Wednesday, October 22, 1997
Sheffield breaks out


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CLEVELAND - Gary Sheffield is torn. Torn between duty and ambition. Torn between taking walks and swinging freely.

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Gary Sheffield makes an outstanding catch against the wall to rob Jim Thome of extra bases.
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The Florida Marlins' slugger is the most feared hitter in the World Series, and until Tuesday was having a hard time showing why. The Cleveland Indians have identified Sheffield as the man they'd least like to beat them, and they have tried to avoid his bat as if it bore a nuclear warhead.

Frustration is playing the biggest games of your life and seeing nothing worth swinging at. This had been Gary Sheffield's post-season batting stance before Tuesday night. He has now walked in all 12 of the Marlins' post-season games - 16 times altogether - but sometimes there's no place to put him.

Sheffield came up three times with the bases loaded Tuesday night, and drove in five runs in Florida's sloppy 14-11 over the Indians. His six plate appearances included a homer, a double, a single and a bases-loaded walk, and provided the Marlins right fielder considerable relief.

"This is the center stage, and you want to play the best," Sheffield said the other day. "When you don't get a chance, it worries you. No, it's not easy."

Given some rare opportunities Tuesday night, Sheffield staged a personal highlight film. He struck a solo home run in the first, twice tied the game with a walk and a double, drove in two runs in Florida's seven-run ninth and made an outstanding catch against the wall to rob Jim Thome of extra bases.

For the first time in the series, circumstances prevented Cleveland from pitching around Sheffield, and it was reflected in the box score.

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Sheffield drove in five runs Tuesday night.
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The National League's 1992 batting champion has long owned one of baseball's quickest bats, and last season struck 42 home runs in the first year he stayed healthy enough to play in 150 games. But in a cause-and-effect common to sluggers, Sheffield's opportunities have diminished as his reputation has grown. He has become the Marlin least likely to see strikes.

Last year, Sheffield walked 142 times. This season, he walked 121 times. While many of these bases on balls resulted in or contributed to Florida rallies, they were detrimental to Sheffield's run production. Therein lies his conflict.

Taking walks is seen as a great virtue for players at the top and the bottom of the order. The leadoff man's priority is to reach base through any available means. An eighth-place hitter on a National League team can earn his pay by preventing the pitcher from leading off the next inning.

But the matter is not so simple for sluggers. They must weigh the value of getting on base against the possibility that the hitter behind them might be more likely to make out. Taking a walk can be seen as selfish, if a player is perceived to be protecting his batting average instead of extending his strike zone to drive in runs.

If there was a criticism of Ted Williams' hitting, it was that he would take ball four an inch off the plate when what the Red Sox required was a three-run homer. The same knock was often made about Frank Thomas before the Chicago White Sox signed Albert Belle to bat behind him.

"Barry Bonds got ripped for taking walks," Sheffield said. "He hit something like .160 (in the postseason). How can you prove yourself when they don't pitch to you? But all you can do, Bonds told me, is take the walks and let the team get the glory."

Sheffield has generally heeded Bonds' advice, but says he has twice given away at-bats to temptation, resolving to swing at pitches regardless of their proximity to the plate.

"I think Gary has to remain patient," Marlins manager Jim Leyland said before Tuesday's game. "And I don't mind those walks leading off or walks in the middle of an inning. I hope that he doesn't try to expand too much because I think it will be harmful for the team."

Gary Sheffield is torn. He'd rather take his rips. Tuesday night, it was easy to see why.

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