Gary Antonian Sheffield was born on November 18, 1968, in Tampa, Florida. His mother, Betty, was the older sister of Dwight Gooden, who was just four years older than Gary. Gary’s father owned a pool hall in Tampa. He invited Betty to move in with him, but did not propose marriage. Fiercely independent, the teen chose to raise the boy on her own. Ever since, Gary has had limited contact with his dad.
Gary had big eyes, reddish hair and was always getting into some mischief as a toddler. This earned him the nickname “Bug” from his mom, who never had any other children. When Gary was two, Betty married Harold Jones, who worked in the Tampa boatyards. Harold played an important role in Gary’s life. In fact, Gary was a teenager before it finally sunk in that Harold was not his natural father.
Gary grew up in Belmont Heights, near the notorious Ponce de Leon projects, where shootings and stabbings were common occurrences. He and his family lived in the Gooden home, until 1976, when they moved closer to Harold’s job in Port Tampa. During that time Dwight was like an older brother to Gary. They did everything together, whether Gary wanted to or not. Many was the time when Dwight hauled his butt out of bed in the morning and ordered him to grab a bat to face what—even at age 9, 10 and 11—was a hellacious fastball. If Gary refused, he could expect a fight.
The result of these early battles with Dwight was that Gary learned how to hit a fastball, and learned how to use his fists. Harold remembers young Gary being able to belt small pebbles out of sight with a stick when they played in the family’s front yard. He also remembers bailing Gary out of trouble dozens of times after he refused to back down against a bigger kid (and then issued him a severe beating).
Short on grassy fields, the neighborhood kids played a 4-on-4 version of baseball in the street. Dwight pitched and Gary caught him. Teams from other streets would challenge their team, and huge crowds would form to watch. When the boys could find an empty diamond, the cousins were often forced to split up. That gave Gary plenty of practice hitting against Dwight.
Belmont Heights covered no more than a square mile or two, but it turned out an impressive array of baseball talent back then. In those pick-up games, Gary played against kids with elite-level talent. Besides Gooden, he faced future major-league hurlers like Floyd Youmans and Vance Lovelace. Ty Griffin, a future #1 draft pick of the Chicago Cubs, also competed in these games—as did Derek Bell, a future All-Star, and Maurice Crum, who later chose football over baseball and starred for the University of Miami.
Gary and his family moved back to Belmont Heights in the late 1970s. There, the youngster launched a storied Little League career. Having honed his batting skills against pro prospects, he destroyed enemy hurlers. Thanks to his cousin, Gary also knew a thing or two about pitching, and dominated opposing hitters with his right arm.
The only thing that could stop Gary at this age was his explosive temper, which he was barely able to control. Once, when he was late to practice, his coach benched him. Gary picked up a bat and chased the man all over the field.
In Gary’s 11th summer, he was selected to the Belmont Heights Little League All-Stars. The team, which also included Griffin, Bell, Crum and Gary’s cousin, Derrick Pedro, went on a roll and made it all the way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport. There, Gary and his teammates advanced from the U.S. draw to face Taiwan in the championship game, but lost 4-3. A year later, Belmont Heights made it back to Williamsport and won it all with Gary leading the way on the mound.
Off the field, Gary walked
a fine line during his early teens. His parents were strict about everything,
including curfews, swearing and showing respect to elders. But when Gary
was out of their sight he ran with the Alleycats, rising to the top of the
gang’s hierarchy by beating and bludgeoning fellow members. Fortunately,
the lure of baseball was just enough to keep him from becoming another statistic,
and his interest in vandalism and petty theft waned.
The difference between Gary and the kids who didn’t make it was his parents. As a teenager, he was punished severely whenever he stepped out of line. Gary complained bitterly that no one else had such a strident set of rules. Years later, however, he came to appreciate how his disciplined upbringing probably saved his life.
Gary also came to appreciate that the gigantic chip on his shoulder could have derailed him at any time. Not only didn’t Gary back down from challenges, he often provoked confrontations to prove how tough he was. The scary thing was that he was not satisfied when he won a fight. He seemed bent on inflicting serious, permanent damage. Gary later admitted that he was not happy unless a skirmish ended with a lot of blood.
Gary’s stepfather was his protector. After one game in which Gary hit three homers, he was met by a group of golf-club-wielding opponents in the parking lot. Gary was ready to take them all on, until Harold literally threw him into his car and drove away.
