“Why shouldn’t I tell the truth?” asks Gary Sheffield from the living room of his Alpine, New Jersey, home. The Yankees’ right-fielder turns toward the cook, the nanny, the publicist, the wife, and the car detailer who occupy his vast kitchen. “I ain’t trying to get no Pepsi commercial.”
His entourage smiles. They know not to get in their man’s way when he’s on a roll. It’s a little past noon before a night game, and the 36-year-old Sheffield has just completed his morning workout. He is splayed on the leather couch of his grand but not especially ostentatious house. He throws his arms back and stares at the Golf Channel. “I know who the leader is on the team,” he says as he scratches his cartoon-villain mustache. “I ain’t going to say who it is, but I know who it is. I know who the team feeds off. I know who the opposing team comes in knowing they have to defend to stop the Yankees.”
Sheffield’s wife, DeLeon, a gospel singer, sidles up next to him, pats his leg in a gentle “calm yourself” gesture. But Sheff is just getting started. “I know this. The people don’t know. Why? The media don’t want them to know. They want to promote two players in a positive light, and everyone else is garbage.”
Hmm. He’s not talking about Tanyon Sturtze and Andy Phillips.
A-Rod may get paid the most. Derek Jeter may be the team’s most beloved player. But Gary Sheffield, to borrow a phrase from another Yankee right-fielder with similarly outsize talent, an equally large ego, and a chip on his shoulder to match, is the straw that stirs the Yankees’ drink. Otherwise, this year’s team is flat Fresca. In a season in which the Yankees have floundered like never before in the Joe Torre era, Sheffield has easily been the team’s most consistent player. Where A-Rod, Jeter, and even the once-automatic Mariano Rivera have hit rough patches this season, Sheffield has been blessedly reliable. He’s hitting over .300 with an on-base percentage of nearly .400 and is on a pace to drive in 125 runs. Sheffield’s even better when it matters most: He’s batting an American League–leading .400 with runners in scoring position, and against the hated Red Sox, he’s hitting .435 (20 for 46) with four homers and 14 RBIs. He has driven in a run to tie or give the Yankees the lead five times against Boston and twice scored the game-winning run against the defending World Series champions.
Sheffield is also the Yankees’ most entertaining player. Maybe it’s the glut of world championships, maybe it’s the pressure to win still more, but Joe Torre’s troops play baseball with all the passion of the Hessians squaring off against the Continental Army. Whether it’s A-Rod’s or Jeter’s vacant eyes (illuminated only when the red light comes on) or the unrelenting march of night-of-the-living-dead pitchers, this is not a fun team to root for. Except for Sheffield. Every one of his at-bats is must-see TV. He strides to the plate, digs in, and wags his bat at the opposing pitcher as if to say “Throw the fucking ball or I am going to beat the tar out of you with this 32-ounce hunk of wood.” Even his groundouts are dramatic. In June, umpire C. B. Bucknor threw Sheffield out of a game against the Mets after the Yankee slammed down his helmet violently after a close play at first. It was the only moment of unbridled passion in a season begging for a few watercoolers to be tossed on the field.
Yet despite his gaudy numbers, Gary Sheffield is on his sixth team. One reason for that is modern free agency, but another is that Sheffield has worn out his welcome in two leagues. Like so many baseball players, basketball stars, football heroes, and professional fighters before him, Sheffield is a physically gifted street kid in a corporate American game. Management loves his talent and he’s paid accordingly ($39 million for three years). But in return, he must buckle to their ways. Jocks like Sheffield face a choice: Play along or risk being labeled a malcontent. Sheffield doesn’t do the conformity dance. Assuming he sticks around long enough for the microphones to appear, Sheffield may spend half an hour trashing his own bosses. So what if he hasn’t hit three home runs in a World Series game or nearly come to blows in the dugout with his manager. Gary Sheffield is the closest thing we’ve got to Reggie Jackson.
On a recent Saturday at Yankee Stadium, Sheffield arrives at 11:47, seven minutes late for a 1:20 P.M. start. He is dressed all in black, wearing reflective sunglasses, and carrying a can of Red Bull. Waking up early isn’t Sheffield’s thing, so approaching him before noon isn’t the smart play. A few rookie reporters move in his direction, but the veterans know not to. “I ain’t clocked in until I have my uniform on” is Sheffield’s mantra. He grabs his uniform and slips into the trainer’s room.