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Brewers’ Sheffield Hits Spot : It’s All Relative for Rookie With Family Tradition

Times Staff Writer

The Cactus League has become a proving ground for baseball bloodlines.

Ken Griffey Jr., 19, the first player selected in the 1987 June draft and the son of Ken Sr., a 17-year major league veteran, may be on the verge of convincing the Seattle Mariners that he is ready to play center field in the Kingdome.

Gary Sheffield, the 20-year-old nephew of New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden, has done enough convincing already.

With Dale Sveum rehabilitating a broken leg, Sheffield will open the season at shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers, who finished tied for third place last year, only two games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League’s Eastern Division.

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If Sveum were sound, Sheffield would probably open at third base, his natural position.

Either way, the Brewers think he has arrived, one of the most touted rookies of recent springs.

Sheffield’s uncle certainly doesn’t need to be convinced.

“He’s a great talent,” Gooden said from Florida. “He’s a contact hitter with power and great speed, but I don’t want to say too much.

“People are going to say I’m biased.”

Sal Bando, the former third baseman of the Oakland Athletics and now an assistant to Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton, has no such bias.

“Sheffield has the temperament and skill to be a superstar--and at a young age,” Bando said. “He doesn’t need a lot of experience.

“He has composure and drive, and that’s as important as his talent.”

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Said Brewer Manager Tom Trebelhorn: “Ability and opportunity have come together at a fortuitous time for us. I think Gary Sheffield is ready to roll.

“He may not have Alan Trammell’s consistency for a while, but there will be times when he does some amazing things. I mean, I have no idea what his numbers will be, but I think he’ll be very, very productive.”

Sheffield said he does not see any reason to return to the minors, that in the 2 1/2 seasons since he was the sixth player selected in the 1986 June draft, he has proven his preparedness.

“I don’t pretend to have all the smarts I need,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn, but I think I’m ready to learn here. I did what I had to do in the minors and I don’t know why I would have to go back.

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“Doc (Gooden) came up when he was 20, and seeing what he has done has always made me work that much harder. I’m from the same blood. I know I can do it, too.”

Gooden is only four years older than his nephew, who is the son of Gooden’s sister, Betty.

“He’s been more like my younger brother,” Gooden said of Sheffield, who has lived with Gooden and his family at times.

Sheffield now lives with his mother and stepfather in one of two houses Gooden recently bought for his parents’ and his sister’s families at St. Petersburg, Fla.

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The houses are next to one another and there is a batting cage in the back yard, enabling Gooden and Sheffield to work out daily during the winter, invoking memories of when they played together on the playgrounds and sandlots of nearby Tampa.

“Gary has been an amazing hitter ever since he was 5 years old,” Gooden said. “We would play with a tennis ball and he would always have to get the last at-bat, the last swings.”

Said Sheffield: “I was playing full stride with Doc and his friends when I was 8. Doc would overmatch everybody, but I could compete with the other guys his age. I wasn’t afraid. It comes down to the size of your heart.”

Both Gooden and Sheffield soared to prominence at Hillsborough High. Gooden was 14-4 in his last two seasons, striking out 130 in 74 innings as a senior. Sheffield batted .500 as a senior and averaged a home run in every four at-bats. He also pitched and had a 6-3 record with a 1.31 earned-run average but had no illusions about his pitching ability.

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“It’s kind of funny,” Sheffield said, smiling. “Doc has always thought he could hit, but I knew I couldn’t pitch.”

Gooden was the fifth player selected in the 1982 draft. The Brewers were surprised to find Sheffield available when they drafted sixth in ’86.

It eventually surfaced that Tampa wasn’t just another Florida wonderland. Old neighborhoods and suspect friends haunted Gooden. There were incidents with the police in which Sheffield and close friend Vance Lovelace, a pitcher now in the Angels’ system, were present.

Gooden ultimately went through drug rehabilitation. The Mets and Brewers, Sheffield said, asked uncle and nephew to move out of Tampa and make their year-round homes in New York and Milwaukee.

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Gooden compromised by moving across the bay, buying the two houses in St. Petersburg. Sheffield said it was difficult to turn their backs on old acquaintances, but “you can’t have people knocking on your door at all hours. I mean, Doc and I are no different than anyone else. We have good friends and bad friends, and it seems better this way. We only seem to see the good friends now.”

