After more than two decades in the big leagues, Gary Sheffield officially called it a career yesterday, 16 months after playing in his final game. He suited up for eight different teams and was an All-Star with five of them, thrice finishing in the top three of the MVP voting but never taking home the hardware. A career .292/.393/.514 hitter with 509 homers and far more walks (1,475) than strikeouts (1,171), Sheff was a brilliant offensive force on the field and a jerk off it.
When he joined the Yankees prior to the 2004 season, he did so only because George Steinbrenner wanted him. Just about everyone else preferred Vladimir Guerrero, who was six years younger than Sheff and more multi-dimensional, capable of beating you with his bat, his speed, or his arm. Instead it was Sheffield who joined the Yankees, at the cost of a three-year contract and a little more than $36M. After dealing with Raul Mondesi for the past two years, the Yanks finally had a capable replacement for Paul O’Neill in right field.
Sheff stepped right into the heart of a rebuilt Yankees’ lineup in 2004, hitting fifth behind the likes of Kenny Lofton, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jason Giambi at the outset of the season. It wasn’t long before he forced his way into a more glamorous lineup spot, replacing Giambi as the cleanup hitter in late-May before forcing A-Rod down a spot and assuming three-hole responsibilities in late-June. Sheff led the team in slugging percentage (.534), OPS (.927), homers (36), and runs scored (117) that year, placing second in the AL MVP voting. The winner? That would be Guerrero, who hit .317/.394/.565 overall and .370/.427/.688 in the final 45 games of the season to get the Angels into the playoffs.
The Yankees quickly dispatched of the Twins in the ALDS that season, in part due to Sheffield’s game tying-two run homer off Brad Radke in Game Two. Like everyone else on the club, he demolished Red Sox pitching in the first three games of the ALDS (9-for-13 with three doubles and a homer) before seeing his bat fall silent in the final four contests (just 1-for-17). “I never thought it would end like this,” said Sheff after the series, echoing the thoughts of the city.
As it tends to do, time passed and the Yankees were back in action in 2005. A-Rod and Sheffield formed what was arguably the game’s most devastating three-four combo that year, hitting a collective .306/.401/.562 with 82 homers and 253 RBI. Sheff’s contribution to that was .291/.379/.512 with 34 homers and 123 RBI, a performance that led to an eighth place finish in the MVP voting. Alex took home the award. Perhaps his most memorable moment of the year came in mid-April, when a fan at Fenway Park hit him in the face as he fielded a ball in the right field corner. Sheff pushed the fan before firing the ball back to the infield, with security intervening before anything else could transpire.
“Something hit me in the mouth. It felt like a hand,” Sheffield said afterward. “I thought my lip was busted. I tried to get his hand out of my face so I could continue on with the play. To get punched in the mouth, you don’t expect that in a baseball game. It could have been worse if I didn’t hold my composure. I almost snapped, but I thought about the consequences.”
The incident motivated the Yankees to another first place finish in the AL East, though they bowed out to the Angels in five games in the ALDS. Sheffield’s sixth inning run scoring single got the Yankees on the board in Game Four, helping them to a come-from-behind win that prolonged their season. His three hits in Game Five weren’t enough though, and for the second time in as many seasons with New York, his season came to a premature end.
At age 37, Sheffield came out of the gate on fire in 2006, hitting .341/.390/.516 with four homers in his first 22 games. He suffered a left wrist sprain after colliding with Shea Hillenbrand on April 29th, an injury that signaled the beginning of the end of Sheff’s tenure in the Bronx. After trying to play through the injury, Sheffield eventually hit the disabled list and had surgery to repair a dislocated tendon and torn ligaments in the wrist. He was expected to miss the remainder of the season, prompting the Yankees to go out and trade for Bobby Abreu as a replacement in right field and the three-spot of the lineup.
A late-September return found Sheffield without a defensive home, so the team had him try first base for the first time in his career. It was a disaster in every way, because Sheff wasn’t hitting after surgery or saving runs with his glove. A 1-for-12 effort against the Tigers helped the Yankees to their second straight ALDS exit. With Abreu on board and under contract for 2007 with an option for 2008, Brian Cashman had a choice to make. He picked up Sheff’s $13M club option and turned to the trade market.
The Sheffield era in the Bronx came to an end similar to the way the Sheffield era ended in Milwaukee, Florida, Los Angeles, and eventually Detroit. He ran his mouth on his way out the door, calling out then-manager Joe Torre for what he felt was preferential treatment towards white players. After the HBO Real Sports interviewer pointed out that the team’s most popular player, Derek Jeter, was African American, Sheff responded by saying he “ain’t all the way black.” Bridges were burned and Sheffield was hastily traded to the Tigers on November 10th, less than two weeks after the end of the World Series, for three minor league pitchers.
Sheffield was tremendously productive during his time in New York, just like he was everywhere else. He hit .291/.383/.515 with 76 homers in 347 games for the Bombers, providing big hits and MVP-caliber performances in 2004 and 2005. His famous bat waggle and lightning quick swing were mimicked by kids playing wiffle ball all over the Tri-State Area, but in the end, Sheffield’s temper and paranoid racist thoughts led to a swift and unceremonious exit. His comments resulted in boos every time he came back to Yankee Stadium as a visiting player. Sheff retires with one World Series ring (1997 Marlins) and a long and remarkable career that should get him some Hall of Fame consideration, but his insecurities, occasional selfishness, and off-the-field persona have left a bad taste in the mouths of many.