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Monday, April 30, 2001
Updated: May 2, 6:37 PM ET
Higher Power

By by Tom Friend

Don't you boo him. Don't you boo him until you hear what baseball does to a black man and the mother he left behind at 17. Don't you boo him until you have been in her house, which is next door to her own mother's house, which is across the street from her sister's house, which is adjacent to her niece's house, which is around the corner from Uncle Dwight's house. Don't you boo until you have heard her wail at the announcers who call her son greedy, until you know his finances, until you know that a church is getting checks from him, until you know that the three mothers of his three children want in on his 401(k).

His mother, Betty, watches Dodger games on TV, and she hears them booing the leftfielder, and she wants to jump out there "like the boxer's mother who jumped in the ring that one time." She wants to run to the field and say, Listen, people, you don't know him. What if your booing destroys him? Can you live with that? So many people leave the world at the hands of themselves. My son's not one of 'em, but who's to know? Who's to know? And yet you boo him, and you probably want his autograph.

They don't know him, do they? They don't know he never struck out his senior year of high school and that the first two times he K'd in the minors, he wanted to quit, wanted to walk straight home to Tampa. They don't know he was hazed as a major league rookie, that they made him wear a skirt and pumps on a team airplane. They don't know that the year he chased a Triple Crown, his oldest daughter was stolen from him. They don't know he used to pack a .45. They don't know that a girl he wouldn't marry distributed leaflets at Pro Player Stadium saying he had AIDS. They don't know that he hears he's on drugs because his Uncle Dwight was on drugs. They don't know he's for mandatory drug testing -- every day of the season. They don't know he waited until his wedding night to sleep with his gospel-singing wife. They don't know he just found out last year he wasn't an only child. They don't know squat, do they?

So they heckle him because they hear he wanted to tear up his contract and get $80 million more. That's not exactly the whole story, but what the hell, booing's fun, right? So Betty Gooden Jones watches them wave their diapers on TV and hears them say, "F-- you, Mr. Leftfielder." She watches them and wonders if her only child, Gary Sheffield, is Herculean enough to be the scorned man of this baseball season and hold it together. She squints to see him in leftfield, because she's fluent in Gary Sheffield body language, and she watches to see if he's biting his lip or kicking the grass, and if he is, she knows something ugly's going on out there. She'll ask him how he is, and if he says "fine," she knows he's a mess, that he's keeping the angst of being black in baseball all inside. Fine means he "don't want to talk." Fine stands for f----d up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. And she's nervous, because every time they talk lately, Gary Sheffield says, "I'm fine, Mama. I'm fine."

It hurts her to hang up then, and this is when Betty Gooden Jones, sister of Dwight and mother of the leftfielder, wails again, wails in a house in St. Pete, a house you have never been inside. Listen, people. I couldn't finish raising my son. They took my child out of my home. These people who signed him to a contract when he was 17, where were they when he had problems? He's made mistakes; we all do. Said some things. Impregnated three women. But I had to help him become a man, and had to do it by phone. And now you boo him. And it hurts him. You wouldn't know by the way he carries himself, but it hurts him. He thinks he can shut your voices out, but maybe not. I don't know what he's thinking in leftfield, how he handles you all. I know you all are nasty out there. And I don't see how he keeps cool. It's a mystery to me. A mystery.

***

He was in a Denny's, on one of those acid Florida afternoons, when the ache began in his head. A minister friend was to his left and teammate Terry Pendleton was to his right, and he waved them closer and said the words groupies never thought he would say: "Pray for me right now. I want you to save me right now."

Pendleton almost gagged. "You sure?"

"Right now."

They joined hands, chanted and bowed their heads for 10 awkward minutes, as the Denny's lunch crowd stared. And Sheffield left Denny's that March 1996 afternoon thinking, "I'm kind of embarrassed" and "Can I do this?" He thought about all his women, the one he'd been engaged to for five years "just to shut her up," and the other 12 or 50 he saw behind her back.

"The day women were created was a happy day for my son," Betty says. "Women come at him from all over the world. All shapes, colors. I'd ask him, 'How do you walk away?' "

He never did, not before he was saved or even after. He found out being saved doesn't guarantee a halo. He'd have a sip of rum and feel guilty. He'd have a sip of woman and feel guilty. He'd pray for a World Series ring and feel guilty. He got on his knees while his Florida Marlins were in the 1997 Fall Classic, and said, "Please, God, I promise my life will really change if I win this World Series." The prayer was answered, and he popped champagne, but when Dwight and his mom and stepdad said goodbye that night, he was numb. "And lonely," he says. "And empty. I'm saying, 'What does all this mean?' Everyone's jumping around, and I'm like, 'I ain't feeling nothing.' "

He wondered why "being saved" wasn't kicking in. He thought back to why he wanted to be saved in the first place, back to the fall of 1995 when that bullet grazed his left shoulder. He'd been in his Mercedes that night, and he'd had his gaudy jewelry and his $85,000 watch on, and he'd ridden into a part of Tampa where you don't ride alone. A man shot him there, and his surgeon said the thick Mercedes window saved his life, and you should've seen his hysterical mother. She hired him a full-time bodyguard, who'd sit near him in the bleachers during games. And that's the fall Gary Sheffield bought the .45. That's the winter Gary Sheffield heard the Lord for the first time.

