Gary Sheffield, Reconsidered — Part II

Continued from Part I

Unlike the upstart Marlins, who had begun the process of dismantling their team once they’d won a championship, the Dodgers still carried a perennial expectation of success when Gary Sheffield arrived. The team had been leading the NL West when the 1994 strike hit, they won the division in 1995, then won the Wild Card in 1996. But they’d failed to register even a single victory in their two postseasons, and had narrowly lost the 1997 division title to the Giants. Amid all of this, massive changes were afoot in the organization. Longtime manager Tommy Lasorda had stepped down after a heart attack late in the 1996 season and was replaced by Bill Russell, and early in 1997, Peter O’Malley announced the Dodgers were for sale after 47 years of the O’Malley family’s control.

The franchise’s buyer, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group, was approved early in 1998, and instantly inherited a vexing headache, namely the contract status of Mike Piazza. In January 1997, Piazza’s agent had gone to the Dodgers looking for a six-year, $60 million contract. O’Malley felt it improper to make such a hefty investment with the team having just gone on the market, and the two sides settled on a two-year, $15 million deal. But prior to the ’98 season, with a year still left on his contract, Piazza and agent Dan Lozano turned up the pressure on the team despite the fact that the sale to the Fox Group was still not approved. Now seeking a seven-year, $100 million deal, Lozano gave the Dodgers a February 15 deadline for a contract, threatening that Piazza would test free-agency if his contract wasn’t extended. The new owners weren’t even approved until March 19, and when the season began with no extension in place, Piazza complained to the press — after an Opening Day loss.

The Fox officals were not amused. Likewise, Dodger fans turned on Piazza. They began booing their superstar, who was coming off a .362/.431/.638 year with 40 homers and 120 RBI, arguably the single best season for a hitter in L.A. Dodger history. The Dodgers made their final offer, 6 years, $80 million — the biggest in baseball history — which Piazza rejected.

Five weeks later, on May 15, the blockbuster deal with the Marlins went down: Piazza and Todd Zeile for Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich, Bobby Bonilla and Manuel Barrios. One other kink in the deal signalled that this was not business as usual for the Dodgers; GM Fred Claire was cut out of the loop and the trade was negotiated by Fox higher-ups Bob Graziano (O’Malley’s successor as Dodger president) and Chase Carey. Another five weeks later, both Claire and Russell were fired. The Dodgers, who as a model of stability had seen Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda hold down the managerial seat for a combined 42-and-a-half seasons, had dismissed their next manager two years later. Welcome to Los Angeles, Mr. Sheffield.

From four solid years of contender status, the Dodgers descended into mediocrity in 1998. The rotation was decimated by a rotator-cuff injury to ace Ramon Martinez and the ineffectiveness and subsequent trade of Hideo Nomo. The lineup suffered from subpar hitting by Piazza pre-trade (.282/.329/.497) and Johnson, Bonilla and Eisenreich post-trade, as well as the underachievement of past Rookies of the Year Eric Karros, Todd Hollandsworth and Raul Mondesi and the poor performance of 18-year-old Adrian Beltre. But Sheffield, who was shifted from rightfield to left, hit like a house afire upon arriving, scorching opponents in the notoriously tough pitchers’ park to a .316/.444/.535 tune in 90 games as a Dodgers. Unfortunately, his season ended a month early, when he severely sprained his left ankle in a rundown.

The Dodgers made a lot of noise in the 1999 offseason, hiring a pair of brash leaders in GM Kevin Malone and manager Davey Johnson, and shocking the baseball world by signing ace pitcher Kevin Brown — who had just anchored two pennant-winners back-to-back, including the World Champion Marlins — to the largest contract in the game’s history, a seven-year, $105 million deal: Piazza money. One year into their ownership tenure, the Fox Group had sent a loud and clear message: we can pay huge dollars, but we won’t be bullied into doing so.