Of the move, Dalton said: “We might have discussed within ranks that Gary would be better moving out (of Tampa), but I don’t think a directive went down.

“It’s a situation where a scout may have suggested to Gary that he move, but it was about that time that Gooden moved him out anyway. They had that one scrape together, but since then everything has been fine. Our reports have indicated that Gary has never been involved in anything except normal high school associations.”

The Brewer reports dealt more with Sheffield’s impressive bat, and have so far proven to be accurate.

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He hit .365 in 57 games in the Rookie League at Helena, Mont., in 1986; drove in 103 runs in 129 games at Class-A Stockton in 1987, and drove in 119 more with 28 homers and respective batting averages of .314 and .344 at double-A El Paso and triple-A Denver last year, when he was called up in September. He wound up playing regularly after Sveum broke his leg.

Amid a stretch surge that almost lifted the Brewers to a division title, Sheffield hit four homers and drove in 12 runs in 24 games.

He was 19 then, the league’s youngest player.

“Gary stepped into a situation where every game might have meant the pennant and played like he’d been here for years,” Dalton said. “He’s not at all awed by being in a big league camp.

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“I think the fact that he’s spent so much time around Gooden and his big league friends has helped. I think the fact that he’s something of a throwback in that he’s played sandlot ball virtually every day since he was a kid makes this seem pretty routine.”

Sheffield’s arrival is being compared to that of Robin Yount’s.

Now the Milwaukee center fielder, Yount was 18 when he broke in at shortstop in 1974. Yount shook his head and said the circumstances are entirely different.

“I broke in at the beginning of the season on a club that wasn’t very competitive,” he said. “You can’t compare the two situations. Shef got thrown into the fire right away. A lot more is expected of him and the team.”

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A young pitching staff that had the league’s second-best ERA helped carry the Brewers to 87 victories last year, despite an injury-riddled offense that ranked 10th in batting and 13th in home runs.

Right fielder Glenn Braggs had shoulder surgery and appeared in only 72 games. Left fielder Rob Deer broke a wrist and missed a month in the second half. First baseman Greg Brock pulled a muscle in his rib cage and never found a groove--before or after. Sveum went down in September, and catcher B. J. Surhoff struggled with his hitting all season.

Now, when the subject turns to the Brewers’ expectations for Sheffield and the pressure he may face, both Dalton and Trebelhorn are quick to put it in other terms, saying that a comeback by Surhoff and return to health by Braggs and Brock should help relieve that pressure and make the Brewers better. No one, they insist, is putting it all on Sheffield.

Trebelhorn looked ahead by looking back.

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“I feel good about the last two years,” he said. “Two years ago, we were picked to finish last and won 91 games. Last year, we were picked to be the Cleveland Indians of the year before and fall on our face, but we overcame that and the injuries and were the last team eliminated in all of baseball.

“Those were good experiences and we should be better because of it. We should definitely be a contender.

“Eighty-five to 90 wins should win the division, and we can do that.”

Trebelhorn, however, doesn’t hide his enthusiasm for Sheffield’s ability and what it represents to the Brewers.

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He said he was reminded of the emergence of Yount and Trammell on teams that were not looking for immediate impacts.

“Gary Sheffield doesn’t have to be an impact player either, but he carries more responsibility for our success than any new shortstop in some time and I think he’ll respond to that,” Trebelhorn said, adding that Sheffield exudes a confidence that stems from his ability and high expectations.

Said Sheffield: “It’s kind of scary, thinking about how everyone will be watching. I don’t want to let anyone down, but I know there’ll be good days and bad days as well. All I can do is relax and try to knock off the pressure. I’ve been a pitcher with the game in my hands and that should help. I’ve been around top-name guys all my life and that helps, too. I know I can play, but every level gets harder and you have to keep adjusting.”

The object of a media blitz this spring, Sheffield said he hopes to cut down on the interviews when the season starts. He has already cut down on the glitter, having his initials, done in gold inlay, removed from his front teeth.

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Sheffield acknowledged that he is frequently on the phone to his uncle, getting advice.

“He’s like I am,” Gooden said. “I only call when I win. He only calls when he hits. If he doesn’t call, I know he went zero for four.”

Obviously, Gooden hopes the phone rings often. He wants his nephew to do well for a variety of reasons.

He laughed and said: “He’s got to do well. He’s got to pay me back for the house.”

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