On September 19 of last year, the Detroit Tigers’ designated hitter, Gary Sheffield, batting all of .220 on the season, was hit by a pitch from Cleveland Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona. It was a stray fastball that ran in on Sheffield a little too much, plunking him square on the elbow. In a close game involving teams both long out of the pennant chase, in which there had been no prior incident, it was obvious to everyone in the park that hitting Sheffield was unintentional, a pitch that just sneaked an inch too far inside. Obvious to everyone, that is, except Gary Sheffield.
While all others at Progressive Field were marking HBP in their scorebooks and moving on with their lives, Sheffield glared at Carmona as if he had just set his house on fire and garroted the family dog. He carried his bat with him as he walked to first base—amusingly, a batboy stood delicately behind him, gingerly waiting to take the bat away, hoping not to be beheaded—and stared straight at Carmona, who, before the next pitch, threw to first base to keep Sheffield close. That was the final, devastating insult for Sheff, who immediately sprinted at Carmona, and the two began throwing punches. The benches cleared, less out of mutual anger between the teams than of fear that Sheffield would murder someone. Sheffield was suspended for four games but was far from repentant. “Three strikes and you’re out,” Sheffield said after the game, claiming Carmona had hit him three times that season, which was not true. “And if it’s No. 4, it gets more violent. Trust me.” This was seven months ago. Sheffield was nearly a 40-year-old man.
I know Sheffield has been away from New York for two and a half years, and these days that can seem like decades, but it’s worth remembering who this guy is and has always been. The Mets—a team that, after the last two Septembers, is potentially fragile in every possible fashion—signed him to a one-year deal, mere days after the Tigers agreed to pay him $14 million to please go away. Theoretically, it’s a low-risk deal for the Mets, considering how little they’re paying him. But nothing about Gary Sheffield is theoretical. They don’t make players like Gary Sheffield anymore. And thank God for that.
Sheffield is the nephew of troubled and occasionally brilliant New York baseball icon Dwight Gooden, so he has had the spotlight on him since he was a teenager. (Newspapers covered his arrest on a DWI charge and evading police, while he was already on probation, when he was 19 years old.) Since then, he has played for eight different teams, counting the Mets, and left a swath of destruction in his wake every time. In Milwaukee, he claimed race was a factor in the Brewers’ decision to move him to third base. Budget woes led to a trade from San Diego, one the Padres surely don’t regret, considering it brought them future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. In Florida, where he grew up, Sheffield was arrested on another DWI (he pleaded to reckless driving in both cases), was accused by two ex-girlfriends of aggravated battery (no formal charges were filed), was once pulled off a team plane while police searched his bag for drugs (they didn’t find any), was shot in the shoulder, and was required by MLB officials to undergo a psychological evaluation. (He was in Florida for only five seasons, his longest stay with any team.) He was rewarded with the richest contract in baseball at the time, in 1997, then traded to Los Angeles for Mike Piazza. There, he accused the team’s management of lying, sulked consistently, went into the stands at Wrigley Field during a confrontation with fans, and ultimately was shipped to Atlanta. There, having recently found God, he settled down just in time for his first free agency. Then he found baseball’s real god: George Steinbrenner.
One could argue that the signing of Sheffield was Steinbrenner’s last real hands-on, Bossesque, We’re Doing This My Way moment before age and infirmity caught up with him. He personally negotiated Sheffield’s three-year, $39 million contract—just those two irascible iconoclasts, hashing out all the details—and introduced Sheffield to a powerful Yankees lineup and, most important, that eager tabloid press corps. To them, Sheffield was a dream. Sheffield shoved a fan at Fenway Park while fielding a fly ball, and accused Joe Torre of favoring white players over black players. “Black players had an issue with Joe Torre,” Sheffield said. “They weren’t treated like everybody else. Even I got called out in a couple of meetings that I thought was unfair.” When it was noted that Torre seemed to get along fine with Derek Jeter, Sheffield said that was because Jeter is “black and white” rather than “all the way black.”