But if 1998 had been a disappointment for the Dodgers on the field, then 1999 was downright dreadful, as the team slumped to 77-85. Pitching was the culprit (ain’t it always?) as the staff’s 4.45 ERA was the first full season over 4.00 since the team’s days in the L.A. Coliseum. The offense did boast a trio of 30-homer hitters in Sheffield, Karros, and Mondesi, and the latter was a single RBI short of joining the other two in the Dodgers’ 30-HR/100-RBI club, up to that point something done only twelve times by eight different players since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962 (Adrian Beltre will likely join the club this year). But Sheffield was the class of this hitting trio once rate stats are considered:

            AVG  HR  RBI   OBP   SLG   EQA 

Sheffield .301 34 101 .407 .523 .316
Karros .304 34 112 .362 .550 .302
Mondesi .253 33 99 .332 .483 .279

Mondesi ($9 million) was making almost as much as Sheffield (a hair under $10 mil) in the second year of a 4-year, $36 million deal. But he was increasingly disgruntled during the ’99 season, and amid an expletive-laced tirade, demanded to be traded in mid-August. That demand was fulfilled in the offseason, when Mondesi was shipped to Toronto for Shawn Green, who was coming off a .309/42/123 season. Upon being traded, Green agreed to a 6-year, $84 million contract, the sport’s fourth-largest deal behind those of Brown, Piazza (7 year/$91 mil), and Bernie Williams (7/$87.5 mil).

But despite Green’s big contract and what would by most standards be considered a solid 2000 season, his hitting couldn’t hold a candle to that of Sheffield, who set career highs in homers and slugging percentage:

            AVG  HR  RBI   OBP   SLG   EQA 

Sheffield .325 43 109 .438 .643 .332
Green .269 24 99 .367 .472 .290

The Dodgers had improved by nine games in Johnson’s second year, smacking a franchise-record 211 homers but finishing a distant 11 games behind the Giants in the NL West. Not surprisingly, Fox cancelled the Davey Johnson Show at the end of the season.

At this point, Gary Sheffield had proven himself to be not only the best hitter on the current Dodger team but one of the best in its storied L.A. history. Only five players have topped .300/.400/.500 since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, a total of nine times (Wally Moon did it in 1961, the team’s final year at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a very different hitting environment). To provide some perspective on those elite hitters’ value relative to each other given their respective park and league run environments — scoring in 1999 was 23 percent higher than in 1985, for example — I have ranked these seasons by Equivalent Average, which takes those factors into account:

                 YEAR   AVG   OBA   SLG   EQA

Mike Piazza 1997 .362 .431 .638 .357
Pedro Guerrero 1985 .320 .422 .577 .350
Gary Sheffield 2000 .325 .438 .643 .347
Gary Sheffield 2001 .311 .417 .583 .338
Mike Piazza 1996 .336 .422 .563 .337
Reggie Smith 1977 .307 .427 .576 .337
Eddie Murray 1990 .330 .414 .520 .334
Pedro Guerrero 1987 .338 .416 .539 .332
Gary Sheffield 1999 .301 .407 .523 .316

So Gary Sheffield was coming off of the third-best season in L.A. Dodger history by this measure (it’s also the third-best by OPS+, though by OPS it’s the best). He was three years into a six-year contract that had once been the biggest in the game’s history, but had since been surpassed by a wide margin as salaries continued to escalate. Two of those bigger contracts had been handed out by the Fox Group to Sheffield’s teammates. In December, Fox had also given a dubious contract to below-average, injury-addled pitcher Darren Dreifort. At five years and $55 million, it was higher in annual value than Sheffield’s deal, yet Dreifort had not only never made an All-Star team, he’d had only one season of over 100 innings pitched in which he posted better than a league-average ERA.

Gary Sheffield was not a happy camper. In February 2001, he began agitating for a contract extension, one that would make him “a career Dodger.” Dodger chairman Bob Daly and team president Bob Graziano (but neither Sheffield’s agent, Jim Neader, nor GM Kevin Malone) came to his L.A.-area home to talk to him about that request. Daly told Sheffield that the Dodgers had lost $25 million in 2000 and couldn’t grant his extension, feeling that there was a risk involved. Sheffield went postal:

“A risk? Come on, they’re paying Brownie (Kevin Brown) $15 million a year until he’s 41,” Sheffield was quoted as saying. “They just gave [Darren] Dreifort $55 million when he’s only won 39 games in his career and had arm surgery. They gave Shawn Green $13 million a year. And how about Carlos Perez — paying him $6 million a year?

