Next week two former Detroit Tigers who wore uniform #3 will be on the ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Neither will be elected, but only one of them deserves to be. And it isn’t the home run hitter.
Former Tigers’ shortstop Alan Trammell is on the ballot for the 14th time and he won’t be elected, sadly. Joining him for his first time on the BBWAA ballot is Gary Sheffield, a slugger with impressive numerical credentials who spent two years in Motown as a designated hitter. Sheffield won’t be elected on Tuesday either, but he doesn’t deserve it anyway.
When Sheffield arrived in Detroit via trade just weeks after the Tigers had lost the 2006 World Series he was considered to be the “oomph” that would push the team to the top. But though he had two solid years in a Detroit uniform (wearing #3 with Trammell’s blessing), Sheffield never helped the Tigs to the postseason. He was more like a bat-for-hire, a role he played all too often in a controversial career with more downs than ups.
Sheffield boasts a .292 career batting average, nearly 2,700 hits, and more than 1,600 runs scored and runs batted in. He hit 509 homers in a 22-year career that stretched from 1988 to 2009. He was a nine-time All-Star, won five Silver Slugger Awards, and finished in the top three in Most Valuable Player award voting twice, once in each league. Sheffield was a member of the 1997 Florida Marlins, a team that won the World Series, though he had a down year that season. He has eye-popping numbers: eight seasons of 30 or more homers, eight 100-RBI seasons, and two seasons where he hit at least 20 homers and stole at least 20 bases (the last with Detroit in 2007 when he was 38 years old). He won the National League batting title in 1992.
But despite those great numbers, Sheffield has virtually no chance of being elected to the Hall of Fame and there are several reasons why.
First, Sheffield was a problem almost everywhere he played. As a young player in Milwaukee Sheffield was a blue chip prospect with remarkable talent. He was fast and strong with quick reflexes. He had a lightning-quick batting stroke and he was considered “a natural” talent. But when the young Sheffield lost the starting shortstop job in a competition with Bill Spiers. Sheffield went to the press and ripped the decision as being racially motivated. It was the first of many incidents during Sheffield’s career where he claimed he was treated unfairly due to his race. And while race is and has been a serious issue in our culture and in sports, in Sheffield’s case he was crying wolf. Later in his career when he was a member of the Yankees he insisted that manager Joe Torre treated black players differently than white players. When he was reminded that Derek Jeter was bi-racial, Sheffield said that Jeter wasn’t “all the way black.”
As a result of his often abrasive and selfish attitude, Sheffield rarely spent much time in the same place. He played for eight teams in his 22-year career. The year after he won the batting title with the Padres, San Diego traded him just a few weeks into the ’93 season because he had rubbed teammates the wrong way by being a prima donna. He was shipped to the expansion Marlins where he enjoyed the most stable portion of his career, winning a World Series ring in 1997. The following season he was traded to the Dodgers where he enjoyed some of his best offensive seasons. But the Dodgers tired of him and dealt him to the Braves prior to the 2002 season. He spent two years in Atlanta before signing a rich free agent contract with the Yankees. He produced for New York but had several issues while there. He fought with a fan at Fenway Park and also caused a stir when he stated that Latin players were prevalent in baseball because they were “easier to control” than black players. Sheffield also refused to participate in the World Baseball Classic because he wouldn’t get paid.
It was while he was a member of the Tigers in 2007 that it was revealed that Sheffield was one of the players named in the Mitchell Report, MLB’s investigation into steroid use. Sheffield was on the list of players who had acquired performance-enhancing drugs, which he did not deny. The revelation was damning because Sheffield had previously claimed that the only time he ever came in contact with steroids was when a friend of Barry Bonds had spread some “cream” on his knee during a workout. Sheffield had previously been adamant in his denials that he ever used steroids.
It’s the steroid use that will keep Sheffield from ever being elected to the Hall of Fame. A look at his career shows a fairly common arc of performance up until his 30s. Then, for his age 30-36 seasons he posted remarkable power numbers, setting career highs in homers, extra-base hits, total bases, and slugging percentage. Like Bonds, Sheffield’s power surge in his 30s and into his late 30s is suspicious to say the least. His inclusion in the Mitchell Report should make it clear to anyone that he was cheating for several years. For that reason Sheffield should not be elected to the Hall of Fame, and he won’t be. Bonds, who was a far superior player to Sheffield whether they were juiced or not, has even gaudier numbers and the most support he’s received from the baseball writers is 36.2%. Mark McGwire hasn’t sniffed election either and Rafael Palmeiro (who had more than 3,000 hits) fell off the ballot completely because of his association with performance enhancing drugs.
Sheffield wasn’t well liked by the media or by many of his teammates. He was tolerated because he produced on the field, but he was often a cancer in the clubhouse and he never stayed in one spot long enough to gain a fan following (“Sheffs’ Hats” aside).
He may have looked like “The Natural” when he debuted as a 19-year old with the Brewers, but in the end too much of what Sheffield accomplished came about in “unnatural” ways.