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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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Triple Threats
Players who finished among the top five in their league in each of the Triple Crown categories since Carl Yastrzemski (left) last won it in '67.

   

AVG.

HR

RBI

1968 AL

WILLIE HORTON

.285 (4)

36 (2)

85 (4t)

1969 NL

WILLIE McCOVEY

.320 (5)

45 (1)

126 (1)

1970 NL

BILLY WILLIAMS

.322 (4)

42 (2)

129 (2t)

1971 NL

HANK AARON

.327 (5)

47 (2)

118 (3)

1972 AL

DICK ALLEN

.308 (3)

37 (1)

113 (1)

1972 NL

BILLY WILLIAMS

.333 (1)

37 (3)

122 (2)

1976 NL

JOE MORGAN

.320 (5)

27 (5)

111 (2)

1977 NL

GEORGE FOSTER

.320 (3)

52 (1)

149 (1)

1978 AL

JIM RICE

.315 (3)

46 (1)

139 (1)

1978 NL

DAVE PARKER

.334 (1)

30 (3)

117 (2)

1979 AL

FRED LYNN

.333 (1)

39 (2t)

122 (4)

1979 AL

JIM RICE

.325 (4)

39 (2t)

130 (2)

1981 NL

MIKE SCHMIDT

.316 (4)

31 (1)

91 (1)

1982 AL

CECIL COOPER

.313 (5)

32 (5t)

121 (2)

1985 AL

DON MATTINGLY

.324 (3)

35 (4)

145 (1)

1985 NL

DAVE PARKER

.312 (5)

34 (2)

125 (1)

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

YOU CANT GET TO HIM.

He'd strike out. Strike out looking bad. And the boos would come, Milwaukee fans on him like a Burberry. But you can't get to Gary Sheffield. Just to prove it, he'd walk slowly, ever so slowly back to the dugout, the boos just pelting him, and he wouldn't care, like a guy who won't get out of a hard rain. Give him your worst. He wants you to.

Tough play at third, a no-chance kind of play. Couldn't come up with it. Still, the official scorer would rule it an error. Brutal call. Cold-blooded call. Error? You want to see an error? Here's an error: The next ground ball that he fielded he'd heave away, throw it way over the first baseman's head and into the stands. For you, Milwaukee, a souvenir. That's an error, pal. Can you see the difference now? And the Milwaukee fans would bust a gasket booing him, drenching him with hate. But no way you could get to him.

When he was just a kid, six years old in Tampa, his 10-year-old uncle would be literally pulling him out of bed. Yanking him outside before he could get a shower. He'd say he didn't want to go. His Uncle Dwight was already throwing a baseball hellaciously fast, and Gary was scared of the ball. Didn't tell anybody, but he was. Scared to death. To this day, he is still scared of the ball. You watch him in San Diego, and you'll see. Takes every hot ground ball to the side, like a matador. "Look, I ain't no Superman," he says.

His uncle would say, "Catch for me, or I'll beat you up." He loved his uncle, and his uncle loved him, but his uncle would beat him up in half a breath if he didn't come out and catch his uncle's heat. Gary's uncle was the only person who ever beat him in a fight, and that was—what?—hundreds of fights. So Gary would go out and catch his uncle and try to hit off him and even crowd the plate. Can't show fear on the outside. No way. His uncle may have been able to take him, but that doesn't mean he could get to him.

Gary Sheffield was not so much born to greatness as he was dragged to it, fists up. The most dominating, irascible, confusing monster talent in the National League, the star of the San Diego Padres, the first man in 25 years to try on the Triple Crown for size, and a Cuban-election lock for the MVP, did it all for retribution. "Most people figured I'd be in jail," he says. "I've been proving people wrong my whole life."

Call Milwaukee. See how right they feel. From the beginning, Sheffield, the hot-shot, can't-miss, first-round pick, saw the whole town as a refrigerated hell. Too cold. Too crummy a field. Too few blacks in the city. When he came up with a bad foot in '89, the Brewers thought he was tanking. Their doctors found nothing. So they shipped his butt to Denver. The minors. After a week of pain, Sheffield paid his own way home to Tampa, where, whaddayaknow, another doctor found a broken bone in his foot. When the Brewer brass met him at the airport back in Milwaukee, handshakes ready, Sheffield walked by them as if they were Krishnas. "He didn't trust anyone after that," says Tom Trebelhorn, the Brewer manager at the time.

Next they took away his position. Here they'd brought him in as the franchise savior, watched him become an all-rookie shortstop, and then they bumped him for a "college boy," Bill Spiers of Clemson. They moved Sheffield to third. Challenged him. So he said if he was white, like Spiers, he'd be the toast of the town.

He became nearly friendless in the clubhouse—his choice. He smiled once every national holiday. And yet he still hit .294 in '90, his third year in Milwaukee, crowding the plate the way he did, a menace, wagging the bat at pitchers, pointing it insultingly over his shoulder at them, almost parallel to the ground and then back to perpendicular again. Fight me. He is about as much fun for a pitcher as gout. To back him off the dish, pitchers started throwing at him. Sheffield charged that Brewer pitchers wouldn't protect him on the flip side. Why don't we throw at their stars? Boy, that broiled his gut. That fear of the baseball was coming out, smoldering. "Two pitchers have helped me out," he said then. "The rest are like girls."

Harry Dalton, then the Brewers' general manager, took to calling Sheffield into his office every day to clear the air, but to Sheffield it felt like the principal's office all over again. "He'd say, 'Do you have a problem today?' and I'd say, 'No, I don't have a problem today.' And I'd leave." Sheffield hated Dalton so much that he once told the Los Angeles Times he wanted to "hurt the man." That's the way it used to work in high school. You challenge me. I've got to tear into you.

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