Which Sheff will show in Motown?

Tim Brown

LAKELAND, Fla. – The first pitch Wednesday morning was up and in, not necessarily a strike, but the drill was two strikes, man on third, can't strike out, gotta get him home.

Now, Gary Sheffield hadn't swung a bat since October 7, when he struck out twice and was hitless in four at-bats against the Detroit Tigers.

That amounted to the end of the New York Yankees' season and the end of Sheffield's time with them, of two years with 70 home runs and almost 250 RBI and a third in which his wrist gave out.

The four-game loss to the Tigers in the American League Division Series fueled the new Yankee enthusiasm, headed by general manager Brian Cashman, for building a deeper, younger and more athletic organization.

The new plan landed Sheffield, one of the great fastball hitters of the past 15 years, here in a long, narrow clubhouse about 40 minutes east of Legends Field. He reported for his first day with the Tigers, palled around with Jim Leyland, shook hands with Dave Dombrowski, and it's a wonder they didn't get their 1997 World Series rings all tangled up.

His new uniform came in about a half-dozen pieces, packaged in plastic bags. His locker is plugged between Sean Casey's and Magglio Ordonez's, and two bat lengths from those of Al Kaline, Willie Horton and Lou Whitaker, Tigers royalty.

Sheffield has a three-year contract, the last of his Yankees deal and the two-year extension from the Tigers, worth $41 million. He'll bat third or fourth in a park generally considered fair to hitters, for a team that just went to its first World Series in 22 years, for a manager he respects and trusts. True, he'll be a regular designated hitter, which he hadn't intended just yet, but, as he said with a grin, "That'll mean less work."

On this morning, among these people, the occasionally difficult Sheffield looked like the man who once uttered the words, "What could ever be more fun than playing baseball from sunup to sundown?"

This, of all his layers, is Content Sheff. Yes, he would have preferred to stay in New York, where he'd grown comfortable with his teammates and the organization and the regular winning. Yes, he would prefer to play the outfield. Yes, when he looks across those miles of Waffle Houses down Interstate 4, through the daily crises of A-Rod and Jeter, Mussina and Pavano, and a Bernie-less clubhouse, it still looks pretty good.

There's nothing wrong with what's under his feet, either. A hug from Craig Monroe. The first of many laughs with Casey. A loud locker room crowded with pitching and promise. A reliable left wrist.

"I was hoping to stay in New York, but unfortunately it hasn't happened and I looked for the next best thing," he said. "I didn't even think about Detroit. The fact is, I didn't think it was a fit. I never thought [Leyland] would have me as a DH. I never thought of that. And I didn't consider myself a DH, so I really didn't look at that situation. … I looked at the Cubs. I looked at Houston. I looked at teams like that. I looked at Boston, which I knew they weren't going to trade me there. I looked at the Mets. … When Detroit called and said I'd be DH-ing, I said, 'Well, I'll do it.'

"I look forward. I owe that to my teammates I play with now. I can't afford to say, 'I wish I was here as opposed to here.' I'm not going to do that because, other than that, I'm happy."

He played 39 games last season. The middle 3½ months were spent on wrist surgery and recovering from it. He rushed back to try to bail out the Yankees and Jason Giambi, who by then also was ailing, played the first nine games of his life at first base, was benched in Game 3 of the Division Series and was being shopped within hours of Game 4's final out.

"The reason I came back was I felt like I had to," Sheffield said. "I wasn't supposed to come back when I came back. I wasn't ready, to be honest with you. I just came back to show other organizations I could still play. I had a severe injury pretty much the whole year. Just to get back out there, hit a couple home runs during the season and try to get a little momentum going into the playoffs. But, obviously, I wasn't ready. Now, having four months off, I've had time to heal."

All the way around.

So, here he is. Assuming Standard Sheff, the Tigers made one of the great off-season moves. They dealt from a surplus and improved themselves at designated-hitter, where last season they got a .258 batting average, 27 home runs and 90 RBI. Not bad, but not Sheff, either.

They'll put him alongside Leyland – after every World Series appearance for Leyland, it seems, Sheffield is either coming or going ("It's a funny business, how it works," Leyland said.) – and see if they can't win a division title together, then three more games than they did last October.

It begins, of course, with the first pitch in February. And on the first day that really felt like spring in Florida, this one to Sheffield was particularly unfriendly.

"I don't pick up a bat in the offseason," he said. "Never. Not a time in my life. First time I'll have a ball coming at me. I might miss a few, but…"

Not this one. His hands shot through the strike zone, squaring as much of the barrel as he could with the ball, sending a soft line drive into left field.

Can't strike out. Gotta get him home.

Looks a lot like Familiar Sheff.