Fearless And Promising
Gary Sheffield learned to be fearless at any early age. He grew up in the tough Belmont Heights section of Tampa, Florida. His mother, Betty, was 17 when he was born, and he never knew his father. For the first seven years of his life he lived with his stepfather, Harold Jones, his mother and his mother's younger brother, Gooden. By the time Gary was six years old, he was playing ball every day with Gooden, a future star for the New York Mets. Gooden already had a menacing fastball, and Sheffield learned to catch it and hit it. Hitting against Gooden helped him develop quick hands—the most important element in a batter's arsenal. Sheffield also often swung a broomstick in his front yard and tried to hit rocks his stepfather tossed at him.
Young Sheffield also developed a quick temper. He frequently got into fights at school, in the neighborhood, and on the ball field. On one occasion in Little League, Sheffield was benched for missing a practice and chased his coach around the field with a bat. He was suspended and had to miss the league championship game. Later, Sheffield appeared in the Little League World Series when his junior team lost to Taiwan, 4-3, in the 1980 championship game. Two years later, Sheffield pitched his senior Little League team to the 1982 world title.
At Hillsborough High School, Sheffield was a dominant force as a pitcher and third baseman and attracted so much attention from scouts that he was named the nation's top high school baseball player by USA Today. As a pitcher, he displayed a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, but his hitting overshadowed his pitching, with a .500 average, 15 home runs and no strikeouts in 62 at-bats. The Milwaukee Brewers selected him as the sixth pick over-all in the 1986 draft and gave him a $152,000 signing bonus. Off the field Sheffield had problems, already fathering two children by different mothers.
Sheffield rocketed through the Brewers' minor league system. In a rookie league, he batted .365 at Helena, Montana, playing mostly at shortstop, an unfamiliar position. After the season, he, Gooden and two others were arrested after a traffic stop in Tampa for fighting with a police officer and resisting arrest; Sheffield pleaded no contest and was given two years' probation.
The next season Sheffield knocked in 103 runs at Class A Stockton. In 1988 he hit a combined .327 with 28 home runs and 119 runs batted in at Class AA El Paso and Class AAA Denver. At Denver he was moved back to third base because he had made too many throwing errors at shortstop. He was named minor league coplayer of the year by the Sporting News and was called up to Milwaukee for his big-league debut. On September 3, 1988, he broke into the majors in dramatic fashion, hitting a game-tying home run in the ninth inning and driving in the winning run with a single in the 11th. When Milwaukee's regular shortstop, Dale Sveum, was injured, Sheffield was placed there and made several dazzling plays. Manager Tom Trebelhorn told him shortstop was his position to lose the next spring.