By his junior season, Gary had bulked up to 175 pounds and settled into the Hillsborough lineup as a pitcher and third baseman. He had an outstanding campaign in 1985, both on the mound and at the plate. In the March alumni game, his uncle Dwight took the hill and Gary got a hit off him. Gooden (who also picked up two hits off his nephew during the game) would go on to have one of the greatest seasons in history that year, winning 24 games against a 1.53 ERA for the New York Mets.
Gary was determined to be a first-round pick. If he didn’t impress the scouts as a senior, he planned to hone his skills across the state for the great college team in Miami. Knowing he would have to get his grades up to qualify for a scholarship, Gary hit the books during his last two semesters. He made the honor roll that spring.
Not that it mattered. Gary’s senior year at Hillsborough was sensational. His velocity was up in the high 80s, and he seemed to go deep every other game. Despite the fact that the most sensational pitcher in a generation happened to be Gary’s uncle, scouts began thinking his future might be at third base. Gary batted .500 and hammered 15 round-trippers in 62 official at-bats. Incredibly, he did not strike out once. He was named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year.
That June, the first four players selected in the draft were college stars—Jeff King, Greg Swindell, Matt Williams and Kevin Brown. Then the prep talent kicked in, with Kent Mercker going to the Atlanta Braves and Gary being drafted by Milwaukee. The Brewers, whose player development guru was Dan Duquette, also picked up University of Miami star Greg Vaughn in the secondary phase of the draft.
Gary signed for a $152,000 bonus and appeared hell bent on spending every penny of it. He bought a gold Mercedes and had his initials inlaid in gold in his front teeth.
Gary was shipped out to Helena of the Pioneer League, where he ripped apart pitchers to the tune of a .365 average and a league-high 71 RBIs in 57 games. The young hurlers took one look at Gary’s weird toes-in stance and long, extravagant swing and decided they could challenge him with fastballs. His .640 slugging average attested to their lack of success.
The Brewers were confident the young slugger would continue his exceptional hitting as he climbed the minor-league ladder. They were less sure of the position he would play. He was slotted in at shortstop for Helena—a position with which he was unfamiliar—and had all kinds of problems in the field. His powerful arm uncorked wild throws, and his footwork and glovework were very raw.
ON THE RISE
Gary returned to Tampa the conquering hero, but the euphoria ended on a December night when he, Dwight, and three of their friends were stopped by Tampa police on their way back from a University of South Florida basketball game. When Gooden got roughed up, Gary and his pals jumped in and a melee ensued. He was given two years probation for assaulting a police officer.
A couple of months later, Gary watched heartbroken as his old neighborhood went up in flames during a riot. Fortunately, he had moved his family across the bay to St. Petersburg just a few months earlier. Gary used much of his remaining bonus money—and received help from Dwight—on a plan to build a three-house compound overlooking the water. Gooden and his young wife, Monica, lived with his parents and grandmother in one house, while Gary, his fiancee Sherry (a Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleader), his mother and stepfather lived in another. The third house was occupied by Gary’s aunt Mercedes Pedro, and his cousin Derrick.
In the spring of 1987, Gary was assigned to Stockton of the Class-A California League. His defense improved, and once again he produced at the plate. Gary saw more breaking stuff, which caused his average to dip below .300, but he still drove in a league-leading 103 runs. He and teammate Darryl Hamilton formed an awesome one-two punch at the plate and also on the bases, where they combined to swipe 68 bases. At the end of the year, Gary was voted the circuit’s best prospect, with Hamilton finishing second in the balloting.
Gary’s manager in Stockton was Dave Machemer. Realizing that the youngster’s attitude was the only thing that might cause him to stumble, he hammered on Gary for every minor infraction, fining him on a regular basis. The teenager was incensed at what he considered disrespectful treatment, but the manager had the full support of Gary’s parents. When Machemer suspended Gary for three days, Harold told him that he and his wife backed him 100 percent.
Gary’s third pro season him saw him rise all the way from Class-AA to the majors. In 134 games for El Paso and Denver, he batted .327, slugged 28 homers and drove in 119 runs. The Brewers called him up after rosters expanded. At this point, the club had him pegged as a third baseman or outfielder, but when shortstop Dale Sveum broke his leg Gary was tabbed as his replacement.
Gary showed an immediate flair for the dramatic. His first major-league hit was a solo homer off Seattle ace Mark Langston, tying the game at 1-1 in the ninth inning. Two stanzas later he rapped out a single to win the contest. This was hardly a trivial achievement. In the midst of a wild pennant race, the Brewers were scrambling for supremacy in the AL East.
