Today’s game against the Angels is a seesaw affair. In the seventh inning, Torre brings in the no-longer-feared reliever Tom Gordon with the tying and go-ahead runs on base. On Gordon’s first pitch, the Angels’ Orlando Cabrera hits a liner toward Sheffield in right field. The day before, I had asked Sheffield if he would pull a Jeter and go three rows deep after a ball. “That’s not happening. I tore up my shoulder, I tore up a knee. I’m not doing that again,” Sheffield told me, cringing as if remembering walls past. “If I get close to the wall, this is what I do.” He closed his gunslinger eyes and reached out an imaginary glove. “If it’s there, it’s there.”
Sheffield, true to his word, doesn’t dive, and the ball falls in for a two-run single. By the end of the inning, the Yankees have surrendered four runs and the death rattle of the $200 million team is growing louder. But the team lumbers back. First, Jason Giambi halves the margin with an eighth-inning two-run homer. In the ninth, Tony Womack and Derek Jeter walk before Robinson Cano strikes out. Up comes Sheffield, tugging at his elbow pads and walking slowly to the plate. He digs his back foot into the dirt. He then does his trademark move: wagging and uncoiling his bat at Angels’ closer Francisco Rodriguez in a homicidal manner. On the first pitch, Sheffield doesn’t pull the trigger, taking a 94-mile-an-hour fastball on the inside corner. The next pitch is fast and high and Sheffield just misses it, fouling it straight back. With Sheffield down 0-2 in the count, fans head for the exits.
Sheffield steps out, paws at the dirt, shoots a fuck-you look at the pitcher, and tightens his batting gloves. Rodriguez wastes one outside, 1-2. The next one is a slider that’s close. Sheffield nearly offers and moves his shoulder into the pitch, but somehow stops his jackhammer arms just short of a swing. Two balls, two strikes. Rodriguez takes a breath and stares into the catcher. He throws a splitter in the dirt that Sheffield doesn’t offer on, and the ball skids to the backstop, advancing the runners.
Sheffield has had his share of game-winning home runs and line-drive doubles while wearing pinstripes. Today his contribution is more subtle, but no less important. Francisco Rodriguez sees the best player of his generation, Alex Rodriguez, on deck. Still, he fears Sheffield’s ending the game with one swing just a bit more. Rodriguez’s 3-2 pitch isn’t close. Ball four. Sheffield trots to first. Some at-bats are about getting yourself on base; others are about scaring the pitcher into putting you there. If there were a statistic for Pitchers Intimidated, Sheffield would lead the league.
The Angels’ closer never recovers. He walks A-Rod on four pitches, forcing in a run and moving Sheffield, the go-ahead run, to second. Hideki Matsui rips the next pitch into left-center, and Sheffield lopes home with the winning run. After the game, Torre, who looks all of his 65 years, praises Sheffield with an insider’s compliment: “Sheff’s a professional hitter. That at-bat is everything that a professional at-bat should be about.”
In the clubhouse, Sheffield momentarily pops out of the trainer’s room with his son Jaden in tow, but before anyone can reach him, he disappears again. Reporters quickly surround his locker and patiently await his return so they can ask about his pivotal at-bat. They wait. And wait. After a few minutes, a Yankees PR flack shouts from across the room, “You’re waiting for Gary? He’s already left. He went out the back.” There are groans of disappointment. A-Rod and Jeter may not say anything worth scribbling on a steno pad, but they would never split after a potentially season-making comeback—the game had the feeling of a turning point—without offering a few words.
“Fucking Sheffield, he never changes,” snarls a reporter.
“Well, one thing is clear: He hasn’t lost a step,” jokes another as he leads his cameraman away.
Even the Yankees staff can’t quite believe it. A clubhouse attendant darts into the hall and shouts, “Gary? Gary?”
But Gary Sheffield is long gone.
Gary Sheffield is among the best players of his era and arguably among the best of all time. In his eighteen-year career, Sheffield has slugged 436 home runs and compiled a lifetime batting average of .298 with an on-base percentage of .400. “I’ve played with great players, Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Ricky Henderson,” says Don Mattingly, the Yankees’ hitting coach. “Sheffield is as talented as any of them.” Opposing pitchers fear Sheffield as they fear few other batters. “Even hitters like Sosa or McGwire, you could look at their zone and say, I can work him inside or up tight,” says Yankees pitcher Al Leiter, who has faced Sheffield many times and also won a World Series title with him in Florida. “Gary doesn’t have a place that he can’t reach and do damage. He’s the guy you game-plan around.” Last year, Sheffield’s first with the Yankees, he played in 154 of 162 games despite having a torn right shoulder that made it impossible for him to drive outside pitches. The injury forced him to alter his position on every at-bat so pitchers couldn’t get a fix on what pitches he couldn’t reach. In the field, the pain was so bad he was reduced to throwing sidearm. Still, Sheffield never asked for days off or even to DH. Somehow, he put up 36 home runs and 121 RBIs and finished second in the MVP voting behind Vladimir Guerrero. “When Gary told me last year, ‘Wait until I’m healthy,’ I’m not sure I completely understood,” says Mattingly. “This year, he’s been driving the ball to every field. He’s as good a hitter as I have ever seen.” Truth be told, Sheffield would probably have won the MVP last year if he wasn’t largely despised by the beat writers who vote.