The economic downturn has struck again in Detroit, and the latest addition to the unemployment line is Gary Sheffield, one HR short of 500 for his career.
After the Detroit Tigers acquired Josh Anderson from the Atlanta Braves, Sheffield was given his walking papers. His batting average this spring was a woeful .178 in 18 games.
If Gary Sheffield does not get the opportunity to play again, he will be the first player in major league history to retire just one home run short of the 500 plateau. Twenty years ago, his plaque in the Hall of Fame would be secure despite not reaching that coveted mark.
However, Sheffield’s legacy in the game is a complicated one.
Despite obvious talent, Sheffield spent his entire career concerned with how others perceived him. Using his contracts and his statistics as measuring sticks for “respect,” Sheffield was quick to turn on those who questioned his opinions, his motives, and his ability to play the game of baseball.
Gary Sheffield was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers out of legendary baseball haven Hillsborough High School in Tampa back in 1986. The nephew of Dwight Gooden made his big league debut at the age of 19 toward the end of the 1988 season, after being named Baseball America’s Double-A Player of the Year.
He displayed some of the promise that he showcased in the minors while with the Brewers but, for the most part, Sheffield’s time in Milwaukee was forgettable. Sheffield admitted to purposely committing errors while on the Brewers, and the team misdiagnosed a broken foot during the 1989 season.
To say the relationship between the Brewers and Sheffield was broken from that point on would be an understatement.
Both the Brewers and Sheffield each receive some share of the blame for how his career began. A fresh start, provided by a trade to the San Diego Padres before the 1992 season, enabled Gary Sheffield to put up the kind of numbers expected of him since he was drafted: .330-33-100.
He won the NL batting title and made the NL All-Star team.
Unfortunately for Sheffield, his time in San Diego was short. He was dealt to the fledgling Florida Marlins during the 1993 season because the Padres couldn’t afford high-priced players at that time. Sheffield made roughly $3.1M in 1993.
During his tenure with the Marlins, Sheffield suffered through two injury-marred seasons (1994, 1995), had the best season of his career in 1996 (.314-42-120, .465 OBP, OPS + of 184), and propelled the franchise to a World Series title in 1997.
By the end of the 1997 season, Sheffield had the best contract in the sport ($61M over six years), was a World Series champion, and, nearing his 29th birthday, was in the prime of his career.
Weeks after the 1997 season ended though, the Florida Marlins began trading away all its high-priced talent because they couldn’t afford their veteran stars. Sheffield was the last one out the door, dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers in May of 1998.
While in Los Angeles, Sheffield enjoyed the most consistent stretch of his career: three straight years with a .300 batting average, 30 or more HR, and 100 or more RBI (1999-2001).
But, as the Dodgers began signing players to exorbitant contracts in free agency (Kevin Brown, Shawn Green, Darren Dreifort), the deal Sheffield signed with the Florida Marlins was suddenly out-dated.
Prior to the 2001 season, Sheffield openly criticized the Dodgers for the overpriced contracts they agreed to with other players, and wanted his deal re-done. Right or wrong, it was the sort of attack that makes people cringe when they think about Sheffield’s place in the game.
Sheffield remained a Dodger for 2001, but was traded to Atlanta before the 2002 season.
Before the 2002 season, Sheffield spent the winter months training with Barry Bonds. In that time, Gary Sheffield was introduced to “the cream” and “the clear.”
Sheffield famously testified he was unaware ”the cream” and “the clear” were performance-enhancing, steroid-based susbstances during a grand jury investigation of BALCO.
Sheffield moved on to the New York Yankees as a free agent following the 2003 season. It was the first time in his career Sheffield was able to choose where he wanted to play.
The deal was brokered with Tampa resident and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, not with general manager Brian Cashman, and not with the approval of manager Joe Torre. This led to an uneasy start in The Bronx for Sheffield.
Sheffield’s time in New York was largely remembered for MVP-caliber play in the regular season that was overshadowed by postseason failures. In 19 postseason games with the Yankees, Sheffield managed just 2 HR, and he hit only .259.
By the end of the 2006 season, one in which Sheffield missed the bulk of the season with a wrist injury and complained about being shifted to 1B after the Yankees had acquired Bobby Abreu, the Sheffield-Yankees marriage was over.
The Detroit Tigers traded for Gary Sheffield and immediately gave him a contract extension, stemming any potential problems and giving him the “respect” he craves.
Sheffield had a solid 2007 season, but he made some controversial remarks about his time with the Yankees, stating that Joe Torre treated African-American players differently from others on the team.
While Sheffield’s problems with the Brewers and Dodgers had some validity, his claims about Torre only furthered a growing belief around baseball that Sheffield was a loose cannon who could turn on a team in an instant.
Following a shoulder injury that impacted his play in 2008, Sheffield was expected to contribute significantly to the Tigers, as they looked to rebound and contend in 2009. With the latest news that Gary Sheffield was released, it is probably only a matter of time before we hear how Sheffield was wronged this time.
One can hope though that, for once, Gary Sheffield takes the high road and accepts his fate, rather than placing blame on outside forces or on others.