After his sparkling debut, Gary began to struggle. The 19-year-old rookie went to bat looking for the inside fastballs he loved, but against major-leaguers this left him vulnerable to soft stuff on the outside half. When he moved closer to the plate, they worked him inside. In 24 games he hit just .238. It was a preview of things to come, as pitchers would have the upper hand on Gary for at least another year.
On the last day of the '88 season, manager Tom Trebelhorn pulled Gary aside and told him the shortstop’s job was his next year. Gary and the rest of the Brewers—who finished just two games off the pace—entered 1989 with high hopes. The offense was led by veterans Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner, and young studs Rob Deer, B.J. Surhoff and Glenn Braggs. Milwaukee’s pitching staff was also talented, with Teddy Higuera, Don August, Chris Bosio, Bill Wegman, Mike Birkbeck and Jaime Navarro forming a solid core of starters. Lefty Dan Plesac was the closer.
A season of promise went sour, however, when half of the rotation went down with arm injuries. Gary, who had gone on a two-mile-a-day jogging regimen over the winter, reported to camp in the best shape of his life. At the plate. he was getting around on fastballs, fighting off breaking stuff, and thinking his way through at bats. Still, he became frustrated at what he considered to be a lack of progress. When pitchers tried to intimidate him and the Milwaukee hurlers did not retaliate, he criticized them in the press. The veterans, in turn, froze Gary out.
Gary’s frustration grew when he banged a ball off his foot and a small fracture went undiagnosed. The break, in fact, wasn’t discovered until after the Brewers decided to send him back to Triple-A Denver. After a stint on the DL, Gary returned to Milwaukee, where a contingent of Brewer employees met him at the airport to apologize. He walked right past their extended hands and never trusted a baseball executive again.
Meanwhile, Gary found
that rookie Billy Spiers had supplanted him as Milwaukee’s regular
shortstop. With Molitor nursing his usual collection of injuries, the
Brewers switched Gary to third, making Mollie the full-time DH. Gary
perceived the whole episode as a black-white issue, and let everyone
know how he felt.
With questions about his attitude and ability beginning to find their ways into the public forum, Gary went out and had a solid season in 1990. The addition of Don Baylor as batting coach and DH Dave Parker (once a Sheffield-like prodigy himself) helped Gary get his bearings at the plate, and he responded with a .294 average.
Baylor was an early proponent of the VCR, and he and Gary watched hours of tape together. After going homer-less in April, he hit his first dinger on May 1 off Bret Saberhagen. The home run was the result of an in-game video session with Baylor after Gary had fanned his first two appearances against the KC ace.
Gary finished the year with 41 extra-base hits and batted .336 with runners in scoring position. With Baylor and Parker as tutors, he refined his swing and plugged the holes pitchers had exploited the year before. Now no one could slip a fastball by him—and he was also driving the outside pitch to right once and a while.
The Brewers started the '90 season strong, but injuries burst their bubble once again, and the team sank to 74-88. They were thrilled that Gary had started to fulfill his potential. Concerns increased, however, about the ill will he created in the clubhouse. Gary had latched on to the idea that he could be a shortstop and blasted the team publicly when Spiers was hurt and Milwaukee kept him at third. When he accused the organization of being racist, GM Harry Dalton’s patience began to wear thin.
As the 1991 campaign approached, the feeling in the Milwaukee front office was that Gary’s persecution complex was only going to worsen. Was it worth having a budding superstar if he was a malcontent?
The answer came during an injury-riddled year for Gary. He hurt his wrist, thumb and shoulder, which forced him to shut things down in July. For Gary—who spent the winter working out with Sugar Ray Leonard and reported with a chiseled physique—the injury problems were maddening. He took out his frustration on Dalton, whose decisions he claimed were ruining the team.
Had Gary remained healthy, there is no telling what the Brewers might have accomplished in ’91. Molitor had a sensational season, the everyday lineup was one of the most consistent in baseball, and Wegman, Navarro and Bosio pitched beautifully. A breakout year from Gary might have enabled the team to close the gap on Toronto, which finished eight games ahead of Milwaukee in the AL East.
