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Yankee Panky Week 17: Sticks and Stones, and Acidic Tones

By Will Weiss

At the Winter Meetings in 2003 in New Orleans, not long after news broke that Gary Sheffield—then a free agent—would sign with the Yankees, I asked his former manager at the time, Bobby Cox, the kind of player he was, how he would fit in the Yankee clubhouse and most importantly, and how he would get along with Joe Torre.

“Joe’s gonna love him. He never gave me a problem,” was Cox’s response.

While Sheff was in uniform for the Yankees—for the first two years at least—he was arguably the most important hitter in the lineup. He provided protection for Derek Jeter in the three slot and for Alex Rodriguez or Jason Giambi if he batted fifth, got on base and drove in runs. His right-handed bat gave Torre the option to alternate lefty-righty from one through nine, which he loved. And he had a competitive, angry edge from an everyday player not seen since Paul O’Neill’s retirement. He played hurt and he played hard. His teammates respected him.

That reputation, at least among his former Yankee teammates, is likely gone.

By now, most of you have either read or heard Sheffield’s scathing and inflammatory remarks toward Torre and how the Yankees as an organization treat their black players. These comments, whether true or not, detract from the Yankees’ racial history. The Yankees were one of the last teams to integrate; Elston Howard didn’t join the big club until 1955, nearly seven years to the day Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers. And while they’re a more diverse group now, with at least four Latinos in the starting lineup on a given night, Derek Jeter is the lone black player on the active roster (more on this later).

I’ve been studying and analyzing Gary Sheffield’s racially-motivated commentary since the GQ article broke six weeks ago, and when I saw some of the most recent statements, which will air tonight on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” my knee-jerk reaction was, “Here we go again.”

Sheffield has been publicly criticizing the Yankees since last September, around the time began taking ground balls and working with Don Mattingly at first base and later expressed his dismay at the situation and harped on his worth in right field over Bobby Abreu. On YES Network’s pregame coverage of Game 4 in Detroit last October, Sheffield questioned Joe Torre’s decision to drop A-Rod to eighth in the batting order. Over the winter, at a charity event in New York, he railed the Yankees’ front office operation, claiming there were too many “middle men” getting in the way of decisions that should have been Brian Cashman’s.

It’s at the point where nothing Sheffield says should surprise us. Many people I’ve spoken to on the topic have asked my opinion, and when I asked theirs in return, various incarnations of, “He’s an ass,” and “I can’t believe he said that,” were the standard responses. Similar reactions were given to Kenny Lofton’s support of Sheffield’s thesis. Buster Olney said as much, pointing out the obvious hole in Sheffield’s claim:

“You cannot on one hand indicate that Torre treats black players differently than white players, and on the other hand say that he is not a racist. That makes no sense, and it is irresponsible.”

Stephen A. Smith, who at least in the New York papers, gets called out for being an apologist for players in similar situations like this, said on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” Sunday afternoon, “When you bring up race, regardless of who you may be, the reality is, you’ve got to substantiate it. You can’t just throw out vague comments like that, such inflammatory and incendiary comments, and not back it up with some hardcore information.”

The greatest question for me was Sheffield’s definition of “different treatment.” In my experience covering the team from 2004-2006—granted, I wasn’t around the team every day—I saw no evidence of racism on the part of Joe Torre, or anyone else on the team. Whatever animosity there was, I gathered it was baseball-related. With Lofton in particular, I recall an incident in Boston in September of ’04, when Lofton collided with Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, and later, charged in to take on Trot Nixon in a bench-clearing brawl. Lofton’s defense was, “Watch the tape. I did nothing wrong.” Several other players, including A-Rod, when asked about the series of events and Lofton’s role in them, offered little more than a cold “No comment.”

Lofton came to the Yankees thinking he’d be the starting center fielder, and when he hit .174 that spring and Bernie Williams beat him out, the way it was portrayed was Torre was playing favorites. From a baseball perspective, Williams was the lesser of two evils, but Lofton thought he was the better player and held a grudge. I remember interviewing Lofton near the middle of that season, during a period when he had played once in 10 days, and he looked lost. He kept saying, “I should be playing, man.” He hated being a Yankee as a part-time player.

