bill James in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Names like Dick Allen and Albert Belle come to mind in terms of both level of talent and perceived villainy. Oddly enough, those two hitters pop up on his Similarity Scores at Baseball-Reference.com.

As a 17-year-old shortstop, Sheffield was picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round of the 1986 draft, the sixth pick overall behind Jeff King (Pirates), Greg Swindell (Indians), Matt Williams (Giants), Kevin Brown (Rangers), and Kent Mercker (Braves). The nephew of 1984 NL Rookie of the Year Dwight Gooden, Sheffield hit the minors with a high degree of hype. But he lived up to it. In his first taste of pro ball at Helena in 1986, he hit a whopping .365 AVG/.413 OBP/.640 SLG in 57 games, clubbing 15 homers, driving in 71 runs and winning both the Pioneer League’s Player of the Year award and Baseball America’s Short-Season Player of the Year award. All of this before his 18th birthday.

At Stockton in 1987, he hit .277/.388/.448 with 17 homers and 103 RBI, making both the California League and Baseball America All-Star teams. He tore up AA El Paso in ‘88, hitting .314/.386/.591 with 19 homers in 77 games before being promoted to AAA Denver; it wasn’t just high altitude helped him rack up a .344/.407/.561 line. Shef was Baseball America’s Double A Player of the Year and was in Milwaukee by September. The Brewers wasted no time in handing him the starting shortstop role, playing him in 24 games, where he hit a very modest .238/.295/.400 with 4 homers.

Sheffield’s official rookie season as a Brewer was something of a dud, however. In 95 games he hit .247/.303/.337 with 5 homers, only one more than he’d managed in his cup of coffee. Worse, he was sent down to the minors for “indifferent fielding” while insisting that his foot was hurt. It wasn’t until he was back in Denver that he was diagnosed with a broken foot. When he returned to the Brewers two months later, they shifted him to third base.

It’s important to note that Sheffield had not been an unqualified success at shortstop. In 94 games, he showed range that was a bit below average — roughly one play every four games. Baseball Prospectus‘ more advanced statistics show him even worse off — 13 runs below average in his tenure there. The main reason is his low number of double plays: according to Retrosheet.org, Sheffield participated in 40 DPs in 596 innings, or 0.6 per nine innings. The other Brewer shortstops, mainly Bill Spiers, turned 69 DP in 836.1 innings. 0.74 per nine innings — a 23 percent improvement on Sheffield. None of which is to say that the Brewers handled the situation well if they tried to punish their highly-touted teen-aged rookie for what was actually an injury and made him switch positions mid-season. Hardly the finest hour of Bud Selig’s minions.

Sheffield’s 1990 season was a big improvement on the offensive side: .294/.350/.421 with 10 homers and 67 RBI, not to mention 25 stolen bases. He struggled at third base, making 25 errors in 125 games, but showed improvement in that department as the season went on, making only eight of those errors after the All-Star break. But he was not a happy camper at third base, and he carried that frustration with him to the plate in 1991. Sheffield hit a ghastly .194/.277/.320 in 50 games before wrist and shoulder injuries mercifully ended his season. Somewhere during his nightmarish Milwaukee tenure, the Brewers further antagonized Sheffield by subjecting him to not-so-random drug tests, a byproduct of his relationship with Gooden.

By the beginning of next season, after alleging that Selig had gone back on offering a long-term deal, Sheffield’s Milwaukee headaches — and Milwaukee’s Sheffield headaches — ended, and he was traded to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Jose Valentin, and Matt Mieske. It was during this acrimony that Sheffield’s remarks about intentional errors surfaced. Sheffield told Bob Nightengale of the Los Angeles Times:

The Brewers brought out the hate in me. I was a crazy man… I hated everything about the place. If the official scorer gave me an error, I didn’t think was an error, I’d say, ‘OK, here’s a real error,’ and I’d throw the next ball into the stands on purpose.’”

Sheffield later recanted that statement, telling Nightengale, “What I said was out of frustration. They want to take something and run with it. Why would a player purposely make mistakes? I’d never do anything to hurt the team. You get paid to play.”

In a June 15, 1992 Sports Illustrated article by Peter King, Sheffield painted a more nuanced picture of his time in Milwaukee:

“I thought I’d always be known as one of those guys people talked about, like, ‘He could have been something, if only he’d done things the right way,’” Sheffield says. “I was basically all alone in Milwaukee — 20, 21, 22 years old, and I had no one to talk to. There were a lot of selfish players there, caught up in themselves. They couldn’t help the younger guy. I didn’t want to beg for it, so I just stayed away from them. Finally it got to the point where I didn’t want to play anymore. I didn’t want to work at it. The fun was totally out of the game. All I wanted to do was go through the motions. I started thinking, All I want to do is be an average player. I didn’t want to be a great player anymore. It was killing me.”

I’m obliged to mention that I was pointed to the Nightengale quote by a poster named AJM on Baseball Think Factory. Another BTF poster named RB in NYC used Retrosheet to research the times Sheffield made two errors in one game as a Brewer, which would fit with his version of the story. Here’s what he found:

(1) April 23rd, 1989: Sheffield made an error in the second inning, then in the 5th, although the nature of the errors are unclear. He also handled a SB chance cleanly in the 4th.

