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A Dugout From Hell : Padres’ Sheffield Says He Nearly Quit Baseball After Stint With Brewers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary Sheffield’s eyes smolder as he talks angrily. Then he stops abruptly, allowing his mind to clear.

It’s over now, he tells himself. The hatred, the bitterness, the hostility are gone.

Sprawled on the sofa in the living room of his spacious house, Sheffield shuts his eyes, still not quite believing what has happened during the last six years.

He was ready to give it all up--the $100,000 Mercedes in his garage, the new truck in his driveway, the lavish wardrobe, the six-figure salary.

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“Can you believe it, man?” Sheffield said. “That’s how much I hated this game. I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care about the team or myself. I was ready to quit.

“I figured, ‘Hey, at least I made it to the big leagues. I can always tell my kids I was there.’ But to continue wasn’t worth it to me. It was driving me crazy. I didn’t need this.”

Sheffield, describing his torment during six years in the Milwaukee Brewer organization, believes that he would have been treated differently in Milwaukee if he was white. He accuses Harry Dalton, the former general manager, of spying on him. He believes that owner Bud Selig betrayed him. He condemns veterans Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Jim Gantner for their lack of leadership. And he can’t understand why he lost his starting shortstop job to Billy Spiers.

“The Brewers brought out the hate in me. . . . I was a crazy man,” Sheffield said. “I hated (Dalton) so much that I wanted to hurt the man. I hated everything about that place. I didn’t even want to come to the ballpark. If I missed a ball or something, so what?

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“If the official scorer gave me an error that I didn’t think was an error, I’d say, ‘OK, here’s a real error,’ and I’d throw the next ball into the stands on purpose. I did it all.

“I guess that’s why this is so hard to believe now. I never thought baseball would be like this. I thought my career was going to be one big waste.

“It’s like a wonderful, beautiful dream.”

Gary Antonian Sheffield, the San Diego Padres’ third baseman, finally has found peace in his life.

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He is 23.

Sheffield never had time to be a kid. He was a father at 16. He was a professional baseball player at 17. He was in the major leagues at 19. He was in custody battles for his two daughters at 20.

He was considered a malcontent and on his way out of baseball before his 21st birthday.

He was one of four men arrested with New York Met pitching star Dwight Gooden, his uncle, in December of 1986 after a late-night altercation with Tampa police. It was a controversial case, involving possible police brutality, but Sheffield ultimately pleaded no contest and was put on two years’ probation.

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Less than a year later, Sheffield was charged with drunk driving. That charge was reduced, but he was given another six months’ probation and fined $250.

“It seems like I’ve been through a war,” Sheffield said. “I know I’m only 23, but man, it feels like an old, old 23.”

Through it all, however, Sheffield has emerged as a leading candidate for the National League’s comeback player of the year.

He started Monday’s game against the Houston Astros with a .315 batting average, 10 homers and 38 runs batted in. You can find his name among the National League leaders in 10 categories. He is being acclaimed as the best third baseman in the Padres’ 24-year history.

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That is what was expected from Sheffield since he was drafted by the Brewers in 1986.

“They never gave him a chance,” said Glenn Braggs, former Brewer teammate who now is with the Cincinnati Reds. “There was so much expected of him. I mean, here he was, 20 years old, and he’s supposed to carry the team.

“I’ve never seen a guy go through so much. He finally just broke down.”

During his senior season at Hillsborough High in St. Petersburg, Fla., Sheffield batted .500 with 14 homers and 31 RBIs in 22 games. Not once did he strike out in 62 at-bats. When he wasn’t playing shortstop, he was pitching, compiling a 6-3 record and 1.81 earned-run average.

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Gooden was only 4 when his sister, Betty, gave birth to Gary. The two kids grew up playing together, and when the families lived together for almost a year, Dwight and Gary shared a bedroom. They grew to be like brothers.

“He used to wake me up in the morning and make me go to the field without taking a bath or eating,” Sheffield said. “We had a big old field in the back of our yard, and he used to throw cans up in the air and hit it for hours. He’d hit the can so much it would turn into this little ball. We’d put a bat down by home plate, and you’d have to hit it with a ball.”

Said Gooden: “We’d play until night, and I wouldn’t let him go inside until I was winning. Baseball’s all I cared about, and I wanted him to do the same thing I was doing. He’d cry, but I’d make him stay out there.”

