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Opening Day | BILL PLASCHKE

Out of the Boo

Conflicted Dodger fans reworded their message when Sheffield turned cascade of boos into a shower of adulation with one home run.

April 03, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

"I don't want to hit one more home run for the Dodgers. If I have to keep putting that uniform on, I'll be the last one to put it on."--Gary Sheffield, Feb. 22.

"Ga-ry, Ga-ry, Ga-ry"--Dodger fans, April 2.

*

The falling price of major league selfishness and greed reached an all-time low Monday, resoundingly fixed by a local panel of 53,154.

One home run.

You want to insult the Dodgers, embarrass the uniform, beg for your release, threaten to stop trying?

One home run.

You want to disrupt spring training, distract your teammates, clutter the clubhouse?

One home run.

Hit it, and you will be cheered again.

Make it count for the first run on opening day, and you will go from creep to curtain call.

This must be what Dodger officials knew when they decided this spring, against all reason, to keep Gary Sheffield in the jersey he so desperately tried to shed.

They knew forgiveness would be only 439 feet away.

Over the center-field fence.

The only run in an opening-day victory against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Thousands of boos turning to cheers lasting longer than it took Sheffield to call his bosses liars.

"It's all about winning," Sheffield said.

Ain't it the truth.

It was a glorious afternoon at the Ravine, crisp and old-fashioned, colorful bunting and blackened dogs, Maury Wills and Steve Garvey, all fastballs and forkballs, a victory that felt like 20 years ago.

Where Jerry Reuss once gave up an opening-day start because of an injury, now it was Kevin Brown.

Where Fernando Valenzuela once took over to throw a shutout that began Fernandomania, now it was Chan Ho Park and two others combining to throw a shutout that begins, I don't know, Borasmania?

A wonderful day of promise, with only one missed opportunity.

The part where Dodger fans show they are not like other fans.

As one who does not purchase a ticket, I am loath to criticize someone who does.

The Dodger fans were certainly not wrong to cheer Sheffield when he hit his sixth-inning homer.

But think of the message that would have been sent if they hadn't.

It is a message that was clear until then.

Sheffield was booed even before he left the dugout for pregame introductions, then booed during his entire hand-slapping trip down the third base line.

He was booed when he ran to left field for the start of the first inning, then booed when he caught Geoff Jenkins' foul ball against the pole.

"To hear my teammate treated like that, I was sick to my stomach, actually," reliever Mike Fetters said.

Sheffield was booed when he came to bat in the bottom of the first inning, and booed when he walked.

He was booed when fans didn't think he hustled for Jeffrey Hammonds' single off the left-field wall in the second inning, and the statement had been made.

The sports world was going to know that Dodger fans value integrity over performance.

"He has to understand that being a Dodger is a privilege," said Alex Rivera, a booing banker in the left-field corner. "We have to make a statement. We have to make a point."

That's all that booing is about, really. A statement.

Booing does not mean that the fans wish the player to strike out.

Booing does not mean that the fans haven't heard, and accepted, Sheffield's request for forgiveness after signing a new agent several weeks into the tempest.

Booing simply tells the player that it's not all about him.

Booing is not revenge, it is a reminder.

The moment Sheffield drove Jamey Wright's 0-and-1 pitch toward Jackie Robinson's image in center field--only two hours into his first appearance in front of fans he scorned--the reminder disappeared in an embrace.

Sheffield crossed the plate and pointed to the sky. Moments later, as the fans remained standing and cheering and waving their white towels, he emerged from the dugout and doffed his cap.

It was difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

The Dodgers were not so undecided.

"That was quite a statement as far as what the fans in L.A. are all about," Manager Jim Tracy said. "It did my heart good to see those people respond like that."

Forget Lou Gehrig.

Today it is Gary Sheffield who is the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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