Gary reported for spring training in 1992 knowing he might be traded at any time. The Brewers had had it with him and were looking for a way out—especially after he told reporters that Trebelhorn and owner Bud Selig had tried to talk him into playing hurt in ‘91. The Padres offered three decent prospects, and on March 27 a deal was made that sent him to San Diego. GM Joe McIlvaine’s persistence had paid off—by his own records, he had contacted the Brewers more than 25 times about Gary.
Gary was all smiles when he entered the Padre clubhouse for the first time. He told reporters he felt as if he’d been let out of prison. In truth, Gary had begun to wonder whether he was doomed to be one of those "what-if?" players, whose promise never panned out.
Manager Greg Riddoch was a happy man, too. For the first time in their 23-year history, the Padres had a bona fide star at third base. Gary joined a solid lineup that included Fred McGriff, Tony Fernandez, Benito Santiago and Tony Gwynn.
The most anticipated game of the young season was played on May 24th, when Gary faced uncle Dwight for the first time as a major leaguer. Gooden boasted that he would strike out Gary in his first at-bat, shatter his lumber in his second appearance, and also hit a triple so he could laugh at Gary when he pulled into third. Gary guaranteed he would take Dwight deep. Gooden won the game, but did not deliver on any of his promises. Gary collected one hit in three at-bats.
The Padre hitters started the season red-hot, but only Gary kept it up all year. Even when fooled, he still seemed to get good wood on the ball,. National Leaguers could not figure out why the Brewers had let Gary go, and heaped praise upon the 23-year-old superstar. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox proclaimed Gary the best young hitter to come along since WIllie Mays.
Gary was in contention for the Triple Crown and MVP into September, but a late-season slump and finger injury kept him from both. He finished as the NL batting champ with a .330 average (and also led the league in total bases), wound up third in homers with 33, and drove in an even 100 runs for a San Diego team that ended two games over .500. Despite his big swing, Gary struck out only 40 times.
Gary’s dreamlike ‘92 season could not prevent the nightmare of 1993. Padre owner Tom Werner— who purchased the club with the money he made as producer of the hit TV series "Roseanne"—had no idea how to run a baseball organization. When San Diego began losing games early in ‘93 and attendance bottomed out, Werner faced a ruinous financial crisis. His response was essentially to “cancel” the team.
Every high-salaried Padre other than Gwynn was dealt away during a heartbreaking season. San Diego fans were doubly disappointed because the club actually had the makings of a winner. Among others, Phil Plantier and Gary’s childhood friend Derek Bell had been added to the roster and were blossoming as major leaguers.
Gary was traded to the expansion Florida Marlins for minor-league reliever Trevor Hoffman on June 24th. Ironically, the deal was announced the same day he was named to the Padres “25th Anniversary Dream Team.”
Gary would have preferred to go to a contending team, but the Marlins definitely offered some upside. They played across the state from his home, and thanks to GM Dave Dombrowski, seemed to be putting the right pieces together for a decent club. Still, it was a rude awakening—especially when Gary saw the lineup around him. Instead of hitting between Gwynn and McGriff, his protection in the order was Jeff Conine and Orestes Destrade. Showing continued maturation as a hitter, however, Gary actually raised his average and slugging percentage after the trade. He took what the pitchers gave him, and learned how to hit when the other guy was determined not to let you beat him.
Gary also learned how to play through pain. His right shoulder bugged him all year, sapping his power and causing a lot of throwing errors at third base. Despite Gary's fielding woes, the Marlins gave him a four-year deal that made him the highest-paid player at his position. Then they decided to move him to a different one.
Gary was anointed Florida’s new rightfielder in the spring of 1994. He put in tons of time picking up the position’s nuances, and was making sprawling catches and nailing runners with long throws by the time the season opened.
The 1994 campaign had its highs and lows for Gary. Twice he strained his left rotator cuff diving for balls in the outfield, which cost him more than a month on the shelf. When he played, however, he was terrific. In what would end up being a strike-shortened season, Gary hit 27 homers and knocked in 78 runs in just 87 games. He also walked 51 times, signalling a transition in his approach at the plate. He was now working deep into counts, and his OBA was creeping toward .400.
In 1995, for the first time, the Marlins emerged from the NL East cellar. The lineup included speedster Quilvio Veras to go along with centerfielder Chuck Carr, and veterans Terry Pendelton and Andre Dawson provided guidance and leadership. The jewel of the Florida system, Charles Johnson, was now the everyday backstop, while Conine had matured into a solid RBI guy.