“And you talk about risk, that I’m a risk? That’s an insult. … I’m getting less than Dreifort? I’m getting just $3 million more than Carlos Perez? It’s not my fault they signed Perez to that stupid contract. It’s not my fault they gave Eric Karros a no-trade clause when he’s got no value. It’s not my fault they gave Greenie all that money.

“They give out all of these dumb contracts, and when it comes to me — nothing. And I’m even willing to defer a lot of the money for that. They were saying how they lost $25 million. I almost laughed in their face.”

From the vantage point of 2004, Sheffield — who later claimed he was misquoted — was right on every point of that tirade:

• Perez went 7-18 with a 6.28 ERA over the course of his three-year, $15.6 million Dodger contract and is remembered best for taking a bat to a water cooler in frustration and for allegedly threatening to shoot a stewardess. Dodger fans and management would have done better to wish that Sheffield had taken that bat to him.

• Dreifort missed parts off 2001, 2003, and now 2004, not to mention all of 2002, with major injuries that involved surgery, and never winning more than four games and pitching about 200 innings of below-average baseball during the contract’s first four years.

• Green enjoyed fantastic 2001 and 2002 seasons (a combined 91 homers and 239 RBI) before a shoulder injury began sapping his power, his slugging percentage falling from the high .500s to the mid .400s.

• Due to injuries Brown made only 29 starts and pitched 179.1 innings in 2001-2002. His absences in both years may well have cost the Dodgers the Wild Card.

• Karros had been a relative bargain and a productive player during a four-year, $20 million contract that ran from 1997-2000, but the three-year, $24 million extension he signed in February 2000 found the Dodgers catching a falling knife. Once he’d signed the contract, Karros went from .304/.362/.550 to .250/.321/.459, though his 30+ homers and 100+ RBI in both seasons disguised the decline. Under the new deal, he became a shadow of his former self — “the undead Eric Karros,” as I referred to him — dropping to .235/.303/.388 with 15 homers and 63 RBI, and rebounding only slightly the following year.

• And as for the $25 million loss, the ability of such a corporate monolith to obfuscate its finances is exactly why the Fox Group got into baseball in the first place. In the first five years of ownership, a team can depreciate half of its purchase price as player contracts, creating an artificial loss that disguises profits. With the Dodgers having gone for $311 million, that left $31.1 million a year to be written off each year from the start.

Back to the tirade and the contracts which drew Sheffield’s ire. We can actually quantify their efficiency using marginal dollars (dollars above the minimum salary) per marginal win (Win Above Replacement Level) to see exactly how the Dodgers did with those pacts compared to the Sheffield contract, which of course they inherited from the Marlins. All dollar figures are in millions, and only seasons in Dodger blue were considered:

             YEARS     WARP    $    $/W    

Perez (1999-2001) -0.7 15.0 N/A
Dreifort (2000-2003) 5.8 29.9 5.2
Brown (1999-2003) 26.8 73.9 2.8
Karros (2001-2002) 7.1 15.0 2.1
Green (2000-2003) 34.3 51.1 1.5
total 73.3 184.9 2.5
Sheffield (1999-2001) 25.7 27.9 1.1

Gary Sheffield cost the Dodgers $1.09 million per win above replacement level for his three full seasons in Dodger blue, a dramatically more efficient contract than any of the other five players, for whom the Dodgers paid $2.52 million per win above replacement. That figure that will only get worse once two more expensive years of Dreifort ($24 mil for ’04-’05) and Green ($32 mil for ’04-’05) are added to the books. The Dodgers handed out plenty of disastrous contracts during Sheffield’s time there; extending Sheffield for a couple of years for the green they were paying Brown (average $15 mil) or Green ($14 mil) would have looked like a stroke of genius by comparison. They should have shown him the money.

