Gary Sheffield, one of baseball’s great offensive forces, is still defending himself

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 for chaos. If being alone is his preferred state, swirling in turmoil might be a close, subconscious second. “Sheffield is not hard to approach,” the Tampa Bay Times wrote in 1998. “He’s just hard to figure out.”

Sheffield frames it differently.

“My uncle allowed the New York Mets to tell him what to say, what to think and how to go about it,” Sheffield said. “I refused to do that, because I think that’s what drove him to drugs. Because he wasn’t being his authentic self.

“When you hold things in, it eats at you. You have to look yourself in the mirror, and you have to live with yourself.”

Sheffield has talked a lot lately about the time he used “the cream.” He was training with Barry Bonds, a venture that lasted only a few weeks before their personalities clashed. Sheffield was coming off knee surgery. He had cysts, and surgeons went in through the back of the knee to remove them. He returned to the gym quickly, at Bonds’ urging. One day the stitches busted. Sheffield started bleeding. All over the gym, he says. Someone from the gym, he says, handed him some cream to help stop the bleeding.

“It was really an ointment,” he says. “It was like a thick-based ointment to stop the bleeding.”

In a recent interview with USA Today, Sheffield said he used the cream only once. But Sheffield has urged Hall of Fame voters to “do their homework,” so there is a bit more to discuss here. Sheffield purchased vitamins from BALCO, he says, but never anything he knew was steroids. After the falling out, Sheffield says his wife wrote BALCO a check for $146 to cover the vitamins. The book “Game of Shadows” — considered a seminal text on the inner workings of the steroid era — says the check was for $430. The lone chapter centered on Sheffield concludes with this line: “The cost to his reputation would be much greater.”

Next thing Sheffield knew, he was testifying before a grand jury. He was granted immunity, there not as a suspect but rather to discuss Bonds. In a 2004 Sports Illustrated article, Sheffield detailed using “the cream” on his leg every night, a way of healing the scars. The scar cream, he says now, was “something totally different” from what he was given in the gym. 

“It was like you could go to a store and find something like that,” he said then. “I put it on my legs and thought nothing of it. I kept it in my locker. The trainer saw my cream.”

Gary Sheffield’s connection with Barry Bonds landed him in the Mitchell Report, with repercussions to this day. (Eliot Schechter / Getty Images)

Sheffield, it should be noted, was among the first MLB players to speak out against steroids. It was 2000 when he went on HBO’s “Real Sports” and alleged “six or seven” members of every team were juicing. He still swears he never knowingly used any performance-enhancing substance. His willingness to explain his involvement alone differentiates him from many suspected users.

“Game of Shadows” also cites a January 2002 drug calendar from trainer Greg Anderson that reflected Sheffield’s use of human growth hormone and testosterone. Sheffield says it’s not true. “That’s all fabricated,” he says. He’s still angered about the fact he was included in the Mitchell Report, a 409-page investigation released in 2007. His mentions in the report link him to Anderson and cite passages from Sheffield’s book, “Inside Power,” in which he denied steroid use. The section of the report related to Sheffield otherwise did not include any explosive revelations. Sheffield still bristles over the fact no one interviewed him for that report. Page 169 of the Mitchell Report, however, states Sheffield initially declined an interview request, then was later unable to schedule an interview because of his attorney’s health issues. 

Take all that for what it’s worth — that is the extent of what we know about Sheffield and steroids. And even as we get further removed from the stain of the Steroid Era, even as other names linked to PEDs, such as David Ortiz, have been enshrined in Cooperstown, these allegations have helped keep Sheffield out of the Hall of Fame.

“Nothing has ever been proven,” Britto said. “How do you continue to just make assumptions about someone and let that become a part of their narrative? That’s why he had to defend himself.”

Sheffield’s case otherwise is compelling. He was a nine-time All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger. He won a batting title and, in an era where so many were juicing, finished in the top six of MVP voting in four different seasons.

His WAR and subsequent HOF metrics would be even higher if not for his greatest flaw as a player: poor outfield defense. Even now, Sheffield still laments his early-career moves from shortstop to third base, from third base to outfield. Sheffield’s career WAR of 60.5 is still higher than players such as Harmon Killebrew, Vladimir Guerrero, Willie Stargell and Ortiz.

Sheffield nonetheless received only 11.7 percent of the vote his first year on the ballot.

