For Gary Sheffield, no news was bad news. As he spent early January in San Francisco, working out with his friend Giants slugger Barry Bonds, Sheffield became increasingly despondent as he waited to hear of his liberation from the Dodgers. Every time Sheffield's agent phoned, the update was the same: no trade, no dice. The calls became so distracting that an irritated Bonds began intercepting them, and even when the news was finally good—the Braves had acquired Sheffield in exchange for outfielder Brian Jordan and pitchers Odalis Perez and Andy Brown—Bonds didn't hand over the phone until Sheffield had finished his set.
"It was tough to handle, but it was doubly nice to know I'd gotten out of L.A. and was going to Atlanta," says Sheffield, flashing his gold-plated grin. "For a long time I wanted to be here. This team wanted me here, so it brought me here. So yeah, I'm happy."
Also elated are his new teammates and coaches, who have received the notoriously pouty Sheffield with open arms (and minds)—and not just because of Sheffield's new sunny disposition. Despite last season's 10th consecutive National League East title and ninth League Championship Series appearance in the past decade, the Braves were hapless at the plate, finishing among the league's worst in runs scored (13th), steals (10th), on-base percentage (10th) and home runs (10th).
In Sheffield, Atlanta gains a home run threat who hits for average and a middle-of-the-order presence who's as durable (he has averaged 144 games over the last six years) as he is dangerous. "Gary has the best bat speed I've seen since Mickey Mantle," Braves skipper Bobby Cox says. "He changes our lineup." Says leftfielder Chipper Jones, "I think I'm finally going to see some pitches to hit. I figure it'll mean one or two more fastballs per at bat, which is totally different from the last couple years. Now we can finally give our pitching staff [which had a league-leading 3.59 ERA last year] ample support."
Given the lovefest between Sheffield and his new team, it's worth noting that he has enjoyed a honeymoon wherever he has gone during his 14-year career. In Milwaukee, San Diego, Florida (where he led the 1997 Marlins to a World Series title) and L.A. his first year went smoothly. But things have had a way of souring—as they did with the Dodgers, when after two standout years Sheffield demanded a contract extension or a trade last spring (despite having three years remaining on a six-year deal) and became a seasonlong media sideshow when he didn't get it. Sheffield remains unrepentant. "When I first got to the big leagues, I was a bit arrogant because I thought no one could play with me," Sheffield says. "Now the arrogance is really just a confidence. I'm just not scared to fail. In L.A., I spoke out against management, but anytime you challenge authority, you look bad. I have no regrets."
Nor does Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz, who says, "We definitely considered all the aspects of the trade, including any baggage Gary might have. In all my years as a G.M., I've never seen such unanimity [in the front office] in thinking we should make a trade." Less certain, though, is who will replace the vocal and respected Jordan—the Braves' emotional leader—in the clubhouse should things go south in the Deep South.
Atlanta's improvement also depends largely on the return to form of shortstop Rafael Furcal in the leadoff spot. Pesky at the plate and on the base paths, Furcal made the Braves go last year. With him in the lineup they were 10 games over .500 (47-37); after he was lost for the year with a separated left shoulder, they slipped to 41-37. "He was the one guy we couldn't replace last year," Chipper Jones says. "With him back, we stack up pretty well. Even with all the moves the Mets made—and I mean no disrespect in saying this—we still feel we're the team to beat in the East."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]