Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Anderson Trade, "Funny" Looks Should Have Tipped Sheffield Off

I got the news of Gary Sheffield's cashiering by the Tigers while I was downtown, doing some freelance TV work for the good people at the Catholic Television Network of Detroit. One of the crew members got a text message.

"Goodbye Sheffield. $14 million -- that's a lot to eat," it read.

Such is how news is broken anymore.

I was floored. Honestly. I didn't see the release of the 40-year-old Sheffield coming. It wasn't on the radar of anyone who was handicapping the Tigers' Opening Day roster.

One of my first thoughts, naturally, was the career home run total on the bottom of Sheff's stat line.


After it sunk in, I thought of a conversation he and I had, and now it's kind of eery.

A couple years ago, the day after Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's career record with HR no. 756, I was in the Tigers clubhouse, making the rounds before a game.

I happened upon Sheffield. He's always willing to talk.

"So did you see Barry hit the big one? What did you think?" I asked.

"Yeah. It was great. Awesome. Good for him."

Then, I shifted the focus onto Sheffield himself, and his getting closer to 500 home runs.

At the time, Sheff was sitting at around 475 in the homer department.

"You ever think about 500?" I asked him.

"Naah. That's still a little while away," he said.

Then, the eery part.

"How about when you get to 499, then what?" I asked with a devious grin.

He laughed. "Then I'll be swinging for the fences, just to get it over with."

The Tigers have never had a player swat his 500th home run while wearing their uniform. And they won't for a while longer, thanks to the dismissal of Sheffield.

He'll have to swing for the fences for someone else. Which he will, guaranteed.

The Tigers, as the aforementioned text message said, will indeed be chowing down on Sheff's contract, which has $14 million left on it. And once he clears waivers -- an almost certainty given his contract size -- any team can sign him for the $400,000 major league minimum.

The Phillies have already been confirmed as having contacted Sheffield. The Reds were mentioned. Tampa -- Sheffield's hometown -- might have some interest, too. At four-hundred grand, you can bet some team will pick him up.

My knee jerk reaction to the news of Sheff's release was that something must have happened, like behind the scenes. I thought about when the Tigers cut Dmitri Young during a rain delay in 2006. That was REALLY odd.

The Tigers told Sheffield, according to him, that they wanted to go with a more versatile lineup. Read: younger and faster, and one that bats more left-handed.

The acquisition of speedy outfielder Josh Anderson, a lefty swinger, from Atlanta was maybe the death knell for Sheffield's Detroit career, as it turns out. This also means that Marcus Thames appears safe, since the DH position is now available for him in addition to spot starting in the outfield.

It also gives one of the younger Tigers, like Jeff Larish or Ryan Raburn or Brent Clevlen, a shot at grabbing the last bench spot.

Sheffield was quoted that people around the Tigers -- presumably manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski, were "looking at me funny for the last few days."

That's not surprising. The veteran athlete whose days are numbered often gets those looks from those who are privy to that fact.

Alex Karras, in his final few weeks with the Lions in 1971 before being cut in pre-season, said much the same thing. Coach Joe Schmidt, a former teammate, wouldn't look Karras in the eye, Alex wrote in his autobiography.

"Joe kept asking me if I felt like I could still play, but I noticed that whenever he did, he'd look at the ground or anywhere but at me," Karras wrote.

Karras admitted to having had a rough time in the exhibition games, but his being cut still shocked him.

Sheffield inferred that his release took him by surprise, too, despite the "funny" looks he was getting lately. But when asked if this meant his career was over with, he said firmly, "Not even close."

He'll be "swinging for the fences" for No. 500, somewhere.



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