Gooden’s rise to stardom convinced Sheffield that, he too, belonged, and there’s no doubt Sheffield benefited from Gooden’s generosity, but there were problems being the nephew of the All-Star pitcher.

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“It seemed everyone was jealous,” Sheffield said. “Dwight gave me a Corvette for a graduation present, but when I drove it around in the minors, they said I was too flashy. They didn’t even want me to wear jewelry. They didn’t want me to be nothing.”

The worst occurred in 1987 when Gooden was admitted to a rehabilitation center for cocaine use. Immediately, Sheffield was being called a drug user.

“In the minors, you pull a name out of the hat to see who gets tested that day,” Sheffield said. “Well, mine was coming up every day. I was always getting tested. I would get scared for a while and thought they were going to set me up.”

Still, Sheffield’s talents emerged. He batted .365 in his first professional year at Class-A Helena, led the California League with 103 RBIs the next year at Stockton, quickly advanced through El Paso and Denver and was in the major leagues on Sept. 2, 1988.

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Sheffield became the Brewers’ starting shortstop during spring training in 1989, but it turned out to be the year that forever soured him on the organization.

In late April, making a play in the field against Bo Jackson of the Kansas City Royals, Sheffield felt a sharp pain in his right foot. He told the Brewers’ trainers and doctors, but they couldn’t find anything wrong. Sheffield kept playing, but the pain got worse and so did his play.

“That’s where it all started with Sheff, and it went downhill from there,” Braggs said. “They thought he was faking it. They never believed he was hurt.”

Sheffield finished the first half batting .251 with four homers and 29 RBIs. Still, the Brewers were concerned about his defense--specifically his 12 errors. They optioned him to triple-A Denver on July 14 and brought up Spiers.

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Sheffield played seven games in Denver, but the pain worsened. Sheffield flew on his own to Tampa, where he was examined by his own doctor. A broken bone was found in his right foot.

“I remember coming in from the airport, and they’re (Brewer officials) all waiting for me to shake my hand,” Sheffield said. “I walked right by them. I didn’t even want to look at them.”

Said Tom Trebelhorn, Brewer manager at the time: “‘We had no idea, absolutely no idea he was playing on a broken foot. It turned out to be a very critical episode in his relationship with us. He didn’t trust anyone after that.”

Sheffield was further angered when he returned from the disabled list in September, only to learn that he was going to be converted to a third baseman. Spiers was now the shortstop.

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“That started the trouble right there,” said Mark Knudson, a former teammate. “Gary thought he should be the shortstop. Even though he was in the majors, he considered it a slap to his face that he wasn’t a shortstop. It was like a demotion to him.

“I still think it bothers him to this day.”

Said Sheffield: “I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. They brought up a guy who couldn’t do half of what I did, not even one-third. I’m not going to accept something like that, no way.

“I would have moved over in a second if I thought he was better than me, but not Spiers. Come on!”

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Two months after the season ended, Spiers was selected Brewer rookie of the year.

“It was like a bad marriage, and they were only fooling each other thinking it would work out,” said Don Baylor, former Brewer hitting coach, of the Sheffield-Brewer relationship. “It never had a chance.”

Said Sal Bando, the Brewers’ senior vice president: “It was never the same after that. We thought putting Gary at third would be best for him and the club, but in his mind he saw things differently. It didn’t seem like we saw things the same again after that.”

Sheffield derided the Brewer pitching staff for not protecting him against knockdown pitches during his rookie season. In 1990, he announced that Dalton was ruining the team. In 1991, he lashed out at Trebelhorn for sitting him out of a game. This spring, he said that Selig had dangled a two-year contract in front of him, then took it off the table when Sheffield became injured.

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“I was sick of their whole act,” Sheffield said. “It got so bad (Dalton) had his daughter following me. I’d go out to a club, and there she was. I walked over once, and said, ‘Your daddy send you?’ She said, ‘You know you should be home. You have a day game tomorrow.’ I said, ‘He’s not my dad. I’ll do what I damn please on my time. Who does he think he is?’

“I was never accepted from the start. The veterans thought I was there to steal the spotlight away. And the fans booed me from the first day.

“If I was white, it would have been a different story. No question about it. I would have been the All-American guy if I was white. Believe me, there’s a double set of standards there.”

