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Sheff's Cooking

Proving Bad Reputations Die Hard, Hot-Hitting Dodger Slugger Is Anything but a Malcontent These Days

May 05, 2000|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bad reputation follows Gary Sheffield because that's how reputations work.

The Dodger left fielder has changed, but his image hasn't. He remains under the microscope because of youthful errors, and the scrutiny is enough to make one wonder if only yesterday matters.

But those who know Sheffield best know what he's about now, and they figure others will realize soon enough.

Sheffield has been much better than advertised since joining the club during those dizzying days in '98, and the Dodgers are determined to make that known.

"I just don't get it," Manager Davey Johnson said. "Everyplace we go where people don't know him, the first thing [reporters] ask me is, 'How do you motivate him? How do you get him to play for you?' It's the same thing every time, until they go talk to him.

"Then they come back and say, 'Wow, he's great.' Well, yeah, Sheff is great. I mean, I don't know everything that went on in the past, but when you talk to people he's played for, everyone says the same thing. He wants to win and he gives you everything he has every day. All you have to do is look at what he does."

He does many things well.

Sheffield is among the major league leaders in several categories, batting .326 with 10 home runs, 24 runs batted in and a .716 slugging percentage. He has powered the offense during first baseman Eric Karros' slow start and right fielder Shawn Green's adjustment from the American League.

"The way Sheff has been going, it really has helped me come in and get comfortable," Green said. "There really hasn't been that pressure because he's been doing so much, and that helps everyone, not just me."

No matter the area, Sheffield is doing more than his part.

He has helped set the table with a .434 on-base percentage, and is batting .375 with runners in scoring position, .429 with two out. That despite a painful sprained right ankle that won't heal without rest, and Sheffield won't take time off.

Moreover, he has become one of the league's better left fielders in only his second season at the position, said a longtime scout who has observed Sheffield throughout his 12-year career.

"No question about it, Sheff has really been carrying us," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "I know my performance really hasn't been acceptable so far, so you better believe I'm glad Sheff is picking us up."

Sheffield is busy off the field too, giving his time and money to many Southland charities and community projects.

"Not only is he a first-class player, he's a first-class gentleman," General Manager Kevin Malone said. "This guy has done so much for this organization, and for the city of Los Angeles, in the two years he's been here, and people just don't know.

"Gary is not the type of guy who goes around talking about the things he does, but he has been great in the community. The time he gives, how much he cares about the fans, his positive attitude in the clubhouse. You couldn't ask for any more from anyone."

That's not a portrait of a malcontent, but history indicates that the always-outspoken player has had problems in other place.

Sheffield, 31, was first labeled while a teenager in the Milwaukee Brewers' farm system. Milwaukee's first-round pick in the '86 amateur draft, Sheffield reached the major leagues at 19, quickly encountered problems with management and was traded to the San Diego Padres in '92.

He had a career year that season, leading the league with a .330 batting average, challenging for the triple crown and being selected National League comeback player of the year. Ownership dismantled the team, though, sending Sheffield to the Florida Marlins during the '93 season.

He set career highs there with 42 homers and 120 RBIs in '96, and the Marlins won the World Series in '97. Then Sheffield became part of another fire sale, joining the Dodgers in the seven-player Mike Piazza trade in May '98.

"There are a lot of things that happen in this game that you don't understand unless you go through it for yourself," said Sheffield, who last season became only the second player in franchise history to bat at least .300 with 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 runs and 100 walks.

"When I was young coming up, I didn't have anyone around me [in Milwaukee] to tell me all the right things to do and say. People would say, 'What about your uncle [pitcher Dwight Gooden]?' But my uncle wasn't around when I was in Milwaukee. He was [with the New York Mets].

"If I had had somebody like that then, maybe some things would be different. But I don't worry about that, I just go out every day and try to get the best out of myself."

Sheffield's wife, DeLeon, has helped him accept that his image does not matter--who he is does.

"I take the focus off of [his image] by just reinforcing the good things in his life," said DeLeon, a gospel singer. "Each day before we leave the house, we pray for God to continue blessing us, and we thank God for our family and the things that are important.

"He has a sense of home now, and the peace he has now has helped him take the focus off of those things that were said or written. He knows he can't worry about that, and [his life] isn't about that."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sheffield Surge

Dodger left fielder Gary Sheffield ranks in the top 10 in four National League categories:

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Category No. Rank Home runs 10 T-4 RBIs 24 T-8 Slugging Percentage .716 6 Total bases 68 T-5

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