And here he was two years later, a World Series champion, and the Lord wasn't speaking to him anymore. He had no peace. Venom, he had. Venom from a lifetime of being African-American in baseball and of being called injury-prone and of being called a loser and of being transient and of being alone. He prayed for a wife, a godly wife, not a one-night woman who wanted his annuities. A woman who understood how much family can mean to a man, someone who could help him with this "being saved" thing, this thing that was supposed to bring tranquility. This thing that was supposed to help him bite his lip when people booed. Because they've always booed. For not running hard or for running his mouth. And he needed someone who could teach him to bite that lip, bite it hard.

Dwight Gooden tried to teach him. Dwight threw at his head. Dwight was 10 and Gary was 6, and if Dwight was going to teach his nephew to be tough in baseball, then he had to peg him with tennis balls. And Gary didn't mind because his granddaddy Dan Gooden used to throw high and hard at Dwight too, and Dan Gooden knew best. Dan used to recite the history of baseball to the boys, and they would hear about the most mystical black men in baseball, about Jackie Robinson and his disciples.

The Goodens all lived on New Orleans Street in Tampa, and the family was constantly expanding. Betty -- Dwight's older sister by 13 years -- gave birth to Gary when she was 17, which meant Dwight and he were close enough in age to share a bedroom. And to prowl. Dwight would order Gary to steal candy, and then Dwight would keep the candy for himself.Gary would tattletale on Dwight, and Dwight's 6'1" mother, Ella, would whup him bare-bottomed. Ella didn't play. She even whupped Betty once, when Betty was already a mother in her 20s.

Gary's rebellion was football. Dwight broke his throwing arm playing Pop Warner, but Gary wasn't fazed, and by high school, Jimmy Johnson wanted him to be at running back at Miami. He was 17, and so much was buzzing in his head. A girl named Davene had just given birth to his daughter Ebony, and soon a girl named Linda would give him a daughter named Carissa. He may have been batting .500 for Hillsborough High, but Betty said first things first: He had to be a dad. Betty had become Ebony's legal guardian, and whenever Davene would bicycle over to see her daughter, she'd find the crib in Gary's bedroom. Betty made that baby sleep in there. She made Gary take Ebony to the park, change her diapers and tell her every morning, "Daddy's going to school now. Daddy loves you."

But soon he had to tell her, "Daddy's going to Milwaukee." He'd chosen baseball over Jimmy Johnson, and Betty worried, "Is my baby a man yet?" Gary had tried to learn from Dwight, but Dwight was already a Met by then, already telling the family to call him Doc. The only other men in Gary's life were Dan Gooden and his stepdad, Harold Jones, whom he'd known since he was 2. But had they gotten through enough? He'd never known his biological father, Marvin Sheffield, and one of the times they did hook up, Marvin asked Gary to drop him at a girlfriend's house. "I ain't doing that, man," Gary said. So, when Gary left for Milwaukee, Betty wasn't done prepping him for an obscene world.

His first day in the Brewers clubhouse, as an 18-year-old picked sixth overall in the 1986 draft, he encountered an ornery player named Jeffrey Leonard, otherwise known as Penitentiary Face. Leonard was wearing only headphones and black bikini underwear. When Sheffield shyly introduced himself, Leonard grunted, "I know who you is." Sheffield says he "wouldn't lift his head" after that. Between being hazed and being shuffled between shortstop and third, it was not a glorious time. He preferred shortstop, saying his body broke down playing third base, and he couldn't understand why he was being subjected to drug tests.

"Your name is supposed to be pulled out of a hat for drug tests," he says. "Guess whose name was pulled out every time."

He thinks it was guilt by association, because Dwight was a known drug user by then. The Brewers' front office kept a leery eye on him, and considered him a malingerer because he couldn't stay healthy. He was booed, and bitterness set in, and he remembered the stories from his granddaddy about Jackie Robinson's pain, and he felt some connection to it all. When he'd check in at hotels, he'd use Jackie Robinson as his alias. He wasn't just a baseball player now; he was a black baseball player.