The three principal parties involved in the Sheffield saga now are elsewhere. Dalton, who refused to comment for this story, was fired as general manager after the season and moved into an advisory position in the front office. Trebelhorn was fired by Bando, whose duties are those of a general manager. And Sheffield was traded.

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“I’m not saying Gary was the reason for the aftermath, but it definitely played a factor in everything,” Trebelhorn said. “There was a lot of frustration on behalf of the entire organization.

“Although Gary is deeply talented, I suggested a while back that it might be better off for everyone involved if we traded Gary. But there were a lot of egos involved. No one wanted to admit to failure. I mean, the kid had so much talent he could turn on a .38-caliber bullet, but the talent wasn’t coming out.

“So he blasts the owner in the spring, and is gone in a week. I guess it depended on who was the blastee, and who’s the blaster.”

The 1992 season was only two days old when the phone rang in Gooden’s hotel room in St. Louis. It was Sheffield. He had gone hitless the first two games against Jose Rijo and Tim Belcher of the Reds and had just one question.

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“He said to me, ‘I’ve just gone 0 for 8,’ ” Gooden recalled. “ ‘All the guys in this league don’t throw like that, do they?’

“I reassured him he was facing two of the best in the league, and there aren’t too many guys like them around.

“Looking back, I should have said, ‘Those are two of the easiest pitchers you’ll face all year.’ I could have done us all a favor and scared him back to the other league.”

Said Chicago Cub Manager Jim Lefebvre, former All-Star third baseman: “He’s made all of our jobs a lot more difficult. My God, what a player. He’s the whole difference in that ballclub. He has as much talent as I’ve seen in a player in a long, long time.”

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The Padres got Sheffield March 27 for pitcher Ricky Bones and minor leaguers Matt Mieske and Jose Valentin.

“He’s been a godsend, an absolute gift from above,” Padre Manager Greg Riddoch said. “We had all heard stories from when he was with Milwaukee, but the first thing I told him here was, ‘You’re starting with a clean slate. I don’t even want to know what happened over there. I’m judging you from this day forward.’ ”

Said Sheffield: “When he told me that, I knew things would turn out great. I felt like I was a free man again. I felt like my prison term ended, getting out of Milwaukee.”

Sheffield also is deeply indebted to first baseman Fred McGriff. They have become so close that when McGriff searched for a home to rent, he made sure it would be near Sheffield. They now are next-door neighbors.

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“I can’t tell you how much Fred, and everyone here, has done for me,” Sheffield said. “Fred’s been like a big brother, and the other guys here are more concerned about the team, not their own individual stats.

“In Milwaukee, guys like Paul (Molitor), Robin (Yount) and Gantner never taught me anything. Nothing. Well, I take that back. They taught me how to be selfish, like they were.”

Said Baylor: “It’s like they let him fend for himself. He came to Milwaukee with a wall built around him, and the only way he knew was to fight back. They left him alone instead of trying to help.”

Gantner disagrees.

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“I tried to talk to him, but he was just so unhappy here he didn’t listen,” he said.

Whatever happened, those days are over and Sheffield is glad.

“I know what it’s like to fail, and be miserable, and I don’t ever want to go through that again,” he said.

“I know people are waiting for things to go wrong again, but they’re going to be waiting for a long time because it’s not going to happen.

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“My life has changed. I’m too happy. Everything’s going right.”

Sheffield has been embroiled in a custody battle for the last few years. Last week, it was resolved. He gained custody of his 5-year-old daughter, Carrissa, a few years ago, and now he has reunited his daughters by gaining custody of 6-year-old Ebony.

“Now I know they’ll always have a good home and will be brought up right,” he said. “I’ll take care of them until I die.”

Sheffield plans to travel to St. Petersburg, Fla., during the All-Star break to pick up his daughters and bring them back to San Diego to live with him and his fiancee, Sherry. Of course, alternate plans might have to be made. Sheffield might be selected to play in the game, July 14 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

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“That would be the highlight of my career, right there,” Sheffield said. “That would mean so much to me. No matter what I did the rest of my career, I could always say I was an All-Star.

“Who knows? Maybe when I get older, I’ll even start thinking about how I’d like to be in the Hall of Fame. And believe me, I never thought about the Hall of Fame in my life.”

Said Sheffield’s father, Harold: “No matter what happens, me and his mother know he’s going to be all right.

“We’ve done a lot of worrying over the years, especially his mama. He’s been through an awful lot, but now it’s over.

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“Thank God.”


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