The Specter of Gary Sheffield

Illustration by André Carrilho

On September 19 of last year, the Detroit Tigers’ designated hitter, Gary Sheffield, batting all of .220 on the season, was hit by a pitch from Cleveland Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona. It was a stray fastball that ran in on Sheffield a little too much, plunking him square on the elbow. In a close game involving teams both long out of the pennant chase, in which there had been no prior incident, it was obvious to everyone in the park that hitting Sheffield was unintentional, a pitch that just sneaked an inch too far inside. Obvious to everyone, that is, except Gary Sheffield.

While all others at Progressive Field were marking HBP in their scorebooks and moving on with their lives, Sheffield glared at Carmona as if he had just set his house on fire and garroted the family dog. He carried his bat with him as he walked to first base—amusingly, a batboy stood delicately behind him, gingerly waiting to take the bat away, hoping not to be beheaded—and stared straight at Carmona, who, before the next pitch, threw to first base to keep Sheffield close. That was the final, devastating insult for Sheff, who immediately sprinted at Carmona, and the two began throwing punches. The benches cleared, less out of mutual anger between the teams than of fear that Sheffield would murder someone. Sheffield was suspended for four games but was far from repentant. “Three strikes and you’re out,” Sheffield said after the game, claiming Carmona had hit him three times that season, which was not true. “And if it’s No. 4, it gets more violent. Trust me.” This was seven months ago. Sheffield was nearly a 40-year-old man.

I know Sheffield has been away from New York for two and a half years, and these days that can seem like decades, but it’s worth remembering who this guy is and has always been. The Mets—a team that, after the last two Septembers, is potentially fragile in every possible fashion—signed him to a one-year deal, mere days after the Tigers agreed to pay him $14 million to please go away. Theoretically, it’s a low-risk deal for the Mets, considering how little they’re paying him. But nothing about Gary Sheffield is theoretical. They don’t make players like Gary Sheffield anymore. And thank God for that.

Sheffield is the nephew of troubled and occasionally brilliant New York baseball icon Dwight Gooden, so he has had the spotlight on him since he was a teenager. (Newspapers covered his arrest on a DWI charge and evading police, while he was already on probation, when he was 19 years old.) Since then, he has played for eight different teams, counting the Mets, and left a swath of destruction in his wake every time. In Milwaukee, he claimed race was a factor in the Brewers’ decision to move him to third base. Budget woes led to a trade from San Diego, one the Padres surely don’t regret, considering it brought them future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. In Florida, where he grew up, Sheffield was arrested on another DWI (he pleaded to reckless driving in both cases), was accused by two ex-girlfriends of aggravated battery (no formal charges were filed), was once pulled off a team plane while police searched his bag for drugs (they didn’t find any), was shot in the shoulder, and was required by MLB officials to undergo a psychological evaluation. (He was in Florida for only five seasons, his longest stay with any team.) He was rewarded with the richest contract in baseball at the time, in 1997, then traded to Los Angeles for Mike Piazza. There, he accused the team’s management of lying, sulked consistently, went into the stands at Wrigley Field during a confrontation with fans, and ultimately was shipped to Atlanta. There, having recently found God, he settled down just in time for his first free agency. Then he found baseball’s real god: George Steinbrenner.

One could argue that the signing of Sheffield was Steinbrenner’s last real hands-on, Bossesque, We’re Doing This My Way moment before age and infirmity caught up with him. He personally negotiated Sheffield’s three-year, $39 million contract—just those two irascible iconoclasts, hashing out all the details—and introduced Sheffield to a powerful Yankees lineup and, most important, that eager tabloid press corps. To them, Sheffield was a dream. Sheffield shoved a fan at Fenway Park while fielding a fly ball, and accused Joe Torre of favoring white players over black players. “Black players had an issue with Joe Torre,” Sheffield said. “They weren’t treated like everybody else. Even I got called out in a couple of meetings that I thought was unfair.” When it was noted that Torre seemed to get along fine with Derek Jeter, Sheffield said that was because Jeter is “black and white” rather than “all the way black.”