"There's just a lot of bull in this game," he says. "You say Jackie Robinson came into baseball and things changed, but have they really? When blacks like me get injured hustling, we're injury-prone; when they get injured hustling, they're hustling. They want to win; we don't want to win. There's just a lot of stereotyping and judging. People talk about no white players in the NBA; well, there ain't many blacks in baseball. We've got to be the great players, because we won't be the last guy on the bench. We've got guys in the minors who can run circles around some big leaguers, but these big leaguers play golf with the manager. So we've got to be twice as good to get up here. You see a lot of Dominicans and Latins instead of us, players from real poverty. But it's because they can easily control them. They can say, 'I'll send you back to your country.' Most people are afraid to talk about this. They say, 'I can't risk it.' But people before us laid it on the line. The Jackie Robinsons. This has to be said."

So, in Milwaukee, Gary Sheffield started saying his piece. Said he wanted out, said he was going to throw ground balls away on purpose. Booing followed, and ridicule, and he was delighted to be traded to San Diego in 1992. He murdered the ball for the Padres, almost won the Triple Crown. But people still whispered about his moods. What they didn't know was that Davene had taken 6-year-old Ebony one weekend and never brought her back. Betty drove around frantically to fetch her, but says Davene wouldn't let the child be seen. "After a while, I just didn't have any fight left in me," Betty says. And now that Gary was an emerging superstar, on the verge of a contract bump to $3.1 million, he was getting served with subpoenas. Betty says Davene took Gary to court for a child support increase, and that Carissa's mother took him to court too. The two mothers became allies, and their girls would sleep at each other's houses. And now a third child had been born -- a son, Gary Jr., whom Gary Sr. doted on. And so a third woman wanted support increases. But it all made sense. He'd been traded to Florida, and he'd have new contracts, bonuses and endorsements.

Listen, people. These women would come after him for more money every off-season, sometimes all three at once. People don't understand the mental stress on my boy. Sure, he should've used protection. And I hope there aren't more kids of his out there. But now you know what was on his mind. And thank God I can communicate with these three mothers now, and I hope it lasts. But sometimes I think they pick up the paper just to see if he's had a pay increase. They want theirs. And two of them are married. And now you know why he walks in the clubhouse sour sometimes, and, of course, the organization wants to know what's wrong. Well, that's what's wrong.

At least he was a Marlin by then and could move in with Betty and Harold. She figured she could finish raising him now. He was 28, living at home, and his teammates would tease him and say, "You still live with yo' mama?" But it was simpler. Dwight had tested positive again, and Gary could drive with Betty to see Dwight. He told Dwight, "I'll retire if I have to. We've got to get you right." He went to Dwight's rehab and 12-step meetings. Gary was trying to be that "saved man" he always wanted to be, but he still needed a push, a female push. And then she simply appeared. Her name was Deleon Richards, a gospel singer, and she could identify with him because she'd been in the spotlight. She'd made her first album at 7 and had become the youngest to ever sign with a major gospel label. She'd been on stage with Patti LaBelle and Lou Rawls, knew how to handle a crowd. She had morals. She wouldn't move in with him the way other girls would, and she wouldn't sleep with him unless they were married.

He'd never seen such a woman. The first time they met, at the 1998 NBA All-Star Game in New York, he predicted she'd be his wife. But he later told her if they married, she'd have to sign a prenup. She would get $50,000 if they stayed married five years, $200,000 to $500,000 if they stayed married 10 years and $2 million to $3 million if they stayed married 20 years. If it seemed heartless, it wasn't. He'd seen his buddy Barry Bonds through a messy divorce, and there were three women out there trying to tap his bank account. And besides, Deleon consented. She actually wanted zero.

He'd never seen such a woman. And he'd need her. He was traded to the Dodgers in 1998, for Mike Piazza, and Dodger fans wouldn't accept him. They booed him even though he walloped 34 homers with 101 RBIs his first full season. Booed him even though he was the only Dodger in history to have two seasons with at least a .300 average, 30 homers, 100 RBIs, 100 runs and 100 walks.

"I think I'm suffering from the Piazza trade," Sheffield says, "and I don't understand it. The fans in Seattle embraced Mike Cameron from Day One when Ken Griffey Jr. chose to leave. And Mike Piazza chose to leave too. They offered him $87 million. That's a lot for the average working guy, as they say. But I come and I get it from ear to ear. So I said to myself, I'll put up his numbers or better, I'll break every record around there. That was my first plan. And, well, my wife knows my second plan."

Yes, he had married Deleon by then, with palms so sweaty that his best man had to toss him a towel. And soon he and Deleon talked about how a Christian man should bite his lip. And he tried. That was his second plan. That was his plan last year when he batted .325 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs -- and didn't break one batting helmet. "I usually break five," he says. "Without getting mad, I had my best year ever." He'd never seen such a plan.

See, Betty Gooden Jones. It's no mystery. Your son's plan is, Let God bite my lip for me. It's no mystery at all, Betty. It comes down to whether your son can balance those two enigmas -- God and baseball.

