After the Storm
Having cleared the air in L.A., Gary Sheffield is winning over fans with his play
Before their home opener against the Brewers last week, several Dodgers players and coaches greeted fans entering Dodger Stadium with smiles, handshakes and souvenir towels. One member of the welcoming committee was outfielder Gary Sheffield, who, in the wake of his sign-me-trade-me-keep-me squabble with the front office during spring training, had heard boos even from the staid crowds at the team's home in Vero Beach, Fla. After saying he might not summon maximum effort every day—so distraught was he still to be wearing Dodger blue—Sheffield was the target of fans' wrath throughout the team's final exhibition games. How, then, did L.A. fans react when they met Sheffield at a stadium gate, towel in hand? "Everybody was polite," Sheffield says. "Everybody had kind words."
Perhaps Sheffield was being diplomatic—certainly, not everyone was polite an hour or so later, when he stepped onto the field and was greeted with boos—but his discretion was welcome. Since changing his tune to indicate that he'll play out the final three seasons of his six-year, $61 million contract without complaint, Sheffield has defused an explosive situation by saying little and concentrating on baseball. He hit .314 with three homers in 19 spring games, then won over that L.A. crowd with a sparkling catch in leftfield and a game-winning home run on an Opening Day that had enough emotional swings to embarrass even the schmaltziest Hollywood screenwriter. Through Sunday he was hitting .286 with two RBIs and, save for scattered boos that still greeted his at bats as LA won two of three from the Giants last weekend, there were few reminders of the storm that five weeks ago threatened to shred the team.
"To hear the fans boo him was not a good feeling," Los Angeles reliever Mike Fetters said after the opener. "We all have contract disputes and problems with the front office. It just so happens that he's our franchise guy. Then to hear them chanting his name at the end of the game was great."
Sheffield gained that clubhouse support on March 13 in a closed-door session with the team, during which he gave his side of the dispute with chairman Bob Daly, apologized for insulting remarks he had made about other Dodgers' deals and took questions and comments from his teammates. "There was some back and forth," says second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. "When we walked out of there we decided that we're a team and that we have to move on."
That sentiment is accompanied by the realization that Los Angeles is a vastly better team with Sheffield, its leading run producer, than without him. As long as he does his job and avoids controversy, his teammates can let bygones be bygones. In the midst of his contract flap, Sheffield changed agents, hiring Scott Boras to help repair his relationship with Dodgers management Boras persuaded Sheffield that the slugger should honor his contract and drop his trade demand. "I have four other clients on this team who are pitchers," says Boras. "They need Gary Sheffield to win."
Managers on the Spot
Who's Most Vulnerable?
"Every team has a tough month at some point during the season," said Pirates first baseman Kevin Young on the last day of spring training. "We'll just get ours out of the way [early]." Young was referring to the injuries that decimated Pittsburgh's starting rotation, a scourge worsened last week when a fourth starter, lefthander Terry Mulholland, went on the disabled list with a sprained left knee. The Pirates and rookie manager Lloyd McClendon can be forgiven if they fail to christen their new ballpark with a lights-out April, but for several other managers the season's first month could be a make-or-break one. Here are the three teams whose skippers are under the greatest pressure to avoid stumbling early.
? Red Sox. Hideo Nomo's no-hitter and a sweep of the Devil Rays were mere distractions from the chaos that gripped Boston's clubhouse in the season's first week. Nomar Garciaparra is on the shelf for at least two months after wrist surgery, Dante Bichette asked to be traded after being demoted into a platoon at designated hitter, and even taciturn rightfielder Trot Nixon grumbled about the team's glut of corner outfielders. The fall guy for a slow start could be manager Jimy Williams, whose contract expires at the end of the season. Williams received an extension in each of the last three springs but this year was given no such vote of confidence. Still, Williams, who has been handcuffed by the roster assembled by general manager Dan Duquette and by a patchwork of shaky starters after Pedro Martinez, shouldn't be the scapegoat if this overrated team falters.
? Rangers. During spring training manager Johnny Oates said he'd given serious thought to stepping down after Texas's 2000 tumble into last place in the AL West. If the Rangers fail to rebound quickly after their free-agent signing spree, owner Tom Hicks might make the decision for him. Hicks has made it clear that he expects his club to contend this season and is willing to spend for midseason reinforcements. Given that win-now attitude, Hicks might have an itchy trigger finger if the Rangers put themselves in a hole. There are ominous signs for Oates—through Sunday third baseman Ken Caminiti and DH Andres Galarraga, two of the Rangers' major off-season additions, were a combined 11 for 45, and ace Rick Helling lasted a total of nine innings and had an 11.00 ERA in his first two starts—but firing him would make little sense. Even John McGraw would have trouble coaxing wins out of this staff.