Sarah's Take: Sheffield has grown into the Dodger uniform
I was not happy when Gary Sheffield became a Dodger.
After all, the Dodgers just gave away the greatest offensive catcher, Mike Piazza, to the Florida Marlins to be sold to the highest bidder. I felt Piazza would have re-signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1998 season if the Dodgers waited to negotiate with him until October. I still believe the trade would not have been made if Peter O'Malley still owned the team. I even shed a tear because I felt I had lost a good friend. Piazza was the first super star that the Dodgers had since Fernando Valenzuela left. I always loved the story how Piazza was drafted and worked his way to the majors.
I feel to this day the Dodgers lost their credibility as a championship-quality team. I thought the Dodgers would feel the loss of Piazza for a long time.
When I became a Dodger fan at age 6, I made a vow to root for any player who wore a Dodger uniform. I had to support Gary Sheffield. Though Sheffield had a reputation for having a bad attitude with other teams, I had to block it out and give Sheffield an opportunity to show me what type of a player he was.
Sheffield did not make a good impression on me when he demanded more money to come to Los Angeles. Sheffield was already making more money than Piazza was. I could not fathom a player turning down an opportunity to play for the Dodger organization with its rich history and a winning tradition. Then, I remembered baseball was a business, and Sheffield, a Florida native, was acting like a businessman. Though every baseball player makes too much money, a player should not turn down a contract because it will make him too rich. If an owner is stupid enough to offer a zillion dollars, the player should take it and run.
I tried to root for Sheffield in 1998, but it was difficult for me. Sheffield did perform well for the Dodgers and helped them win many games before an ankle injury prevented him from playing in September. To me, Sheffield did not look like he enjoyed playing baseball. The Dodgers allegedly had to pay him to participate in the All-Star game. By his comments in the media I knew Sheffield thought he had more desire and was a better player than his teammates. I knew that was false.
My respect for Gary grew during the 1998 off-season. Sheffield had always donated heavily to the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner-Cities). After living in a multi-cultural neighborhood in Pasadena, I knew the children in the inner cities desperately need a program to keep them off the streets. Kids need somewhere to go after school to release their stresses and tensions. Often they do not succeed in school. They need somewhere to succeed and build confidence, or they probably will accept illegal drugs and/or be teenage parents. Because the schools do not have time for organized physical activity, they must have a place to exercise for their health and self-esteem. They need hope for the future to better their situations. I always have admired more fortunate people who donate their money and/or time to the less fortunate.
During Spring Training of 1999, Sheffield had a difficult adjustment from right field to left field. He did not like the switch, so he complained about it in the media. I could understand him disliking the move, especially after learning he has played almost everywhere, but why do I have to read about it in the papers?
In 1999 Gary played great for the Dodgers. Sheffield, Mark Grudzielanek, Kevin Brown, Jeff Shaw, and Eric Karros were the only Dodgers who played up to their potential. Sheffield's mouth made me dislike him. He kept on criticizing his teammates for lack of desire to win. I began questioning his intensity. Often he did not run out ground balls or run to catch fly balls. He did not try to steal bases although he had speed. On the last day of the 1999 season he did not play, citing injuries, but he played a day earlier and did not suffer any more injuries. Though the game was meaningless for the Dodgers, it was crucial to decide the National League Central Division title and the National League Wild Card race. Though everybody in Los Angeles knew Sheffield was nursing injuries, it appeared to me he was protecting his batting average. I did not like the media implying the Dodgers were handing the Houston Astros a playoff berth. I was embarrassed Sheffield might have affected the divisional and wild card race because he was more concerned about protecting his precious .300 batting average. I was shocked Davey Johnson allowed Sheffield to sit when the game was so crucial to baseball.
During the off-season between the 1999 and 2000 seasons I read Sheffield was doing an intensive rehabilitation program to get healthy and get stronger. I applauded him because I like any player who spends their spare time trying to improve his play.
The 2000 season began well for Sheffield. He was tearing up the National League offensively. Through July he was clearly the Most Valuable Player on the Dodgers, and many thought he deserved the National League MVP. In early August he had a severe case of the flu, and he missed a seven-game road trip. Though many people thought Sheffield should have returned sooner, I did not. I feel no player should play ill or injured.
When Sheffield returned, his play was not as good as it was before his illness. I attributed the change to his weakened state. After two weeks his play did not improve, and his desire to win began to lessen. As the Dodgers faded in the Western Division, Sheffield stopped hustling. I thought if Sheffield continued hustling, the Dodgers might have won more games.
During the off-season I did not hear much or read about Sheffield. It was not odd because Sheffield was not injured. As I did not know, it was the quiet before the storm.
On a cool day in mid-February I went to the Los Angeles Times Dodgers' page looking forward to reading about the excitement of the upcoming season. Instead of finding an excitement-producing article, I found an article saying Gary Sheffield demanded a contract extension or a trade. I was shocked, and my first reaction was why? Sheffield was signed through 2003. As the soap opera played out in the media, my stomach twisted. I could not see how the Dodgers could keep Sheffield. Every day I prayed I would read the Dodgers traded Sheffield. I was furious at Sheffield. He attacked every teammate who had something in his contract that Sheffield desired, and his teammates had never done anything to him, except befriended and supported him. He called Bob Daly a "liar." That cut to the core. Daly has been trying to re-establish the proud Dodger tradition and the family atmosphere, and Sheffield was trying his best to erode everything that Daly did. I felt for Jim Tracy because Tracy, a brand new manager, just stepped into a buzzed saw and had to control an egoistical player. I did not care whom the Dodgers got for Sheffield, but I knew Sheffield had to go if the Dodgers had any chance at winning their division.
When the Dodgers and Bob Daly forgave Sheffield, I felt I must forgive him too. He had done nothing to me. When Sheffield answered the boos at Dodger Stadium with a game-winning home run on opening day, I knew Sheffield was a great one. All great ones produce under adversity.
Sheffield had been booed loudly every time he did anything noticeable. Although I understood the boos, I hate to hear any player being booed, and I can only imagine how the players feel when they are booed. However, players, such as Sheffield, must block out the crowd's reaction. When he hit the game-winning home run, I was relieved. If Sheffield began the season struggling, the boos would last longer, and the media would have continued talking about the horrible soap opera. When Sheffield came out of the dugout and tipped his cap, I felt he was trying to apologize to the crowd. I knew the boos would decrease and disappear quickly.
In late April Sheffield injured an index finger. After a few days off, Sheffield returned to the lineup. Despite having an injured finger, he performed brilliantly, hitting home runs at first. It was remarkable because Sheffield continued wiggling the bat, putting increased stress on the swollen finger. Eventually his statistics began to suffer. Though Sheffield did not want to go on the disabled list, he was forced to go on it at the end of May. After fifteen days, Sheffield returned to the lineup. Although his finger was not healed and affected his performance, he never made excuses for his poor performance.
Since Sheffield's hand has healed, his performance has been awesome. Last week he passed out on the bathroom floor and spent a night in the hospital. The same day that he was released from the hospital he started a home run streak lasting four games. Last Thursday he just missed a home run and becoming the first Dodger since 1970 to hit for the cycle.
Gary Sheffield is a great player. He is exciting to watch with his flare of drama. This year he has kept his mouth shut in the media.
Sheffield's ability and demeanor has seemed to earn respect from his teammates and me, his toughest critic. I think Sheffield wants to finish his career with the Dodgers. If he were lucky enough to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I bet Sheffield would wear a Dodger cap. Now I cannot picture Sheffield in another uniform, and I hope he finishes his career in Dodger blue.