With an empty champagne bottle in one hand and a Cuban cigar in the other, Gary Sheffield was sitting quietly by himself and looking content amid the post-game celebrating in the Florida Marlins' clubhouse at 3Com Park last Friday night when an unexpected visitor approached. San Francisco Giants leftfielder Barry Bonds, a peculiar presence in the rowdy room an hour after the Marlins finished off a sweep of San Francisco in their Division Series, bent down and spoke softly into Sheffield's ear. "Enjoy the moment, little brother, and keep the same focus you had against us," Bonds told him. "You can carry this team. You can take it all the way to the World Series. I love you."
Bonds and Sheffield became friendly two years ago after the two of them, who had never met, playfully refused each other's autograph requests before a game. They have been tighter than shrink-wrap since, and last Friday, Bonds wanted to pass along some inspirational words at a defining moment. Bonds is one of the few players who could appreciate Sheffield's subtle yet devastating contribution to Florida's Division Series victory—Sheffield reached base 10 times in 14 plate appearances. Five of those times he got on with a walk.
The Marlins' celebration represented a welcome turn of events for Sheffield, who suffered through a forgettable regular season. Coming off 1996, when he hit .314 with 42 home runs and 120 RBIs, Sheffield signed a six-year, $61 million contract extension on April 2 and immediately went into a nosedive because a lack of good pitches to hit caused him to lose his patience and his stroke. He finished the season with 121 walks but hit only .250 with 21 homers and 71 RBIs. Plus, as has been his wont, he played poorly in the field. Sheffield was booed regularly at Pro Player Stadium by fans who didn't grasp the value of a player who was among the league leaders in on-base percentage; he finished fifth, at .424. "I get paid a lot of money, so I'm supposed to be Superman," Sheffield said in July.
However, with the regular season winding down, Sheffield experienced an epiphany of sorts by calling upon advice he'd received from Bonds earlier in the summer. Stay patient. When they finally challenge you, make them pay. In September, Sheffield hit .324 with five homers and 14 RBIs to help Florida clinch the National League wild-card spot, and suddenly he felt confident heading into his first postseason. "It seems like Christmas," Sheffield said before the Division Series began. "For the first time after a season I'm waking up for a playoff game. Usually I'm waking up in St. Pete."
Sheffield demonstrated his renewed patience in Florida's 2-1 victory over the Giants in Game 1 by drawing two walks and hitting a laser double off the leftfield wall. Then in Game 2 he launched a solo home run in the sixth inning to give the Marlins a 6-4 lead. In the seventh he misjudged a routine fly ball to rightfield that cost Florida a run, but he redeemed himself in the ninth, after San Francisco had tied the score. He led off the inning with a single, stole second base and eventually scored the game-winning run in Florida's 7-6 victory, which was the 26th time this year that the Marlins had won a game in their last at bat. Finally, in the series-clinching 6-2 victory, Sheffield reached base three times with a single and two walks. "It was nice for Gary to start anew, because none of that negative stuff carries over into the postseason," said third baseman Bobby Bonilla after the Florida sweep. "He's trying to make everybody forget his regular season."
While stopping short of placing undue tonnage on Sheffield's shoulders, many Florida players acknowledge that to defeat Atlanta they will require a significant contribution from Sheffield, who hit just .189 against the Braves this season. "We need Gary to continue his hot hitting because he's one of the few guys in baseball who good pitchers really fear," catcher Charles Johnson says. "He's a guy who can change a game with one swing."
As he headed into the series against the Braves, Sheffield was heeding Bonds's counsel. Enjoy the moment, little brother. "Winning in the playoffs is the most fun I've ever had in my baseball career," Sheffield said after the clinching win. "This is every kid's dream."