"For some reason," Gregg Jefferies, the St. Louis Cardinal first baseman, says amiably, "I seem to be fascinated by people who are dead."
Jefferies was dressing for batting practice when he said that, and, indeed, he had on a T-shirt bearing a portrait of Elvis Presley with the caption I'M DEAD. Earlier in the day Jefferies had worn a T-shirt with the visage and statistics of Ty Cobb. Until they were stolen on a road trip last year, T-shirts bearing the likenesses of dead rock star Jim Morrison and long-departed film idol James Dean also were part of his collection. "I don't know," says Jefferies. "Maybe I'm kind of sick."
More likely, he's just intrigued that the dead can go so long without moving. In Jefferies, 26, the Cardinals have a man who can't nap, who sleeps for five hours or less a night and who snaps awake at the slightest sound. On a typical day when the Cards are in St. Louis, he will get up early, play golf, shoot pool, run errands, play video games, crawl on the floor with his 11-month-old son, Jacob, sing with a karaoke machine, go to the movies, disrupt clubhouse card games by filching the odd ace, spray line drives around Busch Stadium (from both sides of the plate), watch late-night TV and finally nod off around 3 a.m.
"He's hyper," says his wife, Melanie.
"He's always been hyper," says his father, Rich.
"I would describe him as...energetic," says his teammate and friend Todd Zeile, who upon further reflection adds, "hyper."
Jefferies hasn't yet produced his own line of SLEEPLESS IN ST. LOUIS T-shirts, but it's common these days to see Missouri youngsters wearing his number 25 on their backs. Last year, in his first season as a Cardinal, Jefferies batted .342, hit 16 homers, drove in 83 runs, stole 46 bases and made the All-Star team for the first time, as a reserve. This year, with free agency beckoning after the season, Jefferies continues to pile up the hits. At week's end he ranked sixth in the National League in batting (.330) and ninth in on-base percentage (.405), had had the league's third-longest hitting streak (17 games) and had been voted the National League's starting first baseman for this week's All-Star Game.
The Cardinals, it is said, may not be willing to pay the prevailing wage for this kind of production, so next year Jefferies could move to his fourth team in five years. Then again, he may continue to rotate his dead-teen-idol T-shirts under his Cardinal jersey. "I don't want to play anywhere else," he says. "This team is close to being a great team if we can just stay together a few years."
At this point one has to remind the reader: This is the Gregg Jefferies, the once petulant phenom who wore out his welcome with the New York Mets when he was barely 24. This is the same Jefferies who was reviled by the tabloid press and teammates as sulky, immature, coddled, arrogant and tantrum-prone; the same fellow who wrote Met fans a stop-picking-on-me letter that was characterized in a New York Times headline as VINTAGE WHINE.
"He was perceived as a selfish player," says David Cone, a former Met pitcher who is now with the Kansas City Royals. "I knew him a little better, and I didn't think he was. He was just an intense competitor who wasn't good at controlling his emotions."