Now, Lofton offers Sheffield support by saying, “All I can say is, Sheffield knows what he’s talking about. That’s all I’m going to say.” What does Sheffield know that we don’t? Did Lofton add anything here except comedy? Did anyone take his statement seriously?

Racism in sports is a broad and difficult topic to tackle because of the fear it strikes into us. We shouldn’t dismiss what Sheffield said, because there are many ways to interpret what he told Andrea Kremer in the HBO interview.

Overall, I found the local coverage to be lacking in depth. It was as if the writers were tired of conjuring stories and dealing with more Sheffield blather. There was little beyond the face value of Sheffield’s statements. Much of that was left to the blog/board community, which has its benefits, but I believe this is a time where writers can really shine on an intellectual front. It’ll be dredged up again in a month when the Tigers visit the Stadium.

That’s not to say there wasn’t good and engaging coverage. There were a few articles I found particularly intriguing:

1. Ken Davidoff of Newsday was courageous enough to admit that to “evaluate of the veracity of Sheffield’s comments” was beyond his scope. It takes guts to admit when you’re out of your element. But in examining how Torre employed Lofton, Tony Womack and Tom Gordon—perhaps this is just my interpretation—he indirectly evaluated the veracity of Sheffield’s comments.

2. Was Sheffield’s interview a “dose of reality,” as Daily News media critic Bob Raissman put it? Raissman opined that Sheffield’s comments tell more about the subjects of his ire than they do about him.

“Most of them [writers] trivialize what Sheffield says by labeling him as nothing more than an angry black man,” Raissman wrote. “Funny, you did not hear much from the same mouths last week last week when Cal Ripken Jr. said he doesn’t want to know what went on in the steroids era.”

Raissman is right. Writers and talking heads alike had no problem slamming Mark McGwire for his weak testimony in Congress. Ripken is still a prominent figure and will give his Hall of Fame induction speech in two weeks. He should be taken to task also.

I was also disappointed that we didn’t hear anything from Torre, Jeter or Brian Cashman, either in defense of themselves or to present the organization’s position.

This is important, because it brings up another issue regarding what we expect from professional athletes as people. Consider this astute observation from Kremer:

“We want our sports characters to talk to us and be honest and open,” she says. “Then when they do, the media bashes them.”

How many times has this subject come up in relation to Derek Jeter? Jeter has cultivated an image like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, where to say nothing is the best and safest course of action. It would be great for a change to see anything besides an, “I’ve got no comment on that,” regarding off-field matters or personal attacks. At least Joe Torre, when asked to rebut Sheffield’s claims, said he was uncomfortable discussing the subject. Perhaps they believed the comments were so outrageous they shouldn’t be dignified with a retort of any kind. But Sheffield singled them out, as he claimed to be singled out on various occasions, and I know I would have been interested in hearing some sort of rebuttal.

USA Today’s Michael McCarthy suggested there’s still time for Torre to speak.

“Torre might want to follow Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, who hit back hard in the media after Frank Thomas ripped his former team in a 2006 interview,” McCarthy wrote.

Williams called Thomas an idiot, said the team didn’t need him, and offered a “good riddance,” and the issue, for the most part, was dead until the first meeting of the season between the A’s and White Sox.

3. Tigers beat writer Tom Gage of the Detroit News used every possible quote Sheffield could spout in his recap of the HBO interview. Gage used Sheffield to compare the ethnic dynamic of the Tigers’ clubhouse to the Yankees’.

4. Some strong fan response on the AOL Fanhouse board and from YanksBlog.

Gary Sheffield’s comments taken alone are irresponsible, as Olney and Smith suggested. However, while I disagree with much of what he said—I don’t believe Joe Torre is a racist at all, and the assertion that Derek Jeter doesn’t count as a black man is absurd to me—I do not believe Sheffield was out of line. He is free to speak his mind, and in my dealings with him, I don’t get the sense he just randomly selects a topic and rants on it without provocation.

If nothing else, Sheffield, who is on his way to becoming an even more polarizing figure than Barry Bonds, prompted another wave of dialogue on a very sensitive topic. He’s not afraid to talk about it. Are we?

Until next week…

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver