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The Specter of Gary Sheffield

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And we haven’t even mentioned the steroids yet. As with so many players in the last decade of baseball, Sheffield’s steroid problems came shortly after he joined the Yankees. As it turned out, twenty different Yankees who have played for the team ended up in the Mitchell Report, and considering how slipshod and admittedly incomplete that document was, it’s reasonable to make the leap that more were actually using. This is not to imply that the Yankees were somehow Patient Zero of the steroid epidemic. It’s more accurate to see the Yankees as a symptom of the problem than its source. When you are the team that pays for the best players in baseball, it stands to reason that you’re going to end up with some steroid abusers: They were, after all, the best players in baseball. But the year after Sheffield signed his deal, he acknowledged in Sports Illustrated that he had used a substance called the “cream,” although he insisted he didn’t know what he was taking. Sheffield’s stonewalling on the issue puts him in the Bonds–Roger Clemens–Mark McGwire camp of alleged steroid users. While those men have been all but convicted of steroid use in the court of public opinion, they have all maintained their innocence, in one form or another (in fairness, no one has proved any of them guilty). The opposing camp is made up of players like Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi, who have either admitted or all but admitted using. Fair or not, Sheffield will always carry the scarlet steroid letter in a way that Pettitte and Giambi won’t, because his use, like Bonds’, Clemens’, and McGwire’s alleged use, came packaged with defiance. Bonds and Clemens are still fighting to clear their names. McGwire seems genuinely wounded by the claims made against him. Considering Sheffield’s ongoing petulance, you suspect he doesn’t really care.

This is not to say that Sheffield is a horrible person, or even that he’s always been wrong. (The Fenway incident wasn’t entirely his fault; his claim that his leaving the Yankees would hurt Alex Rodriguez because Sheffield was A-Rod’s lone sounding board has a kernel of truth; and it’s worth mentioning that the number of African-Americans in baseball has dropped dramatically since Sheffield entered the league, whatever the reason.) It is to say that it’s a matter of when, not if, Sheffield will say something problematic to the Mets. And it will probably be at the worst possible time.

Imagine, if you will, the Mets one game ahead of the Phillies in the National League East—assuming, in this scenario, the wild card is not a possibility—and Mets fans understandably frazzled by the specter of yet another collapse (improved bull pen aside, another tight pennant race in September will fray everyone’s nerves). Nails are chomped, danders are raised, everyone’s freaked out. And then here comes Sheffield, chatting away to the Post after a tough loss in which he was kept on the bench: “If Jerry Manuel wants to win games, he’ll put me in there. That’s why we’re losing. No one else will say it, so I will. This is a losing organization.” It has happened for the other teams Sheffield has played for; why wouldn’t it happen here? As fragile as the Mets are going into this season, why tempt fate? The Mets, as constituted before Sheffield arrived, were a group of likable guys who are rather dull with a quote. Sheffield is going to change all that, and he might change it at just the wrong time.

This would all be fine, of course, if Sheffield could actually still hit. (No one minded that Reggie Jackson wouldn’t shut up, after all.) Right now, there’s little evidence that he can. He batted .225 last season for a terrible Tigers team, and he’s too old and fragile to play the outfield, particularly the unpredictable expanse of Citi Field. Most statistical algorithms project him to be worse this season than the Mets outfielders Daniel Murphy, Ryan Church, and Fernando Tatis, and by a considerable margin. The Mets are paying only $400,000 for his services—the Tigers, who are paying the man $13.6 million not to play for them, are picking up the rest of the tab—and for the Gary Sheffield of ten years ago, or six years ago, or two years ago, that might have been a bargain. (The only other team rumored to have been kicking his tires before the Mets nabbed him were the Phillies, and an argument could be made that the Mets grabbed him just to spite their rivals.) But that $400,000 is going to feel awfully steep if he’s hitting .225 again, limping through the outfield, and mouthing off when it’s least convenient.

The Mets have signed a ghost, a vision of bluster and power that no longer exists, a throwback to a time when a 40-year-old slugger could artificially wring a few final drops from his God-given mortal talents. Gary Sheffield is now just an old ballplayer, with few places left to go, playing out the string as loudly as possible. He’ll hit his 500th home run at some point, and he might even have a few endearing, game-deciding moments early on. But there are no more chemically enhanced 40-plus miracles to be had anymore. The reckoning is coming. It always does.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.


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