They didn’t do that, however. Malone shopped Sheffield to the Mets (for Piazza, ironically); the interest levels of the Yankees and Braves were also gauged, as were those of most other teams. When a deal couldn’t be consummated, Sheffield reported to spring training, though not before bringing a three-ring media circus to Vero Beach. At one point he stated he’d be bothered if he were still a Dodger by Opening Day, at another turn he painted the issue as a matter of respect instead of money, but by March 10, he had rescinded his trade demand.

The 2001 season marked the first under new manager Jim Tracy, and on Opening Day, Sheffield gave him a present for his troubles in the form of a solo homer to key a 1-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. The Dodger Stadium capacity crowd who booed his first three at-bats gave him a curtain call after his homer, and after the game, Sheffield remarked, “I hope all is forgiven… I’m not upset. I understand the fans’ reaction, no matter what it may be. The bottom line is we need the fan support to get to the World Series.”

Sheffield was off to a strong start in April when controversy again reared its head, but this time he was only involved peripherally. At a ballgame on April 14, a Padres fan heckled Sheffield, and GM Kevin Malone apparently challenged the fan to a fight. Within a week, Malone, who had already exhibited a tendency towards hoof-in-mouth disease, was forced to resign, with Dave Wallace taking the interim GM spot until the end of the season.

Sheffield had another excellent year with the bat, hitting .311/.417/.583 to go with his 36 homers and 100 RBI. Under Tracy and despite a host of injuries that would have derailed most clubs, the Dodgers hung tough in a three-team race in the NL West. Accompanying Sheffield’s strong was Green’s 49-homer, 125-RBI year, and a surprise .320/.374/.543/25-homer season from journeyman catcher Paul Lo Duca. But Kevin Brown was limited to 19 starts, and beyond a solid season from Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers were left to patch together a rotation that seemed like a Who’s Who of Journeyman Pitchers. The Dodgers were one game out of first place on September 7, but a 3-11 slide doomed their chances.

Compared to the stormy way in which it started, Sheffield’s season had gone more or less without incident, though some of his Dodger teammates felt they had to tread lightly around him in the clubhouse. But over the winter, Sheffield got wind that the Dodgers had offered him to Oakland. The L.A. Daily News reported a potential deal in which Sheffield and Luke Prokopec would be swapped for Billy Koch and Jermaine Dye. But when Prokopec was traded to Toronto for Paul Quantrill and Cesar Izturis, the Oakland deal was off. The talks upset Sheffield, and when new GM Dan Evans, who had taken over after the World Series, denied that he’d tried to trade him to Oakland, Sheffield said he had “lost trust” in the organization.

The final straw had been reached. Two weeks later, on January 15, Sheffield was traded to the Atlanta Braves for Brian Jordan, Odalis Perez, and minor leaguer Andy Brown, bringing an end to a stormy era. Just as they had with Mike Piazza before him, the Dodgers, who were making a habit out of handing out money to the wrong people, alienated one of the best hitters in franchise history and were forced into making a deal.

Like most Dodger fans, I was thoroughly frustrated by Sheffield’s tenure in Dodger blue. He conformed to some of the worst stereotypes of the self-absorbed superstar — use of the media to express his dissatisfaction with management, should-I-stay-or-should-I-go flip-flops, third-person references, and respect-not-money characterizations of his battles all rubbed me the wrong way. In hindsight, I realize that I hardly had the opportunity to see the man play or appreciate his on-field skills during those three-plus years; he mostly popped up on my radar when he was popping off to the press. And for all of his media savvy, he clearly never realized just how difficult it was for a superstar, especially a black one with a checkered past, to go up against a media behemoth known for just about everything but their self-described “fair and balanced” reportage. When Gary Sheffield got mad, he got loud, and when he got loud, he played right into the Fox Group’s hands. Not for nothing did every incident make headlines somewhere. In short, Sheffield was spun out of Los Angeles.

To Be Continued

A special thanks to Rich Lederer of Rich’s Weekend Baseball Beat for research assistance with this piece.

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