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

Street Smarts

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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

The walls of Sheffield's den are filled with baseball memorabilia, including several photos of Gooden and other major league stars, one of Sheffield's 1980 Little League team posing with Reggie Jackson in Yankee Stadium, another of Sheffield signing with the Brewers and a National High School Player of the Year award from Gatorade. Above the door is a needlepoint sampler that reads I LOVE MY PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS, and his high school diploma hangs in a prominent spot above the bookcase. According to Reed, Sheffield had become serious about his studies by his senior year at Hillsborough, and by the second half of that year he was on the honor roll. "If I didn't get drafted in the first round, then I would have gone to college, probably Miami," says Sheffield.

For the first seven years of his life, Sheffield, who has lost touch with his natural father, lived with Betty and Harold in the Goodens' house in Belmont Heights. "People ask how close I am to Dwight," says Sheffield. "Well, we're only four years apart. He's my older brother. I'm his younger brother. We did everything together."

When Sheffield was seven, the Joneses moved across town to Port Tampa so that Harold could be closer to his job as a boatyard foreman. They moved back to the neighborhood when Sheffield was nine. He recalls playing games of four-on-four with a rubber ball in the streets. "You'd hit the ball and run to a base and back," he says. "We started when I was six, and we'd play kids from other blocks. Floyd Youmans would play us. Ty Griffin. Dwight usually pitched, and I usually caught him. You wouldn't believe the crowds that would gather on the corner to watch us. We broke a few windows and got some people mad, but they knew we weren't up to any trouble. At the park they'd often make Dwight and me split up, so I got to hit off him. I hit him well, too. People ask about my ability to swing and make contact, and it goes back to all those games. When I was six, seven, eight and nine I was hitting against Dwight, Floyd, Vance and kids much older. That's how I learned."

Sheffield could pitch, too. In fact, many scouts liked his 90-mph fastball as much as his bat. "But he was just too great a hitter," says former Brewers director of player development Dan Duquette, who's now farm director for the Montreal Expos. In 62 at bats as a senior at Hillsborough, Sheffield batted .500, hit 15 homers and didn't strike out once.

Sheffield got a $152,000 signing bonus from the Brewers and immediately began to act like someone who had come into a good deal of money. "He hung out with a star, and he had a star's lifestyle," says Dave Machemer, who managed Sheffield at Stockton and at El Paso. Sheffield had his initials inlaid in gold on his front teeth and bought a gold Mercedes. But what got him the most attention was a famous set-to with the Tampa police in December 1986.

As Sheffield, Gooden and three companions were returning home from a University of South Florida basketball game, the police stopped them for allegedly driving erratically. Gooden got into an altercation with the police officers, and when it turned physical, Sheffield and the others jumped in to help. All five were arrested and charged with battery of a police officer and violently resisting arrest. Gooden pleaded no contest and was sentenced to three years probation and community service. Sheffield and two others also pleaded no contest and were given two years probation, while the fifth participant was absolved because he was a juvenile.

"No one will probably ever know what happened that night," says Sheffield. "We don't talk about it. I didn't mind the probation; they just told me to work with kids in St. Pete, which I do anyway. But why does it continue to haunt me? I'll bet everyone in baseball has got in a little trouble somewhere in his life. How serious was it? We didn't even get tickets. When we were on trial, the judge couldn't believe it. 'No tickets?' he kept asking. Hey, with all the publicity, he had to give us some sentence. I don't blame him. I just wish people would stop bringing it up."

Machemer remembers having some minor run-ins with Sheffield. "I stayed on him hard." says Machemer. "I'd fine him for little things, like wearing a shirt without a collar, and he'd get mad and say, 'You can't fine me.' But I stayed on him because I knew he had a chance to be something special and because I knew he was a good kid. The reason he turned around and got his talent to Milwaukee so fast is his parents."

"These kids are so young, they're faced with all the trappings of stardom and big money before they're 21," says his mother. "It's very hard. Gary always complained that we were too strict, that we gave him curfews that no other kids had. Well, he knows now that because he had to be home, he stayed out of some serious trouble. I don't know anything about baseball, but I know about spanking and I know about discipline."

Not only do Harold and Betty talk to Gary almost every day on the phone but they also spend their vacations watching him play. Two years ago, when they were in Stockton, Machemer suspended Gary for three games for an infraction Machemer claims he doesn't even remember. "The next day his stepfather came to see me," says Machemer. "He told me, 'We back you 100 percent, and Gary knows it. He needs the discipline, and he'll accept it as far as we're concerned.' I knew then that with his parents, he would turn out fine."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4