It wasn't as if he was a bad kid. Just that his pride, or his feet, wouldn't let him walk away from trouble. When people challenged Sheffield, when they tried to get to him, his jaw just got Superglued and his eyes closed about halfway, and he'd get mad. What could he do? He had to tear into them. Can't take nothin' off nobody.
Lord, sometimes it was like he'd slept under a sheet of thorns. He was forever beating the hell out of kids. Guys bigger than him. Football players. And not just standing up to them, provoking them. "I just liked to see how mad they could get," he says. You get to me? I'll get to you first.
You want to come and find him? He'd be waiting. He was the one with his initials inlaid in gold on his front teeth. That was power, not having to hide. Power was what he was after, and he loved the power his knuckles gave him and the power his bat gave him. He hit .500 his senior year in high school and never struck out in 62 at bats. But that wasn't the stat he cared about. The stat he cared about was Days Suspended This Semester. Every semester he'd push it. If it got to five, he couldn't play. He used up his five a few times, all right. Luckily, his stepfather, Harold Jones, got him out of the heat. Are you kidding? Harold knew the principal on a first-name basis and could leave his job at the docks, bail the kid out of some jam and be back within the hour.
That Sheffield is playing today.... Wait, start over. That Sheffield is alive today probably has as much to do with Harold as with Sheffield himself. "I knew he was going to be a great hitter," Jones says. "We used to stand in the front lawn and try to hit rocks with broomsticks. At nine, he was using smaller rocks than me and hitting them twice as far." Taking care of such a marvel was like keeping a Fabergé egg in one piece until you can get it to the museum. He taught the boy that in a knife-point neighborhood like Tampa's Belmont Heights, kids who put up their dukes in elementary school would pretty soon just be pulling out their snub-noses and leaving it at that. Once, Gary hit three home runs in a high school game, and some guys from the other school started messing with him. Gary was ready to fight when Harold saw that the other kids had golf clubs and who knows what else. Harold literally threw his stepson into the back of the truck and drove him home.
Love like that will make you forget your natural father real fast. "He means nothin' much to me," says Sheffield. His father was a good man, though, a small-business owner in Tampa, with a serious quiet streak, passed on to Gary. He got Betty Gooden pregnant when she was just 17, and she wouldn't move in with him. Stubborn. Betty moved instead into her own apartment, by herself, and took to raising Gary. Gary gets his stubbornness from her. When, at 16 and again at 17, Gary fathered kids—they have different mothers—he wanted to keep them. (Betty and Harold are raising one of the girls; the other lives with her mother.) When Harold came into Betty's life, Gary was only two. Harold is all he has known as a father. In fact Gary didn't even know Harold wasn't his real father until he was 11. The kid was 13 before it sank in.
So how about that? By his senior year in high school he'd been a son, a stepson, an only child, a bully, a famous nephew, a father, a father again, and the No. 1 prep player in the country as selected by USA Today. "I'm 23," Sheffield said recently. "But it's an old 23."
In Milwaukee he aged faster than cheap beer. The last year there the whole thing unraveled. Sheffield hit .194, playing with injuries, management problems and the worst attitude in the majors. Though he now laments the intentional throwing errors—"I didn't give my best," he says, "and that's something I've always regretted"—he admits he wanted out. Let's see. Who didn't he rip? All-Stars Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner all got scorched. At the time, Sheffield said, "They never taught me anything. Nothing. Well, I take that back. They taught me how to be selfish, like they were." One of Dalton's daughters got fried too. Sheffield accused Dalton of sending her to spy on him at local clubs. Even owner Bud Selig got burned. Sheffield said Selig tried to force him to play when he was injured. This is the same Selig who brought Betty and Harold for a long visit in Milwaukee, just to try to make Gary feel comfortable.
"I used the media to get out," Sheffield confesses with some regret. That left his public image in the Dumpster, but it did succeed in getting him out. On March 27 this year he was traded to San Diego for three prospects.
The Padres' chapel service is big, but nobody has been redeemed like Sheffield. San Diego left him alone, completely alone, and all of a sudden the Bad Boy was Citizen of the Year. Manager Greg Riddoch did only two things concerning Sheffield: penciled his name in the lineup and left it there. "Just have fun," is still the only direction Riddoch has given him. Sheffield smiled more in April than in some Brewer seasons.
At the beginning, it had looked like another bust. Sheffield opened the season 1 for 15, and it was driving him crazy. He'd begged for the trade, and now he was blowing it. He couldn't sleep. He came to the park at 7:30 on the morning of the fifth game. Seven-thirty a.m. for a 7:05 p.m. start. Nobody at the park but security guards brushing up on their REM sleep. He went down to the indoor batting cage and hit balls off a tee in the dark.