In major league baseball, there are morons, and then there are dangerous morons.
The morons adhere to the definition listed in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary: A feeble-minded person or mental defective who has a potential mental age of between 8 and 12 years and is capable of doing routine work under supervision. They think about baseball-baseball-baseball-baseball-baseball-Maxim-baseball-baseball-baseball, with occasional pit stops for food and bathroom breaks. The morons are harmless folks who "just love the game," "wanna be a part of the team" and pause mindlessly (often without blinking) when asked to name their favorite book. The moron's not a smart man, but he knows what love (of "American Pie 2") is.
How much longer until Sheffield wears out his welcome in Detroit?
Like the morons, the dangerous morons are as bright as February at the North Pole. They don't read, don't watch the news -- they certainly don't concern themselves with Iraq, No Child Left Behind, universal health care or Mitt Romney. They are, to be kind, dim.
What makes dangerous morons dangerous, however, is not stupidity -- but, rather, an uncanny inability to recognize one's own shortcomings. Unlike the moron, the dangerous moron believes he is wickedly intelligent, with volumes of fascinating musings just waiting to be dispensed. The dangerous moron looks out at the microphones and TV cameras pointed his way and thinks, "Gee, I'm something special. Allow me to enthrall the nation." Then he starts talking.
Although baseball boasts its fair share of enlightened players who actually (gasp!) read and pay attention to world events (Mike Piazza, Sean Casey, Derrek Lee, Mike Mussina, Matt Morris, Carlos Delgado, etc.), they are always overshadowed by the dangerous morons, who equate volume with veracity. They are men like John Rocker, David Wells, Barry Bonds, and Curt Schilling.
They are men like Gary Sheffield.
During my time covering the majors for Sports Illustrated, I came to know -- and like -- Sheffield. He's a nice guy who plays hard and, I truly believe, wants badly to win. But for his myriad strengths as a ballplayer, Sheffield is the ultimate dangerous moron of our times.
Gary Sheffield tried to make a point about how the perception of African-American athletes may affect their roster status. But the issue has more to do with wallets than control.
Throughout his seven-team, 20-year career, Sheffield has had an unprecedented run of compiling big numbers, expressing his delight over being in City X -- then whining about finances, feeling unappreciated, pissing off teammates, pissing off coaches, pissing off owners and pissing off fans.
It all started in Milwaukee back in the early 1990s, when Sheffield admitted to intentionally botching plays to express his unhappiness. (As Sheffield said in the Los Angeles Times in 1992: "The Brewers brought out the hate in me. I was a crazy man I hated everything about the place. If the official scorer gave me an error, I didn't think was an error, I'd say, 'OK, here's a real error,' and I'd throw the next ball into the stands on purpose.") In the ensuing years, he jealously took shots at several higher-paid teammates, including Shawn Green with the Dodgers and Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez with the Yankees. In 2005 he was asked whether he'd play in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, and coldly replied, "My season is when I get paid."
Yet the greatest example of Sheffield's dangerous moroninity (a moronic word I just moronically invented) comes in this month's GQ magazine, in which the Tigers slugger offers his theory as to why the percentage of African-Americans in the majors is at an all-time low.
Says Sheffield: "I called it years ago. What I called is that you're going to see more black faces, but there ain't no English going to be coming out. [It's about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do -- being able to control them. Where I'm from, you can't control us. You might get a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end, he is going to go back to being who he is. And that's a person that you're going to talk to with respect, you're going to talk to like a man. These are the things my race demands. So, if you're equally good as this Latin player, guess who's going to get sent home? I know a lot of players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys."
Here is the point where Clichéd Columnist Rule No. 28-6 demands that I slam Sheffield; that I call for an apology, question his worthiness as a human being, and challenge Bud Selig to come up with some sort of a suspension. "If there is a line for all, Sheffield, an African-American, just crossed it," penned Gannett's Mike Lopresti in a well-written but predictable rebuttal. "An entire race of athletes was reduced to a stereotype. The enormous growth of Latin players in the majors was given an asterisk."
This is how it's worked in the sports media for eons: We bitch and moan that players are little more than mantra-spewing robots. We long for a guy who'll speak his mind. We find a guy who speaks his mind. We rush toward him. He speaks his mind. He's a dangerous moron who says inane things like, "Where I'm from, you can't control us" and "If you're equally good as this Latin player, guess who's going to get sent home?" We excitedly work our butts off to try to coerce him to say even more inane things (Oldest trick of the trade: Start with softball questions, transition slyly into the hard stuff). He does. Then we hang him.
Well, I'm no longer playing that game. I refuse to bash Sheffield for his words because, quite frankly, the man is a dolt. He has as much business holding court on non-see-ball-hit-ball topics as I do analyzing the collective works of Shannon Hoon. I don't care what Sheffield thinks about the Latin-American versus African-American ratio of players because:
A. Within two days he'll express a completely different opinion.
B. Within four days he'll switch back to his original opinion.
C. Within a week he'll be demanding a trade or contract extension.
Ooops -- hold that thought. I've gotta run. The Terrell Owens news conference is about to start
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero", now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.