Gary should have been the focal point of the offense, but once again injuries limited him to under 100 games. A torn ligament in his right thumb kept him out of the lineup from June 10 through the end of August. When he returned to Marlins in September, he hammered the first pitch he saw for a 426-foot home run. Gary made up for lost time the rest of the month, with a total of 10 homers and 27 RBIs in 70 at-bats. His average for the year was .324 and his on-base average was a jaw-dropping .467.
MAKING HIS MARK
Gary was now recognized as one of baseball’s finest performers. But his ability to stay healthy was becoming a major issue. So too was his ability to stay out of trouble. He was still generous with his opinions when the microphones were on, and seemed unable to shake off the last vestiges of his troubled youth in Tampa. A few days after the ’95 season ended, Gary was grazed by a bullet as his car idled at a traffic signal in Belmont Heights. The injury wasn’t serious, but it nonetheless cast him a bad light. Was the gunshot from just a dumb kid, or payback for some forgotten injustice Gary had done to a neighborhood denizen?
Gary wasn’t sticking around to find out. He left Tampa for good, and moved into a penthouse overlooking Biscayne Bay in Miami. Instead of hanging around with old friends, he began making new ones—many of them fellow celebrities who had their own fame and money…in other words, people who didn’t need him.
The 1996 season began well for Gary. He tied a record with 11 April homers despite recurring pain in his surgically repaired right shoulder. The Miami sportswriters, who had been killing him for being brittle and unproductive, happily ate their words. Gary played the entire year despite his usual assortment of injuries—and the constant threat of being dealt away for various packages of players—and put up monster numbers. In 161 games, he hit .314, clubbed 42 homers, scored 118 runs, drove home 120, and walked 142 times. The Marlins inched to within a victory of .500, and set the stage for an amazing chapter in their history.
Florida acquired veterans Moises Alou and Bobby Bonilla for the 1997 season, and made a pair of 21-year-olds—Edgar Renteria and Luis Castillo—their new DP combo. Florida’s pitching staff featured Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Alex Fernandez, the young Cuban defector Livan Hernandez, and Robb Nen, who was coming off two strong years as the team’s closer.
Under new manager Jim Leyland, the Fish fashioned a 92-70 record, which was good for a Wild Card berth. Everyone contributed, including bench players Jim Eisenreich, Cliff Floyd, Gregg Zaun and a pair of in-season pickups, Darren Daulton and Craig Counsell.
The only guy who didn’t get untracked in ’97 was Gary. After the slugger’s huge ’96 performance, Dombrowski inked him to a four-year, $61 million deal and Gary fell into the trap of trying to justify his contract. When pitchers realized he had expanded his strike zone, he didn’t see a decent pitch the rest of the year. His .250 average and 121 walks spoke volumes. Owner H. Wayne Huizenga became so angry with his rightfielder’s performance that summer that he decided to sell the team. He told others in the organization that he could not bear to sign another one of Gary’s paychecks.
Leyland defended Gary all year. He was playing through injuries once again—including a sore hamstring—and his presence in the lineup helped Alou and Bonilla put up healthy numbers. In the postseason, Gary finally caught fire. He batted .556 in a first-round sweep of the San Francisco Giants, reached base 11 of the 24 times he faced Atlanta Braves pitchers in the NLCS, and pounded the Cleveland Indians for seven hits and five RBIs in a thrilling seven-game victory in the World Series.
The Marlins’ astonishing championship run was followed by the now-infamous breakup engineered by Huizenga. Gary’s contract was among the more difficult to unload. In mid-May, Florida found a taker in the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were anxious to move Mike Piazza. Gary went to L.A. along with Bonilla, Johnson and Eisenreich. Piazza was dealt by the Marlins to the Mets a few days later for Preston WIlson.
The Dodgers figured they would be in a dogfight with the Giants for the NL West crown. As the season unfolded, however, Gary’s old team, the Padres, ran away with the division. Ironically, San Diego had acquired Brown from the Marlins over the winter for minor-league stud Derrick Lee, and his pitching proved the difference.
Gary had a nice year for the Dodgers, batting over .300.The only player in the lineup who exhibited any patience at the plate, he led the team in walks despite playing just 90 games in an L.A. uniform. Unfortunately, his season ended in late August, when he sprained his ankle on a steal attempt.
After the season,
Gary married gospel singer DeLeon Richards. The two had met after the
1997 World Series and quickly struck up a relationship. Gary’s
willingness to commit to DeLeon surprised friends and family—and
even him. With three kids and a long trail of discarded women to his
credit, he doubted whether he would ever find anyone with whom he could
spend the rest of his life. The wedding ceremony was a small affair
in the Bahamas.
Gary moved to leftfield in 1999 and had a terrific season for Los Angeles. For only the third time in his career, he stayed healthy enough to amass 500 official at-bats. As a result, he piled up 103 runs, 101 RBIs, 101 walks, and 34 home runs to go along with a .301 average. It marked the first time since the franchise moved from Brooklyn that a Dodger batter had posted such lofty numbers. Also of note was the fact that Gary played a solid leftfield.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, it came during a season when the L.A. pitching staff collapsed (except for stellar years by new acquisitions Kevin Brown and Jeff Shaw). The Arizona Diamondbacks, in turn, ran away with the NL West flag. Though Los Angeles also got big years from Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi, Eric Young and Adrian Beltre, the club ended the year at a dismal 77-85.
The Dodgers got back on track in 2000, thanks primarily to a torrid first half from Gary. He batted over .330 and launched 27 homers in the first 81 games, as L.A. tried to keep paced with the surging Giants. A promising season began to unravel, however, when Gary got involved in a fracas between Dodger players and rowdy fans at Wrigley Field. Claiming he entered the stands as a peacemaker, he was suspended nonetheless. Feeling he was being singled out, Gary seemed to lose a little of his edge after the incident.
Although Gary still produced in the second half, a sore back and a bout with the flu limited him to just 199 at-bats. His final numbers were still spectacular—43 homers and a .325 average, but L.A. faded into second place and the season was over by early August.
Believing the Dodgers were spending their money stupidly and sliding in the wrong direction, Gary began lobbying for a trade during the offseason. Prior to spring training, he decided to use the press to get himself run out of town. He insulted his teammates, derided club management, called chairman Bob Daly a liar, screamed racism when the club refused to double the value of his contract, and made vague accusations about misdeeds he had uncovered within the organization.
When the free-spending Mets put Jay Payton and their top prospect, Alex Escobar, on the table, everyone figured the deal was done. But Dodger GM Kevin Malone didn't think it was enough and turned the deal down. Gary became enraged. The Mets were exactly the kind of club he wanted to play for and, along with the Yankees and Braves, the only teams he agreed to be traded to.
Resigned to the fact that he would be wearing Dodger blue again, Gary tried to do some quick fence-mending. He canned his agent of 15 years, Jim Neader, read a heartfelt statement (with new agent Scott Boras by his side) and apologized to Dodger fans for his behavior
Playing the entire year under a darker cloud than usual, Gary had himself a decent year. He managed to stay healthy until the end of May, when a sprained finger began nagging him. It hurt all year, but he played through it and had a magnificent July and August. The Dodgers were in the mix in the NL West until the last week, when Gary went homerless over a 16-game stretch and batted just .203. His final stats (.311-36-100) suggested a successful season, but his slump down the stretch was the last straw for the Dodger brass.
After the season, the Oakland A’s and their on-base-loving GM Billy Beane came calling. Jermaine Dye and Billy Koch were mentioned, but the deal never came off. The Braves made the right offer—Brian Jordan and Odalis Perez—and Gary packed his bags for Atlanta.
It looked like a good fit. His wife had an office in the city, and Gary already spent a fair amount of time there in the offseason. When he met the Atlanta press, he announced he wanted to go into the Hall of Fame as a Brave. He liked the idea of switching back to rightfield, and didn’t mind foregoing his customary #10, which Chipper Jones already wore.
The 2002 Braves featured a balanced offensive lineup with Gary, Chipper and Andruw Jones, speedster Rafael Furcal and catcher Javy Lopez. The pitching staff—with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood—was terrific. John Smoltz was automatic as the closer, which helped Atlanta open an enormous lead in the NL East and coast into the playoffs.
Gary got off to a horrible start (including an 0-for-29 stint), but overcame his usual collection of injuries to turn in a solid season—despite the fact Braves opponents often tried to pitch around him. He batted .307 with 25 homers and led the league with 23 game-winning RBIs. Gary set a team record when he reached base in 52 straight games from late May to late July.
For just the second time in his career, Gary found himself in the playoffs, but lost his focus in a tight series with the Giants. He swung at balls he normally let go, and collected just one hit (to go with the seven walks issued to him by San Francisco pitching). The Braves had the Giants down two games to one, then dropped two in a row to end their season.
