A Most Hated Man – Gary Sheffield as a Brewer Part Two: The Pariah

Feb. 20, 2017
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Read up on Gary Sheffield’s rise through the minors in part one of this article.

After a month filling in at shortstop for the injured Dale Svuem, Gary Sheffield took over the spot permanently heading in to the 1989 season. No Brewers rookie – and a 20-year-old rookie at that – had ever had such high expectations. He was the runaway preseason favorite for AL Rookie of the Year and Sports Illustrated ran a feature article on him, written by Peter Gammons, in their 1989 baseball preview issue.

But it was less than a month into the season before Sheffield began to seethe. Although he saw himself as a natural shortstop, the Brewers were less than enamored with his play there. They liked him better as a third baseman or an outfielder, positions where the troubles with his glove would be minimized. When third baseman Paul Molitor opened the year on the DL, Sheffield took over his spot and fellow rookie Bill Spiers, himself a first-round pick in 1987, was installed at short. Spiers was hardly the prospect Sheffield was, but he was a much steadier fielder. Sheffield took the move personally. He felt it was a sign of disrespect, a gift to a less talented white player – who had also moved up more quickly through the minor leagues. He also felt marginalized by his teammates. He felt that Brewers pitchers were too soft and refused to retaliate against opposing teams when he was hit by pitches. In a late May game against Seattle, Sheffield was drilled by a pitch. As he skulked towards first base, he noticed only three teammates on the top dugout step, ready to join the fray if Sheffield charged the mound. After the game, Sheffield unloaded.

Sheffield told the assembled media that the team treated white players better than black players. He said that the coaching staff didn’t respect him and that his fellow players didn’t have his back. He gave the team a month to turn things around. “If I don’t see no difference in about a month, I want to be out of here,” he told a reporter. “If not, I’ll just leave.” The papers said he was demanding a trade and thinking of deserting the team.

Fans let Sheffield hear it in early 1989.

The following day, Sheffield walked back his comments, but the damage had been done. During that night’s game, the booing of Gary Sheffield began. Some teammates, via anonymous comments to the papers, made it clear that he was not well liked in the clubhouse. “Guys are getting tired of pulling for him,” one player said. “Nothing ever comes back.” Local sportswriters laid into him as well. Journal scribe Michael Bauman, reporting that Sheffield said he often asked the his uncle, the Mets’ Dwight Gooden, for advice, wrote “Get out the atlas, Gary. This isn’t New York. The star stuff doesn’t make it here. People here don’t go for the flash and glitter.”

“Flash and glitter,” “personality issues,” “lazy.” These were all buzzwords often used to describe the “spoiled modern athlete” – most often the black “spoiled modern athlete.” And all of them were now stuck to Sheffield. By mid-July, he was also being suspected of faking an injury to excuse his sub-par play. He said that his foot hurt, the team said it was fine. On July 15, after missing most of the previous week, he was sent down to AAA Denver and Bill Spiers was handed the starting shortstop job. Sheffield was livid. “The black players are expected to produce right then and there, but the white guys just show up,” he told a reporter. He played even worse in Denver, still complaining about his foot. Finally, nearly a month after he first went to the team about injury, a doctor found a fracture. After the bone healed, he was called back up to Milwaukee to replace the again-injured Molitor at third. He ended the year with a .247 batting average and five home runs. The Brewers shopped him on the trade market after the season, but with a very high asking price. The Pittsburgh Pirates were interested, but the Brewers asking price allegedly included Barry Bonds.

One of Sheffield’s many complaints about his teammates was that there were no veteran black players to offer him guidance and leadership. Before the 1990 season, the Brewers hired Don Baylor as their hitting coach and signed slugger Dave Parker as a free agent. Both were black men who had been professionals nearly as long as Sheffield had been alive. In 1990, baseball was fun again for Gary Sheffield. He got along better with his teammates and coaches and the tutelage of Parker and Baylor calmed him. By early June, he was batting .332 – second in the league – taking walks and driving the ball. Over the long haul of a full season, he fell off his all-star pace, but still finished with excellent numbers for a 21-year-old infielder. He hit .294 (highest on the team), with 44 walks to 41 strikeouts, ten homers, and 25 stolen bases.

Sheffield in 1990, his best season with the Brewers.

Those good feelings would not last. After the 1990 season the Brewers traded Parker and, despite an underwhelming season, committed to Bill Spiers as their shortstop for 1991. Sheffield sulked. After refusing to run wind sprints after a spring training game, he was fined by the team. Sheffield called it “a slap in the face.” Just before opening day, he unloaded on general manager Harry Dalton, whom he blamed for the loss of Parker. “He’s ruining this team and he’s going to keep ruining it because as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t know so much about this game,” He told the Wisconsin State Journal. “My respect is done for him. I don’t care what he does or says to me.”

Despite the tension, Sheffield continued to hit, but was nagged by injuries and still felt that the team was not treating him fairly. Fairness aside, the team certainly wasn’t treating him the same as they did other players. It might have been a racial thing. The Brewers had never had a player rip the organization for being racially tone-deaf before and had little experience with outspoken black players. It might have been that they just weren’t sure how to deal with someone of Sheffield’s temperament: he’d spout off once and they’d accommodate him, he’d do it again and they’d punish him. There was little consistency. But most likely, they just didn’t have any clear idea of how to keep Sheffield happy and focused.

