Gary Sheffield is the Yankees’ MVP.

Photo: Dana Lixenberg

Why shouldn’t I tell the truth?” asks Gary Sheffield from the living room of his Alpine, New Jersey, home. The Yankees’ right-fielder turns toward the cook, the nanny, the publicist, the wife, and the car detailer who occupy his vast kitchen. “I ain’t trying to get no Pepsi commercial.”

His entourage smiles. They know not to get in their man’s way when he’s on a roll. It’s a little past noon before a night game, and the 36-year-old Sheffield has just completed his morning workout. He is splayed on the leather couch of his grand but not especially ostentatious house. He throws his arms back and stares at the Golf Channel. “I know who the leader is on the team,” he says as he scratches his cartoon-villain mustache. “I ain’t going to say who it is, but I know who it is. I know who the team feeds off. I know who the opposing team comes in knowing they have to defend to stop the Yankees.”

Sheffield’s wife, DeLeon, a gospel singer, sidles up next to him, pats his leg in a gentle “calm yourself” gesture. But Sheff is just getting started. “I know this. The people don’t know. Why? The media don’t want them to know. They want to promote two players in a positive light, and everyone else is garbage.”

Hmm. He’s not talking about Tanyon Sturtze and Andy Phillips.

A-Rod may get paid the most. Derek Jeter may be the team’s most beloved player. But Gary Sheffield, to borrow a phrase from another Yankee right-fielder with similarly outsize talent, an equally large ego, and a chip on his shoulder to match, is the straw that stirs the Yankees’ drink. Otherwise, this year’s team is flat Fresca. In a season in which the Yankees have floundered like never before in the Joe Torre era, Sheffield has easily been the team’s most consistent player. Where A-Rod, Jeter, and even the once-automatic Mariano Rivera have hit rough patches this season, Sheffield has been blessedly reliable. He’s hitting over .300 with an on-base percentage of nearly .400 and is on a pace to drive in 125 runs. Sheffield’s even better when it matters most: He’s batting an American League–leading .400 with runners in scoring position, and against the hated Red Sox, he’s hitting .435 (20 for 46) with four homers and 14 RBIs. He has driven in a run to tie or give the Yankees the lead five times against Boston and twice scored the game-winning run against the defending World Series champions.

Sheffield is also the Yankees’ most entertaining player. Maybe it’s the glut of world championships, maybe it’s the pressure to win still more, but Joe Torre’s troops play baseball with all the passion of the Hessians squaring off against the Continental Army. Whether it’s A-Rod’s or Jeter’s vacant eyes (illuminated only when the red light comes on) or the unrelenting march of night-of-the-living-dead pitchers, this is not a fun team to root for. Except for Sheffield. Every one of his at-bats is must-see TV. He strides to the plate, digs in, and wags his bat at the opposing pitcher as if to say “Throw the fucking ball or I am going to beat the tar out of you with this 32-ounce hunk of wood.” Even his groundouts are dramatic. In June, umpire C. B. Bucknor threw Sheffield out of a game against the Mets after the Yankee slammed down his helmet violently after a close play at first. It was the only moment of unbridled passion in a season begging for a few watercoolers to be tossed on the field.

Yet despite his gaudy numbers, Gary Sheffield is on his sixth team. One reason for that is modern free agency, but another is that Sheffield has worn out his welcome in two leagues. Like so many baseball players, basketball stars, football heroes, and professional fighters before him, Sheffield is a physically gifted street kid in a corporate American game. Management loves his talent and he’s paid accordingly ($39 million for three years). But in return, he must buckle to their ways. Jocks like Sheffield face a choice: Play along or risk being labeled a malcontent. Sheffield doesn’t do the conformity dance. Assuming he sticks around long enough for the microphones to appear, Sheffield may spend half an hour trashing his own bosses. So what if he hasn’t hit three home runs in a World Series game or nearly come to blows in the dugout with his manager. Gary Sheffield is the closest thing we’ve got to Reggie Jackson.

On a recent Saturday at Yankee Stadium, Sheffield arrives at 11:47, seven minutes late for a 1:20 P.M. start. He is dressed all in black, wearing reflective sunglasses, and carrying a can of Red Bull. Waking up early isn’t Sheffield’s thing, so approaching him before noon isn’t the smart play. A few rookie reporters move in his direction, but the veterans know not to. “I ain’t clocked in until I have my uniform on” is Sheffield’s mantra. He grabs his uniform and slips into the trainer’s room.

Sheffield at Hillsborough High School in Tampa.Photo: Courtesy of Gary Sheffield

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.

Sheffield and his wife, DeLeon.Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Wire Image

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.

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.”

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?”

Gary Sheffield is the Yankees’ MVP.