I don’t think “Forgotten Yankee” is an accurate description of Gary Sheffield, an ex-Yankee who should be in the Hall of Fame. Forgotten isn’t the right term. For Gary Sheffield, “Overlooked Yankee” is a better term. Gary Sheffield isn’t a player that can ever be forgotten, but within Yankees lore, he can easily be overlooked.
Free agency following the 2003 season was loaded with big names. George Steinbrenner had his eyes set on fellow Tampa native Gary Sheffield. Sheffield to the Yankees was a blockbuster free agent signing.
Gary Sheffield may be the most intimidating hitter in baseball history. Shef was ferocious in the batters’ box. Gary Sheffield stood impatiently in the box, waving his bat in order to slow down his swing. Sheffield’s bat speed was so quick that he actually needed a timing mechanism to slow it down. Kids are taught from the earliest level to be still in the box. Gary Sheffield had such amazing bat speed that he had to keep moving so he wouldn’t swing too fast.
That swagger kept pitchers uneasy. And why shouldn’t the pitcher feel uneasy? Gary Sheffield learned to hit with Doc Gooden pitching to him. Doc, only 4 years older than Gary, would throw fastballs at him while playing the game as a child.
I hope you didn’t misread that. Doc Gooden wasn’t just throwing fastballs to Gary Sheffield, he was also throwing fastballs at Gary Sheffield. No pitcher in MLB would ever be able to intimidate Gary Sheffield, so Sheff flipped the tables. He intimidated the pitcher instead.
Gary Sheffield was a generational righthanded hitter. I was ecstatic for him to be a Yankee.
I loved watching Gary Sheffield compete. He was my favorite player during that three-year span he was on the Yankees. He was the new Paul O’Neill, an absolute warrior who was never, ever going to give away an at bat.
A Gary Sheffield moment that always sticks out in my mind took place somewhat early on in 2004. Joe Torre had Jason Giambi batting third and Gary Sheffield hitting clean up. It was a move meant to protect Giambi, ensuring that he would see better pitches. Then, something odd happened. Pitchers started pitching around Jason Giambi, walking Giambi to pitch to Sheffield. It was a bit puzzling.
When asked about it, Sheffield responded along the lines of “I think it’s stupid. You can strike out Giambi, you can’t strike me out.”
Now that probably isn’t the exact quote but you get the idea. I loved it. I loved hearing it. This was the most ferocious hitter in baseball, who was now offended by this level of disrespect. Sheffield made pitchers pay for it too, finishing second in the AL MVP voting to Vladimir Guerrero. In my opinion, he should have won the award.
There were so many good Gary Sheffield moments. He had back-to-back 30+ home run seasons. Back-to-back 120+ RBI seasons. Back-to-back seasons hitting .290. Back-to-back seasons where he walked more than he struck out. It’s a shame exit velocity wasn’t a thing in 2004 – 2005, because I would love to know the MPH of some of those Gary Sheffield rockets.
On our recent Rivalry episode, even Luke had to acknowledge how much he respected Gary Sheffield, reminiscing about the night a fan at Fenway Park tried to take a swing at him. Sheffield fielded the ball, threw it to the infield, and took a return swipe at the fan on the follow through.
There was a moment during the 2004 season where the Yankees – Red Sox rivalry was at its height. Pedro Martinez would regularly throw at Yankee hitters. One time, he even threw at Gary Sheffield. One time. Just that once.
Why just that once? Because Gary Sheffield told him to “never **bleeping** do that again”. We all saw it, it was on live television. We all clearly read his lips. Smartly, Pedro Martinez heeded the warning. Gary Sheffield would have given Pedro a whuppin’ in front of everyone.
I loved Gary Sheffield’s intensity, which I think was often misconstrued. Gary Sheffield is clearly an intense, no-nonsense guy. He’s MLB’s equivalent of the Macho Man Randy Savage.
Gary Sheffield was too focused on being the best to care about how he was perceived. I loved that, but sportswriters often don’t. Sheffield was at his best when he played angry. He spent his career in the zone. It’s what made him great. When I hear Yankees fans say they don’t like Sheffield, they usually mean that they don’t like how intense he was. His play always stood for itself.
Gary Sheffield is probably the most overlooked New York Yankee of all time. His 2004 – 2005 stretch with the Yankees provided some awesome moments. And his injury-plagued 2006 wasn’t bad for what it was.
Even now, writing this column, I got completely lost in Gary Sheffield videos, specifically his Yankee highlights. I can watch him hit frozen ropes all day.