He found a supporter of sorts in Bill James, who was already well known for his annual baseball handbooks. He admitted that it was very likely Sheffield was a “jerk,” but said his accusations of racism in the Brewers organization were probably about 80% correct. “Racism is often hard to distinguish from ordinary mediocrity,” James wrote. “But certainly it is true that the Brewers organization since 1982 has been overrun by mediocre white boys who just show up and collect their paychecks. What better description could you give of Rick Manning, Greg Brock, Rob Deer, Jim Gantner, Dale Sveum, and Charlie O’Brien?” He placed some of the blame on Dalton and team president Bud Selig, whom he claimed had “diverted their attention to solving the problems of baseball as a whole and lost interest in the ballclub.”

By the middle of the 1991 season, Sheffield was again miserable and again seeing enemies all around him. He thought Paul Molitor was acting as a spy for management. He felt the team was both forcing him to play hurt and not playing him enough. He blamed Selig. He blamed managed Tom Trebelhorn. In late July, after two miserable months in which he had missed three weeks to injury and batted .105 with zero home runs, Sheffield tore up his shoulder diving into a base. He’d never play for the Brewers again. In his absence, the Brewers went on a stunning run, winning 40 of 59 games to close the season.

After the ’91 season, Dalton and Trebelhorn were both gone, replaced with Sal Bando and Phil Garner. In mid-March, Sheffield ripped the team, saying they made him play hurt, lied to him, etc, etc. It was all a show. Sheffield wanted to force his way out of Milwaukee. Bando fielded trade offers while some in the organization simply wanted to release him. The week before the season opened, Sheffield got his wish. Bando sent him to San Diego for Ricky Bones, Matt Mieske, and Jose Valentin. Public feelings among the Brewers personnel was mixed. He was a tremendous talent, everyone saw that, but no one mourned his passing as a teammate. Two months later, as he was tearing up the National League on a way to near-triple crown season, Sheffield reflected on his time in Milwaukee. “It was just a waste of time,” he said. “Leaving. That was the only positive thing.”

Sheffield found happiness and success in San Diego. But he wouldn’t last there… or in any other city in which he landed.

But it was another comment he made during his breakout ’92 season that would forever dog him. “The Brewers brought out the hate in me. I was a crazy man,” he told the LA Times, “I hated everything about the place. If the official scorer gave me an error, I didn't think was an error, I'd say, ‘OK, here's a real error,’ and I'd throw the next ball into the stands on purpose.” He almost immediately disavowed the claim that he had purposely tanked plays. He said he was referring to single incident that occurred in A ball. A number of people have investigated the claim, the consensus being that no such scenario ever occurred when Sheffield was with the Brewers. Still, one of the most damaging legends about a ballplayer was born. And, despite his denials, Sheffield gave people little reason to assume such action was beyond him.

One of the most amazing facts about Gary Sheffield’s 22 year Major League career – not that he hit 500 homers without ever striking out more than 83 times in a season or that he placed in the top ten of MVP voting six times or that his career OPS+ is higher than Reggie Jackson, Ken Griffey, Jr., or George Brett – was that he spent more time with the Brewers than any other organization. The Brewers put up with him based almost entirely on potential for six calendar years. He was done with the Padres in less than two. Passed off by the Marlins, whom he led to a world title, in five. He lasted four years in Los Angeles, two in Atlanta, three with the Yankees, two with the Tigers, and just a single year with the Mets. In his final season, he was about 19% more productive than the average Major League hitter. Still, when his contract expired, no one signed him. No team was willing to trade the necessary headaches for his still-viable bat.

He lingered for a year before he officially retired.

Sheffield now similarly lingers on the Hall of Fame ballot. He got 13% this past January, a slight uptick but nowhere near where he needs to be for election. He ended up with the Hall of Fame numbers everyone fantasized about way back in 1988 when he drilled that Mark Langston fastball over the County Stadium fence. But he ended up as no one’s idea of a Hall of Famer.

And, despite his place his place in team history, no one wants to remember him as a Milwaukee Brewer. It has been 25 years since the Brewers traded Sheffield, but the resentment against him remains. Certainly, Sheffield was a whiner and drag on the clubhouse, but Brewers fans have forgiven worse. He never came close to living up to his potential with the Brewers, but was still just 23 years old when he was traded. He leveled some pretty serious accusations against the team, but he might not have been entirely wrong.

Sheffield came along at a weird time in baseball, both in Milwaukee and elsewhere. The owners’ collusion scheme had just been exposed, leading to a spike in salaries that further wedged the game away from its working-class fan base. The media seemed to brim with stories about spoiled millionaire athletes and highlight shows exhibited the exploits of a new wave of black players like Deion Sanders and Rickey Henderson, whose revelry in their own greatness rubbed many the wrong way. Sheffield never made much money in Milwaukee, nor did he dance or showboat much, but in the right time and place he was an easy target. When he groused, the target became even bigger. When he didn’t deliver, even bigger still. Gary Sheffield does not deserved to be remembered fondly by Brewers fans, but his time here should be remembered for what it was. 

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