07/13/2003 6:56 PM ET
Sheffield's Brave new outlook
In contract year, NL All-Star says he 'just grew up'
CHICAGO -- There was a time when uncertainty regarding his future would have gnawed at Gary Sheffield. He would have thought that the lack of a long-term
contract signaled a lack of respect and he would have been unhappy;
privately, publicly, any way in which it mattered.
But now? Here, on the eve of the 2003 All-Star Game, is a true All-Star,
one of baseball's premier hitters. His contract expires at the end of
this season and this troubles him not at all. Gary Sheffield is having one
of his best seasons, and when you say that about a Gary Sheffield season,
you are saying a lot.
So what's the difference now?
"I just grew up," Sheffield says. And you know what he means. He is 34
years old now, the right fielder and a mainstay for the highly successful
Atlanta Braves. But when he first hit the big leagues, in 1988, he was just
a teenager, coming up with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Sheffield hasn't lost a step since then, or a half-step, or any fraction of
a step. You watch him at the plate, waggling the bat over his head as the
pitcher prepares to throw. Now the pitcher is throwing and the bat is still
waggling, and you think, "He can't be ready." And then those amazingly quick
hands get the bat head out in plenty of time and yet again Gary Sheffield
has hit the ball hard. It has been this way for 15 years and it doesn't
appear to be changing at all.
"The only thing that is different is my mind," says Sheffield, who spoke this weekend with
MLB.com. "That's it. I just grew up. I understand life.
I understand why I'm here. I'm not star-struck anymore. I'm not busy looking
at Robin Yount and saying, 'I can't believe I'm here.' When you get over
that, that's when you relax and give yourself a chance to mature."
The mature Gary Sheffield will be making his seventh All-Star appearance Tuesday night. He was voted in as a National League starter, and why not? He
has numbers that everybody in the world who is not named Albert Pujols could
envy. Through Saturday, he was hitting .328 with 22 home runs and 70 runs
batted in. His slugging percentage was .600. He had walked 51 times to go with just 27 strikeouts.
And, just to round out his game, he had stolen 12 bases in 15 attempts.
These are not the numbers of somebody who is pouting, somebody who is
overly concerned about the fact that his employment situation carries no
long-term guarantees. Sheffield is happy in his second season with the
Braves. He has family in Georgia. He wanted to play with a contender. But
the Braves have enough long-term financial questions that they haven't
determined whether Sheffield is part of their future. Rather than
complaining, Sheffield is simply playing. It is one thing for a player, in a
situation such as this, to say the right things. But Gary Sheffield is also
doing the right things.
"The thing is, I couldn't cheat the guys in here," Sheffield says, gesturing
toward the rest of the Braves clubhouse. "You know, I made a vow to myself
when we won a World Series (with Florida in 1997) that that's the ultimate. When you win a World
Series, you really understand what baseball is all
about. That's what you play for. And if I cheat these guys in this room, I'm
depriving them of that. So you have to be a professional and put your own
self to the side and go out and do what you're supposed to do. Then
everything else will take care of itself.
"That's the attitude that I've had from day one and it ain't gonna change,
despite what happens on the field, good or bad," Sheffield says. "I know that I trust my
ability. I have a track record that says I can play this game. The future
will take care of itself. Somebody will need a typical No. 3 hitter.
"The World Series, that's all I play for. People can say what they want, but
that's all I play for. If it wasn't for me getting the feel of winning that
World Series, I might not even be playing, I might not have the desire to
play. My desire comes from winning, nothing else."
Sheffield is coming off a season in which he hit .307 with 25 home runs and
84 RBIs. Nice numbers, for other people. For Sheffield, it was
all a reminder that his right wrist was injured twice and, four cortisone
shots or not, wasn't right all season.
"The mental part of that will drive you crazy," he says. "Because one minute
it doesn't hurt and then you start hitting home runs, and the next minute you
do something real simple and you're back to square one. It's kind of
frustrating when you feel like it's going to get better and then it doesn't.
It's just like tossing and turning in bed.
"Now, this is when I'm healthy," Sheffield continues. "You know, when I'm healthy I can do the
things that I'm capable of doing. Hitting for average, hitting home runs,
stealing bases, basically being a typical No. 3 hitter. You have to set up
the whole lineup. A lot of people that take on the responsibility of hitting
third really don't understand what it's all about. I look at it as setting
the whole lineup up.
"If I'm a leadoff guy, be a leadoff guy, get on base.
If I'm the guy that has to win the game, win the game, get the big RBI.
Steal bases. And that's what I call a No. 3 hitter. When I'm healthy I can
be all of that and not worry about, 'Oh, it's going to be tough for our team
to score runs,' because I can put us in a position to score runs."
"If it wasn't for me getting the feel of winning that World Series, I might not even be playing, I might not have the desire to play. My desire comes from winning, nothing else."
-- Gary Sheffield
Sheffield will be competing in Monday night's Home Run Derby, then the following
night will be part of the "this time it counts" All-Star Game, with home field
advantage in the World Series at stake. He has this figured out. You win the
game, and none of the wrong questions will be asked.
"It's going to have to be different," he says, "because you don't know when
it's going to come into play or if it's going to come into play or what team
it's going to affect. So you've got to go out and win this game and not
worry about it. If you're on the winning end, you're going to have less
"We play hard regardless. A lot of people say, 'Guys go out there and really
don't take it serious.' But even if you're out there for only two or three
innings, you're going to play as hard as you can for those two or three
innings. When you're taken out of the game, then you might look at is as an
"Now, by them this implementing this new rule, it does have
meaning. And you're going to look at it as a regular game."
So a Gary Sheffield could be carrying the entire Senior Circuit on his shoulders. How will that be?
"It's just for two hours," Sheffield says with a smile. "We'll be all right."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.