Tigers toughen up, cut Sheffield

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

LAKELAND, Fla. – Of all the shirts to wear Monday morning, Gary Sheffield chose the one with the Ghostbusters logo. You know. Arms akimbo. Slackened jaw. Shocked, and maybe a little frightened.

That whole thing about life and art: It's true. The Detroit Tigers' release of Sheffield – and his nauseating $14 million contract that they eat with it – so stunned Sheffield and his teammates that their mouths formed into donuts upon hearing the news.

Fifteen minutes after Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland informed Sheffield of the move , and before he'd had a chance to tell his wife, he turned toward Miguel Cabrera at the next locker.

"All right," Sheffield said. "I'll see you, man."

"Where you going?" Cabrera asked.

"I'm released," Sheffield said. "So I'll see ya."

Cabrera said nothing. And it was an apt reaction, not just because the Tigers flat-out cut a player with Hall of Fame credentials on the eve of the season as much as that they reside in the nation's most woebegone city, one with 12 percent unemployment, and gave a man $14 million not to work.

Throughout Sheffield's 21-year career, so many labels have affixed themselves to him: He's arrogant, he's a diva, he's greedy, he's delusional. There is some truth in each, and help form Sheffield's odd charm. His outspokenness, though often off-base, is rare for someone of his stature, refreshing as a glass of lemonade on a hot day, and it served him well.

Because without it, Sheffield wouldn't have received baseball's version of an executive bonus. No one ever accused him of being stupid, and if this is the final act on a career that includes 499 home runs and what scouts have described as the fastest bat they ever witnessed, Sheffield can ride into the sunset flipping the bird to The Man.

Sheff wanted his money. He always wanted his money. Before Detroit, he made $140 million. Sheffield approved a trade to the Tigers only when they promised a two-year, $28 million extension that would take him to his 40th birthday, the sort of deal that in hindsight looks so miserably irresponsible of Dombrowski, a boner of Andruwian proportions.

"I was smart enough to know that this game can turn, contract-wise, with guys playing for less money than they should be," Sheffield said. "I did the smartest thing, and I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, to be 40 and paid what I thought I was worth."

What he's worth now is $400,000, the minimum salary and what any prospective employers will give him. There aren't many options. San Diego, where Sheffield's career took flight, could use any breathing major-league-quality hitter willing to play for relative peanuts. And otherwise … well, home beckons.

The market for past-their-prime sluggers – especially ones who have admitted to steroid use, even with the flimsy claim he didn't know – has mimicked the Dow Jones in its plummet the last two years. Sheffield is eight for 45 this spring, albeit with three home runs and 13 walks. He says the right shoulder that so hindered him the past year and a half is healed. And the bravado remains, certainly. Sheffield, whose midsection is perhaps more pillow than washboard, said: "I'm probably the most athletic guy on the team."

Still, for the end to be so ignominious felt awkward. Sheffield walked into the clubhouse around 8:30 a.m. He went to the bathroom. When he emerged, he noticed Tigers personnel giving him weird looks. Dombrowski and Leyland wanted to talk with him. They had decided Sunday to cut Sheffield.

Leyland told him the Tigers wanted more versatility. The likeliest candidate to take his roster spot is Jeff Larish, a 26-year-old utility player with two career home runs. The other options are Ryan Raburn and Brent Clevlen, neither carving a path toward Cooperstown. Sheffield didn't say anything. He had riffed on race, steroids, umpires, Barry Bonds, Joe Torre, how Latin players are easy to control and the coup de grace, a grand conspiracy perpetuated by Major League Baseball (which, sadly, he never revealed).

Really, he was too flabbergasted. Ever since he was a teenage prodigy from Tampa, teams had coddled Sheffield. He never had been cut. He was one home run shy of a milestone, one for which the Tigers already had a gift. And before Sheffield arrived Tuesday, the Tigers had already cleansed themselves of another $30 million Dombrowski disaster, Dontrelle Willis, who was shipped out to get more tests related to an anxiety disorder and may never return to the Tigers.

"You're going to pay him one way or the other," Dombrowski said, talking about Sheffield, though it applied to Willis as well. He ran the Sheffield decision by owner Mike Ilitch. Dombrowski would not discuss what Ilitch said. It probably went something like: Six million pizzas sold got me that?

The other day, Sheffield said he was talking with Ryan Thompson, the former major-league outfielder who has been out of the game for more than half a decade. The conversation was rather foreboding. Maybe Sheffield sensed his baseball mortality.

"I always ask guys what that feeling's like, not to have to get up and go to work, and not having to go and play baseball," Sheffield said. "He was stunned the first couple years. This is what you've done all your life, and now you're not doing it. I'll probably go through that phase a little bit. Eventually, you get over it."

Sheffield is not ready for that yet. "It ain't close" to the end, he said, more of that classic Sheff bluster. If he's right and that famous waggle is around for one more opening day, great. And if not, Sheffield can drift away on his golden parachute knowing that even if he didn't go out the way he wanted, he got paid, and that's good enough.

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