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Street Smarts
Peter Gammons
April 05, 1989
GARY SHEFFIELD LEARNED HIS BASEBALL AND MORE IN TAMPA'S BELMONT HEIGHTS
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April 05, 1989

Street Smarts

GARY SHEFFIELD LEARNED HIS BASEBALL AND MORE IN TAMPA'S BELMONT HEIGHTS

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Jefferies plays in New York, Martinez in L.A. and Sheffield in Milwaukee, which in itself establishes a natural publicity order. "I'm glad to be in Milwaukee, not on the East Coast," said Sheffield. "I've been up to New York and stayed with Dwight. I've seen what he's gone through.

"Gooden tested positive for cocaine in March 1987, and he entered the Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center in Manhattan. After his release 27 days later, the Mets asked him to move to New York so that they could keep an eye on him in the off-season. He refused. Further, the press wouldn't let up on him. The late Dick Young, the columnist for the New York Post, even encouraged fans to boo Gooden when he pitched his first game. "People ask, "Wasn't all that hard on the family?' " says Betty. "Not in comparison to what Dwight went through."

If Sheffield were playing in New York, he, too, would be put under the microscope. But Milwaukee is different. "Sure, there's a lot of anticipation concerning Gary," says Brewers general manager Harry Dalton. "But we've got established stars like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Teddy Higuera. And Milwaukee just doesn't provide the same kind of hoopla that you get in some of the bigger media markets."

The Brewers' brain trust has never had any doubts about Sheffield's ability. Like several other teams, Milwaukee rated Sheffield as the best prospect in the 1986 draft, but he was the sixth choice overall, because most of the clubs that had higher picks than the Brewers were looking for more seasoned players. Sheffield played rookie ball in Helena, Mont., where he batted .365. The next season, at 18, he hit .277 but knocked in 103 runs at Class A Stockton. In 1988 he started with the Double A El Paso Diablos and moved up to the Triple A Denver Zephyrs, hitting a combined .327 with 28 homers and 119 RBIs in 134 games, before playing for Milwaukee in September.

"He's a shortstop who hits for power, yet he makes contact like a Mattingly or Boggs," says Brewers hitting coach Tony Muser. What's more, Sheffield has a flair for the dramatic. His first major league hit was a ninth-inning home run against Seattle Mariner ace Mark Langston that tied the game at 1-1. His second hit was the game-winning single in the 11th inning.

With a week to go in the season Sheffield's batting average in Milwaukee was .283, but he finished at .238 with four homers in 80 at bats. "I was batting ninth for the first time in my career, and that requires taking pitches, which I'd never had to do," says Sheffield. "I learned from it. I also had to make an adjustment for the inside pitch. That's my favorite ball to hit, but I was so worried about the outside corner that I was crowding the plate and getting jammed inside. So I went to a lighter bat, moved up on the plate and started hitting that ball the way I always did before."

The Brewers knew that Sheffield could hit. What they hadn't figured out was where to play him. "I hardly ever played shortstop before I signed," says Sheffield, who had pitched and played third base at Hillsborough High. "But they put me there in Helena. I had my problems for a couple of years, I didn't bobble many balls, but I made a ton of throwing errors, because I didn't have the footwork to get set. I had it down the first part of last season in El Paso, but in Denver they moved me to third."

When the Brewers brought him up on Sept. 2, they were planning to use him as a third baseman or leftfielder. But the next day their regular shortstop, Dale Sveum, broke his leg, and Sheffield took over his spot. His instincts were so good that in 24 games he made three plays that were dazzling enough to make the Milwaukee highlight film. On the last day of the season, manager Tom Trebelhorn called Sheffield in and told him, "You should never go back to the minors," and promised him that the shortstop job was his to lose.

Inspired by Trebelhorn's remarks, Sheffield followed an off-season conditioning program and jogged two miles every day with Gooden. Sheffield reported to spring training two days early and weighed in at 190 pounds, five below his prescribed playing weight. Billy Reed, Hillsborough High's legendary coach, who has worked with such players as Gooden, Youmans, Detroit Tigers catcher Mike Heath and his latest find, pitcher-infielder Kiki Jones, who is a sure bet to be one of the top three picks in the June draft, has always been impressed by Sheffield's drive to succeed. "More than anyone I've ever known," says Reed, "Gary has a burning desire to be great. Not good, great."

"People can't read Gary because he's so quiet and shy," says Lovelace. "But ever since I've known him—and I think he was five or six, hanging out at the playground watching Dwight and me play—he's pushed himself hard."

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