You keep an open mind. You hear him booed, hear him called "Gary Cancerfield," hear him described as the greediest man in baseball. And you climb in a car with him anyway.
You ride with him and his 7-year-old son, and you remember that superstars are people, too, that they are fathers, too. His son's name is Gary Sheffield Jr., but he calls his son "Golden Child" instead sometimes. The kid is precocious, has hands the size of a 12-year-old's, and you ride and hear how the boy talks to his Los Angeles Dodger dad. You hear him say, "Why did you strike out last night, dad? You always tell me to hit it." And you hear him say, "Randy Johnson can definitely strike you out, dad." And you hear him say, "Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire are my favorite players, dad." And you turn to see the face of Gary Sheffield Sr., and he's grinning, and he's saying, "My son, he likes BIG people."
You are riding with him and his son, and you are gaining perspective. The son is one of three children he has, by three different women, but you find out that he sees his son whenever he can, and throws at the boy's ribs whenever he can. You find out that's how he learned to stand in there and hit a baseball himself. His Uncle Dwight (Dwight Gooden to you and me) used to throw at his ribs, and now he throws at his own son's ribs -- so his son eventually won't be scared of the ball. You hear him say, "I tried to throw underhand to my son, but he gets mad and says, 'If you're not gonna throw hard, I'm not playing.' So I throw hard, and he swings hard, and sometimes he swings so hard he falls down. But when he connects, ooooooooh boy. This kid's got it. I know I'm biased, but this kid's got it."
You are riding with him, and his son, and you are searching for a clothing store. The son just happens to be on this Dodger road trip, and if the son's going to fly on the team plane, he's going to need some dress shoes and a belt and a dress shirt. You look at the kid, and you think he looks fine in his sneakers and jeans, and you think that if he flew in his sneakers and jeans, no one would say a word. But then you look at his father, and you realize his father cares what the Dodgers think, that he's no cancer to the team at all, that he is a baseball player through-and-through, and that if his son is going to fly with the team, he is going to adhere to team rules and wear the good threads.
You are riding with him and his son, and his son says, "Daddy, something bad's going to happen today," and you see the face of his father and you see the irony, because you know his father is going to be booed that night, and you know that it's going to be bad, and you know his son is going to be in the stadium to hear it. But you hear his father say, "Don't talk like that," and you hear him say, "I'm trying to get my son to think positive, to be a positive person."
You are getting to the heart of Gary Sheffield now, how he is attempting to stay positive, too, through an impossible time, through the absurdities of baseball, through something that has grown out of control.
Yes, he wanted more money from the Dodgers. But he wasn't asking to tear up his contract, as everyone was led to believe. He wanted an extension, supposedly four more years and $80 million added to his current 4-year, $41-millon deal. He wanted it because he's been unloaded in two different fire sales (San Diego and Florida), wanted it so he could stay someplace for a while. He wanted it, in his words, "because I've been playing 13 years now, and I finally have a wife, and we're getting ready to start our own family, and enough is enough."
So he asked for it, asked for an exorbitant amount of money. And he's a six-time all star, coming off of a 43 homer, 109 RBI season, so maybe he deserved it, maybe not. But you ride with Gary Sheffield, and his son, and it dawns on you -- as these salaries explode, the player who can retire without being called greedy is the lucky one, the rare one.
"A lot of people write letters to me, and the Dodgers try to intercept the negative ones, but some slip through, and I hear, 'You make $10 million, be happy' and 'you're a whiner,' and so forth," he says. "And I fold it up and throw it in the garbage. I don't read filth ... But A-Rod and Griffey, when it comes to money, we all hear it. So I get the booing that everybody else gets. But being a Gary Sheffield, a Ken Griffey, you also start to be defined by it.
"How can you boo A-Rod and Griffey in Seattle, after all they've done for your city? And all of a sudden you get a Japanese player [Ichiro Suzuki] and go nuts over him? They've got to understand who's doing a lot for this game. It's not A-Rod's fault someone gave him $250 million. Look what he's done for the game; that's why he got $250 million. They should respect that. But that's people's only alternative to jealousy -- to boo."