His potent personality has long been a lightning rod, but it is also part of the Sheffield allure. Britto said she recently attended a golf tournament with Sheffield, where children far too young to have ever watched him play would approach and mimic his waving bat.

“To me,” Britto said, “that is the connective tissue that baseball should want.”

Now he is finally gaining more support. As of Jan. 18, he has appeared on 74 percent of writer’s ballots so far made public. That score tends to drop once all ballots are revealed, however, and most ballot observers seem to think he faces long odds to clear the 75 percent threshold in his final year. 

Former manager Jim Leyland, who will be inducted in Cooperstown next summer, is among Sheffield’s supporters.

“This is a pretty simple one,” Leyland said of what makes Sheffield a Hall of Fame player. “I think there was quite a long period of time that Gary Sheffield was the most feared right-handed hitter in baseball.”

“It’s funny,” Sheffield says. “I’ve been retired 13, 14 years. I just started reflecting on my career.”

He is finally reminiscing, he says, because things are finally slowing down. Sheffield knows he’s talking about “rich people problems” here. But until two years ago, he had never had one residence in his adult life. Early in his career, he submerged himself in the star lifestyle — the cars and the clothes, the money and the women. He would travel around the country, smacking baseballs everywhere he went. Then he’d go skiing in Aspen. Then he’d go to his residence in the Bahamas. Then home to Tampa. Every season and offseason followed a regimented plan.

“It’s more sane,” he said of his life now. “It’s simpler.”

Once, back in 1996, his mother told Sports Illustrated women were his biggest weakness. He married Deleon Richards, a gospel singer, in 1999. He talks often about how that relationship changed his life. They’ve been together 26 years. He’s proud of it. 

“When you got a spouse, you make it work and you find the good qualities in that person,” Sheffield says. “And when it’s not so good, you can still love that person. I think it’s a beautiful thing. It helps you understand how to love other people even more.”

When they were setting up their permanent home, Sheffield did not want any of his baseball memorabilia on display. Deleon encouraged him to put it all in the man cave. He has a tug-and-pull relationship with baseball like that. “I don’t miss playing at all,” he says. “Zero.” In 2021, he talked about how he struggles to watch the modern game. But one of his sons, Gary Jr., works in sports media. Another, Jaden, plays baseball at Georgetown. Garrett Sheffield spent last year playing in an independent league. Noah, a class of 2024 prospect, is committed to Florida State. Christian, a class of 2026 player, is on a similar track.

“At points in my life I hated the fact my kids wanted to entertain playing major-league baseball because of what I went through,” Sheffield says. “I didn’t want them dealing with that.”

At last, though, he is really thinking back on the good and the bad of it all. He has studied those players who have gotten into the Hall of Fame. He will not name names, but he sees others who — though they were excellent players — don’t have quite his accomplishments. He knows what people say. Consumes it all.

“There’s guys that failed tests,” Sheffield said. “There’s guys that have been accused. There’s guys that have been a lot of things. All the things they said about me, they’re already in there.

“And then they’ll talk about numbers. 500 home-run markers, 3,000-hit markers. There’s guys in there without them. So that means my numbers are better than all of it. So what do I think of it? … If I say what I think of it, it becomes, ‘Oh, he said this.’ Well, why did I say this? Because my numbers are better.”

This has become personal, too, Sheffield says, because of the way his wife and children perceive the Hall of Fame conundrum. “They want this so bad for me,” Sheffield says. “That don’t mean I don’t want it. That means they want it from a different perspective.”

From his own perspective, he earned this, and that leaves him both speaking of his desire to be enshrined in Cooperstown, and at other times dismissing the impending ballot reveal. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I come to realize it’s a popularity contest, and who (the writers) want to be in gets in.”

Those around him have watched that push-and-pull playing out, seen the conflict in him.

“The duality of that answer is he’s human, and he has a heartbeat,” Britto said. “Him not being in the Hall of Fame … his numbers warrant it, his pedigree warrants it, everything about Gary Sheffield from a data and metric and visibility and skill perspective warrants it. However, him not being in it, to him, feels deliberate.”

If Sheffield is not inducted this time, he could lean into his reputation and proudly bask in his own exclusion. That would be a fitting ending.

It just would not be the whole truth.

“I only want what’s rightfully mine, and that’s it,” Sheffield said. “And that’s the Hall of Fame.”

(Top photo of Sheffield in 2022: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)