With an empty champagne bottle in one hand and a Cuban cigar in
the other, Gary Sheffield was sitting quietly by himself and
looking content amid the post-game celebrating in the Florida
Marlins' clubhouse at 3Com Park last Friday night when an
unexpected visitor approached. San Francisco Giants leftfielder
Barry Bonds, a peculiar presence in the rowdy room an hour after
the Marlins finished off a sweep of San Francisco in their
Division Series, bent down and spoke softly into Sheffield's
ear. "Enjoy the moment, little brother, and keep the same focus
you had against us," Bonds told him. "You can carry this team.
You can take it all the way to the World Series. I love you."
Bonds and Sheffield became friendly two years ago after the two
of them, who had never met, playfully refused each other's
autograph requests before a game. They have been tighter than
shrink-wrap since, and last Friday, Bonds wanted to pass along
some inspirational words at a defining moment. Bonds is one of
the few players who could appreciate Sheffield's subtle yet
devastating contribution to Florida's Division Series
victory--Sheffield reached base 10 times in 14 plate
appearances. Five of those times he got on with a walk.
The Marlins' celebration represented a welcome turn of events
for Sheffield, who suffered through a forgettable regular
season. Coming off 1996, when he hit .314 with 42 home runs and
120 RBIs, Sheffield signed a six-year, $61 million contract
extension on April 2 and immediately went into a nosedive
because a lack of good pitches to hit caused him to lose his
patience and his stroke. He finished the season with 121 walks
but hit only .250 with 21 homers and 71 RBIs. Plus, as has been
his wont, he played poorly in the field. Sheffield was booed
regularly at Pro Player Stadium by fans who didn't grasp the
value of a player who was among the league leaders in on-base
percentage; he finished fifth, at .424. "I get paid a lot of
money, so I'm supposed to be Superman," Sheffield said in July.
However, with the regular season winding down, Sheffield
experienced an epiphany of sorts by calling upon advice he'd
received from Bonds earlier in the summer. Stay patient. When
they finally challenge you, make them pay. In September,
Sheffield hit .324 with five homers and 14 RBIs to help Florida
clinch the National League wild-card spot, and suddenly he felt
confident heading into his first postseason. "It seems like
Christmas," Sheffield said before the Division Series began.
"For the first time after a season I'm waking up for a playoff
game. Usually I'm waking up in St. Pete."
Sheffield demonstrated his renewed patience in Florida's 2-1
victory over the Giants in Game 1 by drawing two walks and
hitting a laser double off the leftfield wall. Then in Game 2 he
launched a solo home run in the sixth inning to give the Marlins
a 6-4 lead. In the seventh he misjudged a routine fly ball to
rightfield that cost Florida a run, but he redeemed himself in
the ninth, after San Francisco had tied the score. He led off
the inning with a single, stole second base and eventually
scored the game-winning run in Florida's 7-6 victory, which was
the 26th time this year that the Marlins had won a game in their
last at bat. Finally, in the series-clinching 6-2 victory,
Sheffield reached base three times with a single and two walks.
"It was nice for Gary to start anew, because none of that
negative stuff carries over into the postseason," said third
baseman Bobby Bonilla after the Florida sweep. "He's trying to
make everybody forget his regular season."
While stopping short of placing undue tonnage on Sheffield's
shoulders, many Florida players acknowledge that to defeat
Atlanta they will require a significant contribution from
Sheffield, who hit just .189 against the Braves this season. "We
need Gary to continue his hot hitting because he's one of the
few guys in baseball who good pitchers really fear," catcher
Charles Johnson says. "He's a guy who can change a game with one
As he headed into the series against the Braves, Sheffield was
heeding Bonds's counsel. Enjoy the moment, little brother.
"Winning in the playoffs is the most fun I've ever had in my
baseball career," Sheffield said after the clinching win. "This
is every kid's dream."
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Against the Giants, Sheffield got on base 10 times. [Gary Sheffield]