Sheffield's life is a battlefield

Jeff Passan

LAKELAND, Fla. – Gary Sheffield yanked a T-shirt over his head, strapped an iPhone in a plastic sleeve to his left biceps and sat in a cushioned folding chair. He was ready to talk. A Detroit Tigers P.R. rep milled close by, aware that considerable danger accompanies this phenomenon.

Sheffield is 39 now, though he seems to suffer from the affliction of men twice his age who no longer harness their inner monologues. Every few months Sheffield insinuates himself into the news with a ripe bit of blather. Calling it knowledge or wisdom would be giving Sheffield too much credit, though his latest blast, at his former agent and the man suing him, Scott Boras, did make plenty of Boras-fleeced folks around baseball smile.

Was it a fair attack, though? Well, that doesn't much matter to Sheffield. Life is a fight, and he'll be damned if he doesn't throw the first punch.

"It's served me well," Sheffield said. "Certain things that came up, if I was a yes man and just went along with it, a lot of things wouldn't have turned out in my favor. Because I demanded things turn out in my favor."

Such is Sheffield's ethos still, and it will take him Tuesday to hearings for Boras' grievance that Sheffield owes him commission from the three-year, $39 million contract he signed with the New York Yankees. Sheffield claims he negotiated the contract on his own. Whatever the case, Sheffield will miss the Tigers' first exhibition game and perhaps a few more to settle the tiff.

It's another battle in an increasing number he invites. Over the past two years, Sheffield has accused Major League Baseball of searching for Latino talent because they're easier "to control" than black players, alleged that former Yankees manager Joe Torre mistreated black players and said after he was suspended for breaking a bat that he would expose a vast MLB "conspiracy."

Of what sort he never said, though if Sheffield began to yammer on about Area 51, it would surprise no one.

How he gets away with all of his shenanigans – committing errors intentionally to get traded from Milwaukee and complaining his way out of Los Angeles and escaping from the BALCO mess nearly unscathed by explaining he didn't realize the balm he used contained steroids – is rather remarkable. Sheffield has bucked convention, political correctness, fair play, sportsmanship and logic, and he ends up that ultimate in playground lore, rubber to his critics' glue.

"I see a lot of players who are outspoken and they're hated," Sheffield said. "I'm not hated. …

"You have to go through the mishaps and things like that, and it brings you to this point. And I'm in a beautiful place."

Sheffield said he spends most of his time at home with his three sons, the newest 1-month-old Christian. He said he invests in real state, buying property in India, where he plans to visit after this season. He said most of the time the television lands on Channel 295, so the boys can watch SpongeBob or Pokemon or Scooby-Doo, and that he has not paid attention to the controversy between Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, two of his former teammates.

And yet something inside a baseball clubhouse must embolden him, stir the inner Sheff that homebody dad tries not to reveal. Sheffield said he considered retiring four years ago and that he has nothing left to accomplish. He sits 20 home runs shy of 500 and a couple percentage points shy of a career .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage. He was baseball's highest-paid player in Los Angeles and nearly scored an MVP in New York. He won a batting title in San Diego and a championship in Florida.

"So why keep chasing something you already have?" he said. "I think two years will be enough. So I should be able to get one or two rings by then."

That's when Sheffield's contract runs out. He said he could probably play until he turns 45. That Sheffield disregards his past two years – a wrist injury limited him to 39 games in 2006 and a sore shoulder hindered him throughout his disappointing 2007 season – is a formality. Reason and Sheffield mix like beer and tequila – and there's a good explanation for why Tequiza flopped.

"It was rough," Sheffield said. "I was in pain. Once you get to be 39, you're not moving around like you did when you were 25. Smarts, intelligence-wise, I'm a lot better than I was back then. I know how to get from Point A to Point B without going through all kinds of – "

Sheffield paused, searching for the right word.


Yeah. Sounds about right.