In Alpine, Sheffield lives a quiet life with DeLeon and Jaden. He’s a born-again Christian who talks excitedly about his wife’s gospel record and no longer goes out much. (He has three other children with three different mothers.) Sheffield tithes a sizable portion of his annual $13 million in earnings to his church. In the winters, he takes his kids to Aspen and ignores a no-ski clause in his contract. “How can you say ‘I can’t go skiing’ to your children?” he asks. He seems to view his home as a safe house from the evils of fame. “When I leave here, I have to be under prayer. You don’t know what might happen.”
Pretty much everything that could happen to a man has happened to Gary Sheffield. An only child raised by his mother, Betty Gooden Jones, in a tough Tampa neighborhood, Gary watched his uncle, Dwight Gooden, achieve instant stardom with the Mets. (Gooden is four years older than Sheffield; his drug problems started when Sheffield was a minor leaguer.) By 17, Gary was a father and playing pro ball. He made it to the majors with Milwaukee at 19, and his wariness traces back to his Brewers days. “I didn’t have anybody helping me learn to talk to reporters like [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] did or A-Rod,” says Sheffield. “It was sink or swim.” Still, he says he wouldn’t change anything. “My uncle was protected, told what to say, and it destroyed his sense of who he was. That’s not going to happen to me.”
In Milwaukee, Sheffield earned a reputation as a surly me-first character that plagues him to this day. A legend grew that he deliberately threw balls away while playing third base so he wouldn’t have to play the position; it wasn’t true, but it stuck. An alleged confrontation with teammate Mark Knudson—over comments Sheffield says the pitcher made to the press about Sheffield’s defensive shortcomings—almost ended in blows, Sheffield says (Knudson denies the incident ever happened). “I would have fought him,” says Sheffield. “But it was Milwaukee, and he was white and I’m black. I’d always be wrong.” (More from Sheffield on race below.)
Sheffield was shipped in 1992 to San Diego, where he made his first All-Star team, but he was traded again the following year, to the Florida Marlins. On the field, he blossomed into a superstar and helped lead the Marlins to a World Series title in 1997. But he was also beset by injuries and threw wild parties at his South Beach condo. In 1995, he was shot in an attempted carjacking in Tampa and later admitted that if he had not left his gun in his other car, he would have gone back looking for his assailant. The Marlins were dismantled after their championship season, and Sheffield was sent to Los Angeles in 1998. There were problems from the start—Sheffield demanded $2.5 million to waive a no-trade clause and insisted the team lift its ban on facial hair—but Sheffield put up big numbers. Contract negotiations went awry, however, in 2001. Sheffield called Dodger chairman Bob Daly “a liar” and criticized the team’s free-agent signings. In 2001, respected Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote a story relating how he had been sucked in by the promise of a kinder, gentler Sheffield but now wanted him gone, whatever the cost. (Three years later, Plaschke wrote an apologetic column saying the Dodgers were wrong to get rid of their big-slugging right-fielder.) Sheffield was eventually sent packing to Atlanta, where he played for two uneventful years before signing with the Yankees in December 2003.
Sheffield’s 2005 season has already seen its share of tabloid-headline moments (this after an off-season that included news that his wife had been allegedly extorted by a Chicago man who claimed he had a tape of her having sex with the rapper R. Kelly over a decade ago). In April, a hapless Red Sox fan made the mistake of swiping at Sheffield as he tried to field a ball, and Sheffield returned the favor by swatting at the man with his glove. In July, Sheffield set off another firestorm when his name was bandied about in trade rumors. He made it clear that any franchise that acquired him would get four good at-bats a night and nothing more. There would be no talking to the media, no charity appearances. In effect, he hamstrung Cashman from dealing him. Sheffield says, “I don’t have to speak to anyone in the organization to do my job,” but Cashman insists he and Sheffield have a good relationship. “Gary has been very easy to deal with,” Cashman says. “We handle issues man-to-man.”