And we haven’t even mentioned the steroids yet. As with so many players in the last decade of baseball, Sheffield’s steroid problems came shortly after he joined the Yankees. As it turned out, twenty different Yankees who have played for the team ended up in the Mitchell Report, and considering how slipshod and admittedly incomplete that document was, it’s reasonable to make the leap that more were actually using. This is not to imply that the Yankees were somehow Patient Zero of the steroid epidemic. It’s more accurate to see the Yankees as a symptom of the problem than its source. When you are the team that pays for the best players in baseball, it stands to reason that you’re going to end up with some steroid abusers: They were, after all, the best players in baseball. But the year after Sheffield signed his deal, he acknowledged in Sports Illustrated that he had used a substance called the “cream,” although he insisted he didn’t know what he was taking. Sheffield’s stonewalling on the issue puts him in the Bonds–Roger Clemens–Mark McGwire camp of alleged steroid users. While those men have been all but convicted of steroid use in the court of public opinion, they have all maintained their innocence, in one form or another (in fairness, no one has proved any of them guilty). The opposing camp is made up of players like Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi, who have either admitted or all but admitted using. Fair or not, Sheffield will always carry the scarlet steroid letter in a way that Pettitte and Giambi won’t, because his use, like Bonds’, Clemens’, and McGwire’s alleged use, came packaged with defiance. Bonds and Clemens are still fighting to clear their names. McGwire seems genuinely wounded by the claims made against him. Considering Sheffield’s ongoing petulance, you suspect he doesn’t really care.

This is not to say that Sheffield is a horrible person, or even that he’s always been wrong. (The Fenway incident wasn’t entirely his fault; his claim that his leaving the Yankees would hurt Alex Rodriguez because Sheffield was A-Rod’s lone sounding board has a kernel of truth; and it’s worth mentioning that the number of African-Americans in baseball has dropped dramatically since Sheffield entered the league, whatever the reason.) It is to say that it’s a matter of when, not if, Sheffield will say something problematic to the Mets. And it will probably be at the worst possible time.

Imagine, if you will, the Mets one game ahead of the Phillies in the National League East—assuming, in this scenario, the wild card is not a possibility—and Mets fans understandably frazzled by the specter of yet another collapse (improved bull pen aside, another tight pennant race in September will fray everyone’s nerves). Nails are chomped, danders are raised, everyone’s freaked out. And then here comes Sheffield, chatting away to the Post after a tough loss in which he was kept on the bench: “If Jerry Manuel wants to win games, he’ll put me in there. That’s why we’re losing. No one else will say it, so I will. This is a losing organization.” It has happened for the other teams Sheffield has played for; why wouldn’t it happen here? As fragile as the Mets are going into this season, why tempt fate? The Mets, as constituted before Sheffield arrived, were a group of likable guys who are rather dull with a quote. Sheffield is going to change all that, and he might change it at just the wrong time.

This would all be fine, of course, if Sheffield could actually still hit. (No one minded that Reggie Jackson wouldn’t shut up, after all.) Right now, there’s little evidence that he can. He batted .225 last season for a terrible Tigers team, and he’s too old and fragile to play the outfield, particularly the unpredictable expanse of Citi Field. Most statistical algorithms project him to be worse this season than the Mets outfielders Daniel Murphy, Ryan Church, and Fernando Tatis, and by a considerable margin. The Mets are paying only $400,000 for his services—the Tigers, who are paying the man $13.6 million not to play for them, are picking up the rest of the tab—and for the Gary Sheffield of ten years ago, or six years ago, or two years ago, that might have been a bargain. (The only other team rumored to have been kicking his tires before the Mets nabbed him were the Phillies, and an argument could be made that the Mets grabbed him just to spite their rivals.) But that $400,000 is going to feel awfully steep if he’s hitting .225 again, limping through the outfield, and mouthing off when it’s least convenient.

The Mets have signed a ghost, a vision of bluster and power that no longer exists, a throwback to a time when a 40-year-old slugger could artificially wring a few final drops from his God-given mortal talents. Gary Sheffield is now just an old ballplayer, with few places left to go, playing out the string as loudly as possible. He’ll hit his 500th home run at some point, and he might even have a few endearing, game-deciding moments early on. But there are no more chemically enhanced 40-plus miracles to be had anymore. The reckoning is coming. It always does.

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The Specter of Gary Sheffield