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Gary Sheffield Continues to Defend His Reputation as a Major Offensive Force in Baseball

However you perceive Gary Sheffield — icon or problem child, steroid user or public-opinion victim — one image almost certainly springs to mind. It’s that waggling bat, the pulsating motion that for 22 seasons radiated so much swagger.

Through eight teams, nine All-Star nods, steroid allegations and a list of other microcontroversies too long to count, Sheffield’s signature stance served as an active reminder of just who his opponents — and everyone else — were dealing with. Talk with Sheffield now, in the days before Hall of Fame voting is revealed in his final year on the ballot, and there are moments when one can practically feel that bat waving through the phone.

“Trying to change your reputation, then you’re splitting hairs,” Sheffield says, responding to a question about why controversy seems to follow him. “So why bother? My thing became, why bother? I am who I say am, and I’m gonna say who I am.”

On the surface, he remains unapologetically himself in a way only Gary Sheffield can. Dig a little deeper, and dichotomies emerge. Fifteen years after his playing career ended, Sheffield’s takes on the Hall, and his exclusion from it thus far, whirl between defiant disregard and a yearning for acceptance.

“You don’t want me in the Hall of Fame, I’m not offended,” Sheffield says in one breath.

In another: “Of course it (bothers me),” he says. “No question about it. I put in the work. I’m a Hall of Famer. I was a Hall of Famer since the day I was born. OK?”

This is the crux Sheffield faces. He may say he does not care. But how could he not? The Hall of Fame is his life’s work boiled down to one yes-or-no verdict. If Sheffield seems bound by conflicting emotions on that subject, well, that’s familiar territory for a man who has always been defined by his contradictions. This is Gary Sheffield’s 10th and final year on the Hall of Fame ballot. (Mark Cunningham / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“Gary is actually a very shy, sensitive person,” Doc Gooden said of his nephew way back in 1996. “He might come across as a tough guy who doesn’t let anything bother him. But I know he cares what people think about him.”

Oh yeah, Sheffield cares what people think. He still catalogs every slight, real or perceived. Last year he received 55 percent of the vote from baseball writers. His total has inched upward but is still far from the 75 percent threshold needed for induction.

By the numbers, Sheffield appears to have a worthy Hall of Fame resume. There’s the 509 home runs, the 60.5 WAR, the JAWS score (a metric that measures Hall of Fame worthiness) that ranks above 13 right fielders already in Cooperstown as players. The detractions, though, have always loomed larger for the electorate — mostly, the ties to performance-enhancing drugs. Zoom out, though, and Sheffield’s case is confounding. All these years later, one of a generation’s greatest offensive forces remains on the defensive.

You probably know the voice (loud), the personality (bold) and the play style (intimidating). But understanding Sheffield beyond the bat wag requires probing into a few of the stories not everyone knows. He chuckles through his nostrils as he tells one of these: When Sheffield was a child, he once asked his mother why he did not have siblings.

“She said I was difficult enough,” Sheffield says, “so she didn’t need no more.”

In the Belmont Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Gooden — the pitcher who would go on to stardom and then lose it all in the grip of drugs — famously served as a de facto older brother. He and Sheffield even shared a room for a while. But the truth is Sheffield’s earliest years did not involve the company of other children. Later, growing up on the edge of a tough area, his parents kept the rules tight. No staying the night at friend’s houses. No being out after dark.

“I was lonely at times,” Sheffield says.

Perhaps that is why now, 15 years into retirement, Sheffield still spends so much time alone. He cherishes his wife and children. He’s even a grandfather. But aside from family, his preferred state is solitude. Picture Sheffield, the man best known for his outspoken nature and authoritative play, burrowed in a man cave detached from his Tampa home. He watches football and basketball. Smokes his cigars.

“Being an only child,” he said, “you treasure being by yourself.”

For over two decades, he was a menace in the batter’s box. But in many ways, Sheffield is still a loner searching for a place. And with his Hall of Fame candidacy in the hands of baseball writers for a final time, Sheffield has been making the media rounds lately. The interviews are as interesting as ever. They also lead Sheffield to a familiar paradox.

“I don’t go around just talking,” Sheffield says. “That’s the craziest thing I ever hear. ‘There go Gary again.’ Well, there go a writer calling and asking me a question. You see what I’m saying?”

Listen to him speak, and the dualities pop up everywhere. Much of his rhetoric toes a line between profound and opaque.

“You can ask me anything,” Sheffield says. “If you saw me pissing around the corner and you told the police, I would say, ‘Yeah, I was pissing around the corner.’ That’s who I am.“So when you say, ‘Oh, well, he’s pissing around the corner, I’m gonna put it in the media and blast it everywhere,’ you think you’re embarrassing me because you said I was pissing around the corner?’ You’re not embarrassing me.“I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I was pissing around the corner.’ You can’t embarrass me. And that’s the deal.”

Over the years, there was drama with managers. And executives. And Barry Bonds. Sheffield will gladly rehash any of it: the unfounded tale of him purposely making errors in Milwaukee, the reason he waived a no-trade clause and went from the Marlins to the Dodgers, the media kerfluffles in New York regarding playing alongside Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. “One thing about my memory,” he says, “I got photographic memory, when it comes to me.” When in New York, Gary Sheffield was part of a series of star-studded lineups. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

It has all led to a label that too often gets attached to athletes who say exactly what is on their mind: misunderstood.

In 1991, Sheffield hired Marvet Britto as his publicist. Britto’s job was essentially to help promote the positive aspects of Sheffield’s brand. But as Britto explains it, that meant becoming “the most critical person in his life.” “I felt that many of the writers tried to make Gary Sheffield fit into a template rather than accept who Gary Sheffield was born to be,” Britto said. “It takes a certain amount of emancipating your voice to truly deliver the authenticity of who you were born to be. Very few people have the courage to do that.”

Britto, then, says she never wanted to silence Sheffield. Her agency worked instead to amplify his voice into one of authority. Today, Britto says, she and Sheffield remain like family. Big Sis, Sheffield called her in the acknowledgments of his book.

“When you don’t put in the work to try to understand someone, then you misunderstand them,” Britto said. “No one came from where Gary Sheffield came from who wrote about the sport. That was also part of the problem. So, therefore, the storytelling was always not reflective or written with the cultural fluency that was necessary to interpret who this player was, and why this player may have been communicating in a way in which (he was) communicating. That takes a certain level of cultural fluency, and it takes a certain level of work.”

Listen closely as Sheffield unpacks his career and the Hall of Fame conundrum, and there are breadcrumbs there, left by someone who is not shy about voicing his desire to finally be understood.

“I’m helping educate you on me,” he says. “So you understand me. If you got a question about something that you come up with later, you can say, ‘I can put two and two together,’ because I can explain him.”

He talks proudly about how he thrives under duress. “When everybody is praising me and saying, ‘Good job,’ and all that, that’s when I screw up,” he says. Attempting to put that aforementioned two and two together, perhaps this meant he conditioned himself…

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