The 2003 Braves posed a lot of question marks. Thin on pitching with the dual loss of Glavine and Millwood, and seemingly lackluster on offense, Atlanta was being picked by most experts to battle the Marlins and Mets for second place in the NL East and a possibly Wild Card spot.
A couple of months into the season, however, the Braves were on their way to building an insurmountable lead in the East. The pitching held and the offense exploded behind career years from Andruw Jones, Marcus Giles and Lopez. Ironically, Gary’s monster season almost got lost in the sauce. Were it not for the fact that his contract was going to expire, the press might have ignored him completely. Gary stung the ball at a .330 clip to lead the team, and also paced the Braves with 132 RBIs and a .419 on-base percentage. In addition, he achieved career-highs with 37 doubles, 190 hits and 126 runs.
With an eye on the World Series, the Braves—Gary included—cooled off in the Division Series against the Cubs. Of course, Chicago fireballers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior had a lot to do with their lack of production. In a five-game struggle, the duo outpitched the Atlanta staff, as the Cubs closed out the Braves at Turner Field.
With a ton of free agents on the market and salary structures spiraling downward, it was difficult to predict who would end up where. The team most interested in Gary was the Yankees, who were in the market for a big bat and starting pitching. Owner George Steinbrenner had already lost Roger Clemens to retirement and was about to lose Andy Pettitte. When a trade for Javier Vazquez shipped young outfielder Juan Rivera to Montreal, New York created a glaring need in rightfield. In ’03, that spot had been manned by a platoon that included Rivera, Raul Mondesi, Karim Garcia and David Dellucci. It was time for a permanent solution.
Among free-agent outfielders, Gary’s main competition for big bucks was Vladimir Guerrero, who was looking for mega millions. Gary had his eye on a career-finishing contract at around $13 million per. Steinbrenner had been warming up to the idea of obtaining Gary thanks to uncle Dwight, who had the boss’s ear. Gooden arranged a meeting in Tampa and a handshake deal was made at $39 million for three seasons, with enough deferred money to bring the per-season cost down to $11 million.
Gary soon had second thoughts and reportedly began demanding a deal with more upfront money. Eventually, he and the Boss arrived at something close to their original deal.
Gary joined a cast of All-Stars in New York. GM Brian Cashman also swung a trade for Alex Rodriguez, who moved to third base and formed a dynamic duo on the left side of the infield with Derek Jeter. Gary filled out the outfield with Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams, though newcomer Kenny Lofton also figured to see time in center. The pitching staff was a different matter. Manager Joe Torre pondered an uncertain rotation that included aging veterans Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina, not to mention Vazquez, unproven on New York's grand stage.
Things didn’t start off as Gary would’ve liked. Indeed, April was a rotten month, as opponents held him to just one home run in his first 21 games. Not surprisingly, the New York fans and media got all over Gary, criticizing him for his lack of power and timely hitting.
There were also the rumors about his use of steroids. Gary's name was being linked directly to the federal investigation into Victor Conte and Greg Anderson of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. Both were accused of providing performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes and track and field stars, including Barry Bonds, Bill Romanowski and Marion Jones. Gary was also among those implicated, though he denied any involvement.
Things improved only slightly for Gary in May. When he signed with the Yanks, he said that he would be happy to be a contributor, not the main man in the lineup. But Steinbrenner expected more of him, as did the New York faithful. Gary began to turn things around at the end of the month. In a game versus the Orioles, he broke a 3-for-17 slump, exploding for four hits, including a homer, and six RBIs.
Over the campaign's final four months, Gary launched a personal assault on the AL MVP. In June, behind his red hot bat, the Yankees won 15 of 20, grabbing the league’s best record. Despite a painful left shoulder, Gary continued to batter opposing pitchers. Over one five-game stretch, he hammered three homers and drove home nine runs. By July, his numbers were strong enough to earn him the eighth All-Star selection of his career.
In August, people began to mentnion Gary in MVP talks, comparing him favorably with David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero. When the Red Sox made a run at the front-running Yankees in September, Gary helped New York stave off Boston. Though he batted only .265 for the month, he hit well with runners in scoring position, piling up 23 RBIs. Gary ened the season tied with A-Rod for the most homers on the club with 36 and topped the team in slugging percentage (.534) and runs scored (117). He also posted a .983 fielding percentage, the fourth best mark in his career.