(2) June 20th, ‘89: Sheffield made an error in the 6th, apparently on a relay throw. In the 10th, he made an error on a groundball, although the ball did not go into the stands (as the batter only reached first)

(3) May 15th, 1990: Sheffield made an error in the 2nd inning, then made another in the 8th, but he had already executed a run down sucessfully

(4) April 8, 1991 (Note: Not at County Stadium all others are): Sheffield made an error in the third, but handled his next groundball chance cleanly. Sheffield then made an error in the ninth.

In the first instance, the error in the fifth inning appears to be a throwing error after the batter more ensured himself of an infield hit. According to the play-by-play, with two outs and Alan Trammell on second, Matt Nokes singled to shortstop and Trammell “scored (unearned) (error by Sheffield).” Interesting.

In the second case, the first error was actually in the 7th inning. The “relay” part makes sense because the error followed a single to leftfield. The error in the tenth merely says “Seitzer reached on an error by Sheffield”; there’s nothing that says whether it was a muffed ground ball, a dropped pop-up, or a throw that got by the first baseman but stayed on the field of play. That’s pretty standard for Retrosheet, however, and both errors in the other two games suffer from the same lack of detail.

Without the benefit of videotape or a peek into his psyche, none of this is enough to either clear Sheffield of wrongdoing or damn him into the fiery pit of hell, of course. Aside from his own words, no one has come forth with any evidence to show that Sheffield intentionally made errors. But it is interesting to note that the last game came on Opening Day 1991, and one way or another Sheffield erred on his first chance of the season while playing a position he was less than enamored with. But suffice it to say that for his Milwaukee tenure, Sheffield was in a situation where he was young and foolish, the object of high expectations but with little support from his employer to ensure that those expectations were met.

In any event, once traded, Sheffield enjoyed a breakout year with the bat in 1992: .330/.385/.580 with 33 homers and 100 RBI. He won the batting title, was second in slugging percentage and OPS, third in homers and extra base hits, fifth in RBI, and sixth in on-base percentage, made his first All-Star team, and finished third in the NL MVP voting behind Barry Bonds and Terry Pendleton. All of this while continuing to play third. His defense was very solid that year; he made only 16 errors and was 9 runs above average according to BP.

But the honeymoon in San Diego was short-lived. Motivated by payroll concerns, on June 24, 1993 the Padres traded Sheffield to the Florida Marlins in a five-player deal which sent Trevor Hoffman to San Diego. In that split season, his offensive numbers were down but still respectable: .294/.361/.476 with 20 HR and 73 RBI. But his defense was atrocious: an .899 fielding percentage at third base, with 34 errors in 133 games, 12 runs below average.

Sheffield re-signed with Florida after the 1993 season to a 4-year, $22.45 million deal. The Marlins made him the game’s highest-paid third baseman and the 10th-highest paid player overall, but as a concession to keeping him at third, they included a clause in his contract allowing him to play basketball. Somewhere Aaron Boone is slapping his forehead.

Sheffield’s 1994 and ‘95 seasons in Florida were limited by injuries as well as the player strike. When he played, just 150 games over two seasons, he was brilliant, swatting 43 homers and driving in 124 runs while hitting .295/.402/.585. Despite the clause in his contract, the Marlins shifted him to rightfield, though he was not an espeicially good one at the outset (-13 runs for the two years). He bruised his left rotator cuff diving for a ball in May ‘94 and did two more-or-less back-to-back stints on the DL. In 1995 he missed nearly three months after tearing the ligaments in his left thumb while diving into second base. Initial reports had him gone for the season, but he returned in September and smoked 10 homers with 27 RBI in a 20-game span during the season’s final month. That tear (the hitting, not the ligaments) foreshadowed Sheffield’s 1996, a monster campaign in which he played 161 games, his career high and hit .314/.465/.624 with 42 homers, 120 RBI, and 142 walks. The gunshot wound, sustained the previous October, was superficial and had no negative impact on his season.

Just prior to the ‘97 season, he signed a 6-year, $61 million extension with the Marlins, the largest ever at the time. In that context, Sheffield’s 1997 season was a disappointment, at least as far as individual numbers go. He sprained his left thumb in May and did a stint on the DL, and suffered from hamstring woes later in the season. For the year he hit only .250/.424/.446 with 21 homers and 71 RBI, and his walks (121) outnumbered his base hits (110). But for the first time in his career, Sheffield was playing on a winning team; aside from his cup-of-coffee season, Sheffield’s teams had never won more than 83 games. The ‘97 Marlins won 92 games and the NL Wild Card spot, and Sheffield, who’d hit .324/.430/.592 in September, entered the postseason in a groove. He destroyed the Giants in the Divisional Series, (.556/.714/1.000) as the Marlins swept San Francisco, then helped them beat the Braves and the Indians to cap an unlikely run to a World Championship. Sheffield homered in all three postseason series and drew 20 walks, hitting .320/.521/.500.

Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga had built his championship team on some expensive contracts, signing Alex Fernandez (5 years/$35 milion), Moises Alou (5/$25 mil) and Bobby Bonilla (4/$23.3 mil) as free agents prior to ‘97, while re-signing Sheffield. Kevin Brown had signed prior to ‘96, as had Devon White. Immediately after winning the Series, Huizenga began gutting the Fish, trading Alou, White, Jeff Conine, and Robb Nen by Thanksgiving, Brown the next month, and Al Leiter in January. But Huizenga saved his biggest blockbuster until six weeks into the ‘98 season. In a deal that shocked the baseball world, on May 14, 1998 he traded Sheffield, Bonilla, catcher Charles Johnson, and two other players to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Gary Shefield’s world was turned upside down, and so was that of the Dodgers.

To Be Continued

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