By Murray Chass

April 8, 2009

I have come not to bury Gary Sheffield as so many others have since the Mets signed him unexpectedly last week on the eve of the opening of the season. Have I come to praise him? Not necessarily, but I would like to offer a fairer picture of the veteran slugger than usually is presented.

I don’t know what, if anything, Sheffield has left in his bat. I don’t know if Sheffield can play the outfield well enough to get himself into the lineup, or if Jerry Manuel simply has to resign himself to using Sheffield as a pinch-hitter.

I don’t know if Omar Minaya, the Mets’ general manager, made a smart move in signing Sheffield or a dumb move for signing Sheffield. I don’t know if he will contribute anything to the Mets’ pennant aspirations. I don’t know if his presence will interfere with the development and potential production of the Mets’ younger outfielders.

I’m not smart enough or prescient enough to know what Sheffield can or will do for the Mets this season. I certainly don’t know if he will last the season with the Mets.

However, I will predict one aspect of Sheffield’s time with the Mets. Contrary to the reputation that unfairly accompanies him with each move he has made in his 21-year career, Sheffield will be a good teammate and he will be a model citizen in the clubhouse.

How do I know this? I cite the testimony of John Schuerholz, who was the general manager who acquired Sheffield from the Los Angeles Dodgers for the Atlanta Braves in 2002. Sheffield played two productive seasons for the Braves.

Schuerholz was not a rookie. He had already built a team that won 10 consecutive division championships, and he hadn’t done it by haphazard, slipshod methods. He did not take risks with questionable players.

When he decided to pursue a trade for Sheffield, Schuerholz was not naïve and did not operate in a vacuum. “I heard the same things you heard,” he said. “We read what was written and heard what was spoken.”

With permission from the Dodgers, Schuerholz arranged to have a conference call with him and Stan Kasten, the Braves’ president, on one end and Sheffield and his agent on the other.

“I wanted to have a direct conversation about his demeanor and behavior and being part of the team and understanding our rules,” Schuerholz said in a telephone interview.

“We have these expectations. People know what they are and we clearly discussed them as a precondition to finalizing this deal.

“We had a very forthright conversation. He gave us his word, said he understood and would live up to those expectations. And he did. Everything he did while wearing our uniform was right in line with how we ask our players to act professionally. He was a good teammate, a good representative of our team, a professional in every sense of the word. That’s the way he was from day one to the day he left. We had no problems at all having him in uniform and being part of our organization.”

That is not to say that Sheffield will be perfectly behaved. Based on his colorful history he is eminently capable of making some fairly outrageous public comment and creating issues, criticizing someone or something that offends his sensibilities.

In one of his more stunning outbursts, he accused Joe Torre, his manager with the Yankees, of being a racist after he left the team after the 2006 season. He cited the way Torre treated black players compared with his approach toward white players. But the accusation came as a surprise to Bob Gibson, who played and coached with Torre and is one of Torre’s best friends in baseball.

Sheffield has also made issues of his contract status. His reasons have not always been justified.

Sheffield critics won’t let go his admission that when he played for the Milwaukee Brewers at the start of his career, he deliberately made wild throws in the hope that they would prompt the Brewers to trade him. They were the acts of a young, immature player, and his subsequent style of play should have absolved him of life-long ridicule for those acts.

Sheffield grew up to become one of the most determined players in the game, demonstrating an unusual willingness to play hurt.

In his first two years with the Yankees, 2004 and 2005, he missed only eight games each year despite having a bad shoulder for more than half of the first season and an ailing knee and an injured leg the second season.

“It’s more mental than anything, being accountable and things like that,” Sheffield explained. “You don’t have to go out there and play hurt, but I choose to because I want to be on the field. ”

Other players are tough, Sheffield added, but “I just don’t use anything as an excuse. I don’t look for excuses.”

Some critics, though, continue to find Sheffield an easy target and are relentless in their criticism of him. Many of those critics came out of the woodwork when the Mets announced that they had signed him.

They could argue that the Detroit Tigers must know something because they released Sheffield owing him $14 million. That’s a lot of money to throw away if there’s a chance a player can still produce. But teams do different things for different reasons.

A hitter who once hit baseballs with greater ferocity than his contemporaries, Sheffield and the Mets will find out together if their reason for signing him was a good one. In the meantime, they can count on his clubhouse presence as a positive, not the negative others without direct knowledge or observation have created.


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