After helping New York secure its seventh consecutive AL East crown, Gary led the team into the ALDS against the Twins. Yankee power prevailed again in four tight games. Gary—who had struggled in postseasons past—continued this trend against Minnesota. Outside of his two-run homer in Game 2, he did nothing with the stick.
But Gary changed all that in Game 1 of the ALCS, a rematch for the Yanks against the Red Sox. In the 10-7 victory, he went 3-for-4, including two doubles off Curt Schilling. Gary pounded out six hits in the next two contests, both wins, as New York surged to a 3-0 series lead.
The Red Sox, however, weren't dead. They embarked on a comeback for the ages, taking the next four in a row. Gary was among those who wore the goat horns for the Yankees. He collected only one knock and no RBIs over his last 19 at-bats, including going hitless and striking out twice in Game 7.
New York fans were willing to forgive Gary for his disappearing act against the Red Sox. He played with a sore shoulder most of the season and still produced huge numbers. Gary's biggest mistake of the year may have been comments attributed to him after Game 3 in Boston. Some papers had him gloating and bad-mouthing the Red Sox for a lack of effort. Boston players later admitted that those quotes served as powerful motivation.
Gary’s second year with the Yankees was superb. He hammered 34 homers and drove in 123 RBIs. He hit two grand slams on the season, plus a pair of three-run blasts aginst the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in one June game. Coming out of the All-Star break, Gary homered in three straight games. The Yankees dogged the Red Sox in the A.L. East all year and finally passed them in September. They clinched with two games left. New York's pitching, shaky all season, collapsed in the playoffs against the Angels.
Brushing aside this disappointment, Gary began the 2006 campaign on fire. His average hovered in the mid .300s in April, and he was on pace for another 30-homer season. Gary became embroiled in a brief controversy during a series in Boston, when a fan took a swipe at him while he was fielding a ball in the right field corner. Gary shoved the fan, who later had his season tickets revoked—aka the Fenway death penalty. Charges were filed against Gary but later dropped. Still, he was fined by the league.
A couple of weeks later, Gary collided with first baseman Shea Hillenbrand while running out a grounder against the Blue Jays. He injured his right knee and left wrist. Gary tried to come back but eventually landed on the DL, and the decision was made to have wrist surgery.
Gary returned in late September, by which time the Yankees had acquired Bobby Abreu from the Phillies. He tried to play first base with mixed results. He got only one hit in New York’s playoff loss to Detroit.
With Abreu in pinstripes, the writing was on the wall for Gary, who turned 38 in November. The team picked up his 2007 option, then put him on the market. As luck would have it, the pennant-winning Tigers were his most ardent admirers. The team had made it to the World Series, but lacked an established middle-of-the-order slugger. Pitching-rich Detroit gave up three mound prospects to get him.
The moment Tiger
fans heard the news, they began thinking seriously of a pennant repeat.
Gary joins veteran stick men Pudge Rodriguez, Sean Casey, Carlos
Guillen, Placido Polanco, Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez, all of
whom now have valuable postseason experience. Meanwhile, Gary was
reunited with Jim Leyland, the manager with whom he won it all back
in 1997. Leyland was thrilled to have him. After the World Series,
he asked pitching coach Chuck Hernandez which hitter he feared the
most. The answer was “Gary Sheffield.”
seemed finished as an everyday player. The wear and tear of a full
season, even as a DH, would be too much. And he hadn’t logged
significant time in the field for several seasons. Common wisdom dictated
that he would hang on with an AL team, but it was the Mets who signed
him in early April. On April 17th, he clubbed his 500th home run, a
game-tying shot down the leftfield line at new Citifield as a pinch
hitter against the Brewers. The Mets went on to win the game.
GARY THE PLAYER
Gary’s batting stance is unmistakable. With toes pointed in, he wags his bat over his head, tilting it so that the barrel aims straight at the pitcher. From this impossible start, he whips his bat through the hitting zone with amazing speed and precision. He is tough to fool with anything on the inside half of the plate and only in his weak moments will he chase soft stuff outside.
When Gary gets a ball in his wheel house, he hits shots the outfielders don’t even turn for. When he is protecting with two strikes, he can produce line drives the other way. If he gets four balls in an at -bat, he usually takes them—something the Tigers aren’t exactly known for. Although Gary is still capable of playing a decent right field, he says there is little left to prove as a defensive player. Gary has accepted the fact that his value to the Tigers is primarily as a DH.
Two questions remain about Gary. Will his bat be enough to get Detroit another World Series title? And will it be enough to get him into the Hall of Fame?
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