You ride with Gary Sheffield, and you realize he will take it all on himself, that he will say what Griffey and Rodriguez will not say. "I knew I was gonna get bad press, and I didn't care," he says of his extension request. "We players don't want bad press. But at certain moments, I don't care."
You ride with Gary Sheffield, and you hear it all. You hear about overt racism in baseball. You hear him say that baseball teams would rather have the Dominicans and the Puerto Ricans and the Japanese than the American blacks. Because they can control the foreign players, particularly the ones who come from poverty. Because they can threaten to send them back to their country.
"I'm happy that they cheer Suzuki and that teams are getting their kinds of players," Sheffield says. "But why not more of us? Bring up some of us from the minors, too. There's plenty of us out there; nothing's changed. It's just you have to go out and find them. There's plenty of diamonds in the rough.
"I just think a lot of black players are suffering in the minor leagues right now, and should be here. Guys that can run circles around half the guys in the big leagues.
"They're just a lot of hang-ons up here.You'll be an important player who helps team and then you'll see a lot of hang-ons. And you have to be on the same schedule as them, and that's what I have a problem with. They'll say to me, 'You have to be here at this time or that time.' But if I produce every day, I should be able to get ready the way I need to get ready. It's not disruptive to the team, it's getting me ready. I have to get my rest, and to do that, sometimes I don't want to even see the ballpark. I don't need to get there early. Because when I get in uniform, I can't sit still. And I'd rather preserve my energy. So I won't come early. I mean, if I just have to sit around, I don't want to be there. That's just me. But I hear the criticism."
You ride and you're hearing Gary Sheffield's side. You hear all these reasons why he's portrayed as baseball's bad guy, or Los Angeles' bad guy. You hear of the Piazza factor. The fact that he was traded there for Mike Piazza, a handsome, charismatic man, and the fact that they seem to boo him as a result. And the fact that fans need to know that there's more to a team than one bat.
"You look at Piazza, they never won with Piazza," he says. "And now the Dodgers have me, and our numbers are similar, and we both haven't won. And it's not the offense I'm putting up that's making us lose. And Piazza's numbers didn't make them lose, either. People say, oh, our chemistry's bad. But there's no such thing as chemistry. What it boils down to is know-how. How to do it. Know-how is why the Florida Marlins won it when I was there. We had a bunch of know-how. Everyone in that room knew their role and pulled for the other guy and fought for the other guy. We came to your place and we would be the dictators. It's not a chemistry thing; It's a know-how. It's that swagger everyone has to have.
"Do the Dodgers have that swagger? Well, we ain't won. I'll say we don't have that swagger yet. It's my fault, and everybody else's fault. We lose together, we win together. We don't have that swagger yet."
You ride and you find he's not afraid. Of telling the truth. Of admitting he's not a saint. A few years ago, kids used to write him for autographs, and he'd write back saying they had to join his fan club first. That sounds awful, and he can see why now, but he wanted to contribute money to an inner-city baseball program called RBI, and that's where the money from his fan club was going. "If you want something from me, do something for my people!" he says. "If you want something from me, give something to the inner city. That was my thinking back then. That's why I did it."
You ride and hear about the many dark days in his life. About how he used to drink all night and show up for spring training games with alcohol breath. And how teammates would say, "Gary, go get some mouthwash."
"Well," he says now, "I was still the freshest player out there, based on my performance. Of course, I could do that back then. I was younger then."
You ride and hear how he's older now. How he's trying now. You ride and watch him nod over to Gary Jr., the Golden Child. You ride and find out that the booing hurts him, but also that the booing KILLS his 7-year-old son.
You drop them at the ballpark and you watch the son closely that night. You watch the son perk up when his father comes to the plate and you watch the son stiffen up when his father is booed, and you watch the son go berserk when his father smashes a home run 390-some feet.
"Yeah!" says the Golden Child, making a fist, looking around, talking trash. "You didn't strike out, daddy. You didn't strike out."
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