We’re back at Sheffield’s house. When Sheffield was being pursued by the Yankees before the 2004 season, it was reported that general manager Brian Cashman preferred Guerrero, who had similar stats to Sheffield’s but is seven years younger. “Cashman offered me two years for $8 million, and to me that was an insult,” says Sheffield, who negotiated his own contract after firing Über-agent Scott Boras. “I just came off 39 home runs and 132 RBIs and you ain’t got nobody on your team that can put up those numbers and you ain’t gonna get anyone who is going to. But George asked me not to take it as an insult and kept pursuing me.” Cashman concedes that the Yankees tried to get Sheffield at a bargain-basement price. When I ask him if he was trying to low-ball Sheffield, he says, “That was the offer I was told to make.” That’s classic Steinbrenner: Instruct the hapless aide-de-camp to make a humiliating proposal, then ride to the rescue of a disaster he choreographed.
Sheffield hasn’t exactly developed a love affair with the Yankees since the signing. “You look at this organization from the outside and you think, First class, first class, first class,” Sheffield says with a sad laugh. “But it’s not a family-oriented team. In L.A., wives can fly on the plane; with the Yankees, they can’t. With other teams, the wives always have functions to bring them together. Not here. You don’t know what half the wives look like.”
When I ask Sheffield for the names of players or friends I could talk to, he mentions only his trainer and personal assistant—no Yankees. Except for card games on the road with reliever Tom Gordon, Sheffield mainly keeps to himself. “I don’t trust that many people,” says Sheffield. “Just my mother and my wife and a couple of friends. When I trust people, it doesn’t end well.”
Some of Sheffield’s isolation is his own doing, some he blames on the Yankees’ Bronx Zoo of a locker room. On an average day, there can be 30 to 40 reporters milling about the clubhouse before a game. “This is the first team I’ve been on where no one sits at their locker,” Sheffield says. “It’s where you build your chemistry, just talking about life. I’m used to having six chairs around me, but here if there are six chairs, then there’s going to be twenty reporters. People here are having me sign a dozen balls and two jerseys ten minutes before the games.”
Sheffield signed with the Yankees, of course, knowing that the media attention would be nonstop and that most of it would be devoted to A-Rod, Jeter, and Giambi. He professes to be fine with that, but from the start, it’s clearly pissed him off. “The media had an attitude of ‘What does it feel like to be overshadowed by Jeter and A-Rod and Giambi?’ So I played along, saying, ‘Hey that’s why I came here, to stay under the radar and do my job,’ ” says Sheffield. “But then these guys get hurt, A-Rod is struggling, and my numbers are leading everything. All of a sudden, I’m supposed to be the spokesman for the team? You just told me I was being overshadowed. So why do you need to talk to me?”
“The media wants to promote two players in a positive light,” Sheffield says. “Everyone else is garbage.”
Reporters should be grateful to Sheffield. In less than two seasons with the Yankees, he has provided better copy than Jeter has in more than a decade. In October 2004, Sheffield gave Sports Illustrated the only candid interview by any player embroiled in the steroids scandal. He told the magazine he used a cream on his leg that was provided by BALCO, the Bay Area lab that he found through then–training partner Barry Bonds. Though Sheffield’s claim that he didn’t know the cream was a steroid strained credulity, his comments were remarkably frank compared with, say, the verbal gymnastics of his teammate Jason Giambi. (Like Giambi, Sheffield’s alleged steroid use occurred prior to Major League Baseball’s mandatory steroid testing.)
During spring training this year, after Giambi’s teary no-comment-studded press conference, Sheffield was asked what he would do if he tested positive. “I’m not like Jason Giambi,” Sheffield said. “I’m not going to sit there and cry about things being unfair or attacks being unfair.” The media and sports radio went wild with the Sheffield-disrespects-teammate angle. “I didn’t say Giambi is crying,” insists Sheffield. “I said I’m not gonna cry about what people say or think. It didn’t have to do with him. They put two and two together.”
Sheffield seems genuinely naïve about how his more incendiary comments will be interpreted. “Tell me something,” he says. “How come I talk to reporters, tell them the truth, but they treat me worse than the guys who say nothing?” And there is Gary Sheffield’s dilemma: Not only does he play on a team with A-Rod and Jeter, baseball’s Glimmer Twins, but what he thinks of as Gary’s just being honest, others interpret as, well, Gary’s being an asshole.