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Can't Take Nothin' Off Nobody
Rick Reilly
September 14, 1992
Gary Sheffield fought his way to baseball stardom, and now he's battling for the elusive Triple Crown
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September 14, 1992

Can't Take Nothin' Off Nobody

Gary Sheffield fought his way to baseball stardom, and now he's battling for the elusive Triple Crown

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That night, he went 2 for 3 with a double, a triple and an RBI. By May he had put together an 18-game hitting streak, still the longest in the National League this year. By July he was trying to lead the league in everything. By August the rest of the league was wondering what the hell their own general managers were doing back on March 27—crocheting?

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox called him the best young hitter since Willie Mays. In August, Zane Smith of Pittsburgh gave up a home run to Tony Gwynn and was burning. The next batter was Sheffield. Smith knocked him down with a hairstylist of a fastball. Sheffield came back manic, his bat whirling twice as fast, his fingers strumming furiously. He looked as if he might not even wait for the ball to leave Smith's hand before he took a swipe at it. That's when Smith threw him the perfect pitch: a changeup. The ball wasn't halfway to the plate, and Sheffield had already taken his big stride and had committed serious hips. But somehow, someway, he generated enough wrists-only bat speed on a changeup to jerk the ball into the upper deck, 424 feet away. It went so deep that they painted the seat it hit white just to make the story easier to tell.

Sheffield says San Diego has been like "a wonderful dream." You think he's happy? You should sec the Padres' front office. "We never expected this," says Riddoch. "I know Milwaukee didn't." In fact it wasn't until August that some Atlanta reporters asked Sheffield what he thought his chances were for the Triple Crown. Sheffield said, "Now, which are the categories you guys are talkin' about here?"

Who can blame him? Until Sheffield, the Triple Crown was like Bowie Kuhn's hair: It hadn't been seen or thought of in years. Power and average became mutually exclusive long ago. Nobody has put all three elements of the crown together since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 (Sheffield wasn't yet born), and not in the National League since Joe (Ducky) Medwick in 1937 {Harold wasn't yet born). People held a faint hope that Will Clark of the San Francisco Giants might do it someday, but he has never even sniffed it, and at the start of this season, Clark said he thought it would be another 25 years before someone was Triple Crowned again.

Honestly, how are you supposed to pull it off when there are so many 1) hitters hopelessly devoted to average, even at the expense of extra-base hits (read: Wade Boggs); 2) home run animals who are so slow and so strong that they have tailored their swings to hit nothing but fly balls (read: Mark McGwire); and 3) rabbits who win batting titles by hitting everything off the knob and beating it out (read: Willie Wilson)?

Sportswriters rummaged. Yaz won the Triple Crown with a .326 average, 44 home runs (tied with Harmon Killebrew) and 121 RBIs. Medwick did it with a .374 average, 31 home runs and 154 RBIs. Of the two players, Sheffield is much more like Medwick, a muscular, prideful man who never thought he was given his due, a man who liked to punch first and ask questions later. St. Louis teammate Dizzy Dean once lamented, "You try to argue with Joe, and before you can say a dawggoned word, he bops you."

Medwick, like Sheffield, hit mostly line drives that crashed into gloves, walls or fans before they ever lost speed. Like Sheffield, he was never a power hitter so much as a powerful hitter who happened to have a great home run year. Medwick never hit more than 23 dingers any other year; until this season, Sheffield had never hit more than 10. Like Sheffield, Medwick lived in St. Petersburg. He died there 17 years ago, or about the time Gary was across the way in Tampa, trying to hide from an uncle who would grow up to be a Cy Young winner, Dwight Gooden.

At press time Sheffield had not let the Triple Crown slip back to the attic. He was lurking around the lead in all three categories—.333 batting average (first), 29 HRs (second) and 92 RBIs (second) at week's end—not to mention being third in hits, second in slugging percentage, first in total bases, first in extra-base hits and tied for first in grand slams. "I think we stole him," says Gwynn.

Oddly, two of the guys who could edge Sheffield out have the nerve to dress just 15 feet away from him. Gwynn has never been known to give up a batting title easily—he has four. And cleanup batter Fred McGriff is still the National League's purest power hitter. Even though McGriff is Sheffield's in-season next-door neighbor in Poway, Calif., his next-locker neighbor in the clubhouse and his best friend on the team, he is making Sheffield seriously sweat the home run third of the trio.

Against Houston on Aug. 6 Sheffield stepped up in the first inning and went deep for his 21st homer of the year. McGriff, batting next, hit one about 460 feet, his 24th. In the second inning Sheffield, not to be outdone, hit a three-run dinger. McGriff stepped up and, naturally, hit a bomb into the seats in straight-away center. It is the only time in baseball history that the same two players hit back-to-back, back-to-back home runs in successive innings. When Sheffield hit two out against the New York Mets on Aug. 22, tying McGriff at 27, McGriff hit two more in the next three days to go two up again. When Sheffield hit another on Aug. 28, McGriff countered on the very next at bat. "Got to make him work for it," McGriff says.

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