While Sheffield admits he’s made mistakes, he blames the largely white press for painting a negative picture of him. “It happens because you’re white and I’m black,” says Sheffield. “My interpretation of things is different. You don’t see it the way I see it. You write how you understand it, how you would articulate it, not how I, as a black man, would articulate it. Why do you think Latin players don’t like to talk to you guys?”
The comment sets Sheffield off on another sore subject: the sharp decline of African-Americans in his game. In 1995, there were sixteen blacks playing in the All-Star game; this year, Sheffield was one of five. Sheffield, who has been active in the charity Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, places the blame with the white men who run the game. Although the Mets and other teams actively groom and promote Latin players, Sheffield doesn’t see the same thing happening with African-Americans. “How many black players in baseball do they promote?” asks Sheffield. Before I can answer “Dontrelle Willis,” he cuts me off. “None. They don’t promote us. The NFL promotes them. The NBA promotes them. Baseball doesn’t, period. Who are kids going to root for? Who are their heroes gonna be?”
Much was made in the off-season about the Yankees’ re-signing of first-baseman Tino Martinez. With Tino back in the fold, the thinking went, maybe the old-guard Yankees—Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera—would reclaim the clubhouse and prevent the debacle of 2004 from recurring.
His comments about team chemistry notwithstanding, Sheffield isn’t buying it. He knows that if three-fifths of your starting rotation is on the disabled list, no amount of cribbage on the team plane will set things right.
“Cashman offered me two years for $8 million. That was an insult,” says Sheffield. “That,” says Cashman, “was the offer I was told to make.”
With Jason Giambi’s reemergence, the team’s one-through-six slots are as offensively charged as any in modern times. But given the sorry state of their pitching, the Yankees will go only as far as their bats will carry them. Sheffield says he welcomes the pressure of beating the Red Sox and winning another World Series and insists he’s committed to winning with the Yankees, if not for any touchy-feely purpose. “I always wanted to play here and be a part of this heated rivalry,” he says. “I need that at this point in my career.”
He’s a little irritated when I express skepticism. “I just don’t enjoy the game the way you want me to,” says Sheffield. By “you” he means reporters, for sure, but also many fans. “People say about me, ‘He’s moody,’ but I don’t see them in the same mood every day. Some days I feel like talking, some days I don’t. Some days I don’t feel like looking at you. I’m tired of looking at you. And I’m sure you’re tired of looking at me. They’re trying to catch me in a moment where I’m vulnerable. They’re trying to do damage. I don’t do damage to no one.”
It’s mid-afternoon. Soon Sheffield has to head off to the stadium and today’s battle with fastballs, stupid reporters, and the right-field wall. Sheffield turns 37 in November and has only one more year on his Yankees contract (it’s too early to speculate whether Cashman will attempt to re-sign Sheffield after the 2006 season, but if he keeps putting up strong numbers, someone surely will).
Sheffield’s career statistics may have him on the cusp of Hall of Fame induction, but when I ask him whether a ceremony in Cooperstown matters to him, he just snorts. “How can you say who is great, when people who never played the game are just voting for their favorites? Who are you to define the kind of player I am?” Baseball has a way of forgiving the talented but surly. Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Reggie—time smoothes over their rough edges; the hard numbers remain. A more apt analogy for Sheffield, however, might be Jim Rice. The former Red Sox left-fielder racked up impressive stats, had a similarly contentious relationship with the media and the fans—and is still waiting for his phone call from Cooperstown.
Sheffield says he doesn’t care. He gets off the couch, shakes my hand, and asks me how the story will turn out. I bob and weave and try to make a joke. He looks me in the eye and says, “I’m not one of those people who have to try and remember what they told people, because I always tell the truth. That should count for something, right?”