By HARVEY ARATON
Sports of The Times
August 17, 2007
Gary Sheffield prides himself on being an avowed truth-teller, a revealer of hypocrisy, a debunker of myth, but typically without ample explanation or factual support.
He fancies himself a slugger making grand social statements for the benefit of ballplayerkind but often via a personal agenda. If the chip on his shoulder had a face, it could pass for Barry Bonds’s inflated head.
When he is finished with his flurry of reverberating wails, he can also go acoustic, as he did briefly in the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium yesterday, saying, “I don’t take myself too seriously.”
Which poses the question, why should we?
With the Tigers, the seventh team of his impressive 20-year major league career, Sheffield returned to the Bronx for the first time since making the stinging assessment that Joe Torre has a harsher managerial style for black players. In an interview last month on HBO’s “Real Sports,” Sheffield insisted he was not calling Torre a racist. Just saying, in effect, that he acts like one.
“I meant what I said, said what I said and I stand by what I said,” he said yesterday before being lustily booed throughout the Tigers’ 8-5 victory.
Based on his three-year experience here, which ended last fall, Sheffield claimed that black players were more likely to be “called out” by Torre. When asked about Derek Jeter, who has almost a father-son relationship with Torre, Sheffield said that Jeter is a Yankee icon and, as the son of a mixed-race couple, “ain’t all the way black.”
Insulting to Jeter as that may be, his racial makeup does raise an interesting and tangentially relevant point. If, as Sheffield suggests, Jeter counts as half-black, the Yankees right now have half the number of African-American players they did when Elston Howard integrated the franchise in 1955, or eight long years after Jackie Robinson crashed the major league color line.
Of course, they have many Hispanic players, a couple of whom helped win championships for Torre (in all likelihood the truest measure of the manager’s affection). Why African-American participation in baseball is dwindling while Latino players multiply is another subject for debate that Sheffield weighed in on contentiously this season. He told GQ magazine that baseball favors Hispanics because they are easier to control (big news, no doubt, to Manny Ramírez and Pedro Martínez).
But in the HBO interview, Sheffield made little distinction between players of color, and nor did he offer a clear summation of his reckless insinuation, except to say: “I think it’s a, a way of, the way they do things there, you know. They run their ship differently.”
Fascinating how, in that unscripted moment, it became “they,” the Yankees, not Torre. And here we do come upon a subject at least worth discussing, a nugget of truth uncovered inside Sheffield’s unfiltered doublespeak. He has been around baseball long enough to know that the Yankees, under George Steinbrenner’s ownership, have not been much more an agent for social change than they were in 1950.
Bob Watson, an African-American, came from outside the family for a two-year run as general manager that included the first of Torre’s four World Series victories in 1996. Reggie Jackson hangs around with the ambiguous title of special adviser. Beyond that, the Yankees’ front office has largely been a reflection of the past.
They have not had a manager of color. Until Torre, African-American players with deep organizational roots or others with post-playing aspirations watched a platoon of white colleagues play an ongoing game of musical managerial chairs.
When Torre was forced to the sideline in 1999 for prostate-cancer treatment, Steinbrenner begged a gimpy, cranky Don Zimmer to fill in rather than appoint Chris Chambliss, who had managed successfully in the minors, or Willie Randolph, whose qualifications at the time were at least as clear as those of the presumed manager-in-waiting, Don Mattingly.
If the Yankees’ social practices are not a symbolic representation of the game’s, whose are? So is it possible that Sheffield — an edgy but by most accounts likable teammate — has a deep-seated anger over the diminishing African-American influence after so many decades of struggle?
He has always seemed to motivate himself through conflict (like John McEnroe, as one Yankees insider sagely confided last night). In that sense, who was more likely to become a target of frustration after Sheffield’s injury-plagued 2006 season, and the handing of his job to Bobby Abreu?
The principal owner, Steinbrenner, who personally signed Sheffield in the hometown (Tampa) they share, or the manager, Torre, who reportedly (and understandably) preferred Vladimir Guerrero back in ancient times, 2004, and whom Sheffield had to deal with every day?
Sometimes, the price for outspokenness is being called out. Pride, in this case, would seem to be what’s keeping the avowed truth-teller from admitting what it is.