***

Deleon returned from a concert this winter and walked in on a wailing Gary Sheffield. He had just heard on CNN he might be dealt to Cleveland for Roberto Alomar, and he howled because he had a no-trade clause, because Cleveland was on the list of places he wouldn't go, because it was as if the Dodgers didn't care. "Pissed me off probably more than anything has in baseball," he says.

He called his general manager, Kevin Malone, who claimed Cleveland had initiated the talks. But a wary Sheffield still didn't trust the team CEO, Bob Daly, who seemed fixated on reobtaining Piazza.

"I used to read a lot of quotes in the paper from a certain source," says Sheffield, referring to Daly, who refused comment for this story. "Him saying, 'The Piazza deal is a trade I wouldn't have done. We wish we could get him back.' And here I am wearing the uniform. How do you think I feel? I'm going to war for you."

So Sheffield got an idea: Make me a lifetime Dodger, sign me to an extension through 2009, give me deferred money so you can re-sign Chan Ho Park, give me security. "It was to put all that to rest," he says. "I was tired of the moving, of putting up great numbers and being traded. If I produce, why don't you want me? I mind my own business in the locker room. I don't argue with teammates. So make me a lifetime Dodger. Then the fans will have to stay on my side. Then they can rightfully say I'm one of theirs."

His agent, Jim Neader, advised the team Sheffield wanted to be a lifetime Dodger, and they said great. They just didn't realize it meant he wanted an extension to the four years and $41 million remaining on his contract. Then, in February, when they heard his request in plain language, that he wanted a four-year, $80 million extension or be traded, they flipped out. According to team officials, the Dodgers told Neader they needed 72 hours to iron things out or they would wait until baseball's collective bargaining issues were resolved after the season. But in those 72 hours, the Dodgers claim, Sheffield leaked the story of his discontent. Daly seethed, wanted him gone.

It then grew into a he-said, he-said deal, Sheffield claiming he never wanted a trade until Daly wanted one. Grown men were calling each other liars. There was Sheffield firing Neader, and Daly later firing Malone after Malone badgered a fan who badgered Sheffield. But through it all, Dodger players told Sheffield they'd rather have him than Piazza. He was touched. He rescinded his trade request, hired Scott Boras, who has eight other Dodger clients, and apologized to Daly and the team. They all gave peace a try.

But the damage was done. He was universally booed and became an icon for greed. Opponents like Mark McGwire ripped him, but nobody truly knew him. They didn't know he'd never had a contract dispute before. Or that he tithes 10% of his salary to Without Walls International Church in Tampa -- about $45,000 a month. Or that his biological father had recently died, and at the funeral he learned he had a half-brother. Or that he'd welcomed this half-brother, Patrick, into the family. Or that after his game-winning Opening Day home run this April, he pointed to the sky for the first time. No one knew this, and deep down, he wanted to erupt. Deep down, he thought of Jackie Robinson and baseball 50 years later and the irony that Jackie was also a Dodger.

"I still want to be a lifetime Dodger," he says. "But it's hard to feel like that sometimes. I'm not an average player, and don't expect to be treated like one. Yeah, we're supposed to treat everyone the same, but we're talking about reality here, and people should be flocking to my door or Barry Bonds' door to make sure we don't go anywhere. The owner should want me to stay. But then I'll hear I'm not hustling. Well, there are times my leg's bothering me, and if I run any harder, I'll blow it out and miss 15 games. A fan doesn't see that. That's why we need some backup. Do I get backup? I got it in San Diego and Florida. Everywhere else I've played, I haven't gotten it."

So on the one hand, Gary Sheffield tithes, and on the other hand, Gary Sheffield stews. God and baseball, they are squaring off right in front of his eyes. God and baseball, they are the dull pain in his forehead as he keeps hitting home runs and getting hissed, as he trashes his hate mail ("I don't read filth"), as he is approached for autographs by fans who say, "Please, Mr. Sheffield, please."

He pauses when they hand him pen and paper. And, as Deleon nods, he bites that lip. Bites it hard.

"It's harder to give autographs more than ever," he says. "You wonder, Is this the guy who's obnoxious? You wonder, Should I give 'em the time? In the past, I'd treat you like you're not even standing there. But I try to sign. From a godly standpoint, I try to sign. I have to be the bigger person. My wife says if you walk on faith, you're fine. Well, that's the hardest thing about life-walking on faith. See, I'm trying to be a godly man. Trying. I'm not embarrassed by it no more. I think I can do this."

Listen, people. He signed your autograph, now let him alone. Think about that next time you want to boo him. Think about that autograph. And don't sell that thing, either. Don't you get that autograph just to sell it. You hear me?

This article appears in the May 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.