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One bullet could have felled him for good. It was last Oct. 30 that Sheffield, after a trip to Atlanta, was driving from the Tampa airport to a barber shop in Belmont Heights, the Tampa neighborhood where he grew up. As he slowed his Mercedes near a stop sign, he saw a man walking toward his car quickly from the rear. Sheffield, thinking it might be a friend, was about to roll down his window when suddenly the man pulled out a gun and fired. The .22-caliber slug, slowed by the glass, caused only a flesh wound on his left shoulder.
Sheffield sped away, then circled back, thinking he had one of his guns in his car. But then he realized that he had left all of them at home, not wanting to keep one stowed in his car at the airport parking lot. He continued to the barber shop, where a friend notified police. The case remains open. There are no suspects.
The incident was the culmination of an awful year in which Sheffield played in only 63 games because of a torn ligament in his right thumb. The shooting also prompted the Marlins and major league baseball officials to ask Sheffield to see a psychologist. "Could you have killed somebody in that situation?" the doctor asked.
"I could have," Sheffield replied. "I'm not saying I would have. But if I had the gun, I can't say that I wouldn't have used it."
Of his guns, Sheffield says, "I'm carrying because the kids carry them. Kids act like kids. They shoot all the time."
Sheffield says he wrote Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski in January "explaining my side of things. I knew they were worried, but nobody was asking me about my side. I wanted him to know that these things that were happening weren't my fault." Sheffield also hired a New York-based publicist not only to repair his image but also to help control these fires raging around him.
Recovered from his injuries, Sheffield is again one of the dominant hitters in the game. He banged 11 home runs last month (as did Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants), tying the major league record for April also shared by Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt and Graig Nettles. At week's end he had added only three dingers this month, largely because pitchers realize it is often foolish to throw him strikes. No one else in the everyday Florida lineup has hit more than 25 home runs in a season, and with no left-handed-hitting threat on the team, the Marlins have seen only seven southpaw starters all year. At week's end Sheffield—with righthanded hitters Greg Colbrunn and Conine surrounding him in the lineup—had only 28 plate appearances against lefties in 1996.
"When you look at that team, Sheffield is the one guy about whom you say, 'Don't let him beat you,' " Colorado Rockies manager Don Baylor says. "Conine is a very good hitter, but you can pitch to him with sliders away and busting fastballs inside. Gary is the one guy who can hit a home run at anytime on any pitch."
Sheffield has never walked more than 55 times in a season, but he is on pace to draw 126 free passes this year. When Colorado's Marvin Freeman walked him May 9 with a runner at third base in the first inning, Sheffield slammed his bat to the ground. Against Kevin Ritz the next night, Sheffield popped out with the bases loaded when he missed a rare hittable fastball, prompting him to throw down his helmet with such force that the padding popped out.
"If I can reach it, I'm going to swing," Sheffield says, "but I'm getting nothing even close. I am not trying to walk. I don't care if I hit .150 with runners in scoring position, I'm going to be aggressive early in the count. It's my only way to drive in runs."