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Sheffield adjusts his stance

He designates this a comeback season

By Nick Cafardo
March 22, 2009
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Gary Sheffield could once be best described as Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis with a baseball bat. When he dug into his stance at the plate, the pitcher was the enemy. When he connected with his powerful, violent swing, nobody was scarier. Sheffield could hit a baseball about as hard as any man alive. He hit with a vengeance.

But last year, all of that was missing. He was limited to 114 games by shoulder problems, hitting .225 with 19 homers and 57 RBIs.

Now, at age 40, he's trying to get back the eye of the Tiger. Does he think he can?

"It's not a matter of if I think - I know," he said firmly in the Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., last week. "And that's the difference in my mind-set. Your body don't allow you to do something, especially after the [shoulder] surgery I had. I rushed back from it and it didn't respond the way I'd hoped.

"Now I've had all winter to get it strong without any setbacks. I'm ahead of schedule now."

Sheffield will start the 2009 campaign one homer short of 500, a reflection of a very productive career that started when he was a 19-year-old shortstop with the Brewers in 1988. All sorts of twists and turns followed, including his name appearing in the Mitchell Report for use of a steroid cream.

In 22 years, he has played for seven teams and played almost as many positions. There were bouts of youthful temper, and in a July 2007 interview with HBO, he said Yankees manager Joe Torre treated black players differently than white players.

Sheffield has mellowed in recent years, but he remains outspoken and brutally honest.

Last season, he told this reporter he wanted to play in the field and didn't like DHing, which got him into hot water with his manager, Jim Leyland. When he arrived at Tigers camp in February this year, he declared, "I'm a DH."

But don't think he likes it.

Asked whether he would play the outfield in spring training, he said, "No, they won't let me. They ain't thrown me out there, no."

Will he ask?

"I asked last year and I got in trouble. So I'm leaving that subject alone."

Has he grown accustomed to DHing?

"No. I'll never get used to that. I'm a complete ballplayer and I like to play both ends, but if this is my role, I just have to accept it.

"I think it's more my personality. My personality is that I have to be doing something at all times. I have to stay busy to stay focused.

"A lot of times I try to work on that as a DH and keep my head in the game and focus on every situation that's going on out there as opposed to focusing on just when I'm stepping up to the plate.

"You try to think out the situations as the game is going on, but it's kind of hard to do that if I'm not out there. I kind of drift off a little bit. So I've been working on that in spring training."

Sheffield crushed two home runs in a game last week, then smacked his third of the spring through a stiff wind Friday afternoon vs. the Nationals. While his average was only .226 through Friday, Sheffield has looked strong and confident.

Sheffield said he has thought about hitting No. 500 "a few times" and he wonders how he's going to react.

"It'll be nice," he said. "I mean, when I hit No. 400 in New York, I knew I could get to 500 or 600 if I stayed healthy. I don't know how I'm going to feel, to be honest with you. I'm going to let the moment take care of itself."

Sheffield also feels he can close in on 3,000 hits (he's at 2,615). He is a .292 career hitter with a whopping .394 on-base percentage. He's in the final year of his deal with the Tigers, which will pay him $14 million, but he doesn't think this will be the last baseball hears from him.

"Based on how I feel now, I feel I can play a lot more years," he said. "My legs are under me. I'm still running good. I know I can still play the outfield. Any opportunity that presents itself, I'm going to be able to do it."

While the numbers don't show it yet, Sheffield believes, "I'm back to where I was, and now I don't have to worry about somebody beating me with a fastball. They were trying to get me to think fastball and then they'd get me out with a breaking ball but now I can sit back and wait.

"I'm not going into the season not knowing what I'm going to be able to give. Now I know what I'm going to be able to give."

In the past, that has been putting a hurtin' on pitchers. We'll see whether he returns with a vengeance.

Straight answers from Tejada

A few questions for Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada (last week, a federal prosecutor recommended probation for Tejada for misleading Congress about his steroid use):

After all that happened last year with the steroids and perjury charges (which were reduced to "misrepresentations") do you feel things have been resolved?

MT: "All of the off-field stuff is behind me now. For the first time in a while, I can just concentrate on playing baseball, which is what I love to do. My mind is no longer filled with all of that stuff."

For a couple of years, you've heard you should move to third base. Does it make you angry that there are those who feel you can't play effectively at shortstop?

MT: "It doesn't make me angry, but it bothers me. So what I do when I hear that is I go out and take 20 more ground balls. I try to take the negative and turn it into a positive. Anyone who saw me play shortstop here last year will tell you I had a good year defensively."

With Aaron Boone having heart problems, what if the Astros asked you to move over to third?

MT: "I'm just an employee here, so I would do whatever they asked me to do. When you reach this stage in your career, you're in the game for the love of the game and because you want to win a championship. I think people will tell you that I've always been a team player."

Your future?

MT: "I'm a free agent at the end of the year. I would love to stay here in Houston because I've really enjoyed it and I think we can win a championship here. I'd love to be a part of that. But I love the game, so I'll play anywhere. A couple of years ago I heard Boston, and I would have loved playing for Boston, but I just want to stay in the game."

And play every day?

MT: "You know me. I want to play every game and I hope I get the chance to play every game again this year."

Teixeira won't feel like a marked man in New York

April will soon be here, and the brand-spanking-new Yankee Stadium will be opening. Alex Rodriguez will be missing. The spotlight will be squarely upon . . . Mark Teixeira.

He's a guy who has always played in calmer markets, so how will the biggest free agent signee of the winter react to the microscope?

"From a personal point of view, this is the most relaxing situation I've been in," Teixeira said. "Every other team I've been on, there's always been the possibility I was going to get traded or there was a contract issue. There's no issue like that anymore.

"I'm a Yankee, and my experience here has been great. There's one goal here, and that's to win a world championship. That's the only thing anyone focuses on, so for me personally, that's what I'm focused on."

Teixeira will bat third, according to manager Joe Girardi, who has been impressed with what he sees.

"When you're on the opposite side of someone, I think you know how good the player is," said Girardi, "but what you don't know is how he is in the clubhouse and how he interacts with his teammates.

"Mark is such a great person. He's fit in so well here. We couldn't be more pleased with the type of player and the type of person we've added to our lineup."

Concerning the spotlight on Teixeira, Girardi said, "I think, on our team, we brought in so many high-profile free agents that I don't think there's just one big guy. Just look in our clubhouse and there are a lot of high-profile players, so I don't think there's going to be an extra focus on Mark."

The "other" high-profile free agents are CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, but they are pitchers who take the field every five days. That won't be the case with Teixeira.

"Nothing has really changed for me, except I'm with a great organization committed to winning and they want me to continue to do what I've done my whole career," said Teixeira. "I'm not being asked to take up two spots in the batting order. I'm here to play first base and hit and help my team win. For me there are no more distractions."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Don't think there's a classier young superstar in the game than Twins catcher Joe Mauer; 2. What on Earth has happened to Dontrelle Willis?; 3. Can you top this, Joe Crede? The Twins got 91 RBIs out of seven third basemen last season; 4. Kei Igawa has thrown 9 2/3 scoreless innings. Is Hell freezing over?; 5. In response to an e-mail, yes, the Red Sox could open the season without an African-American on the 25-man roster.

Updates on nine . . .
1. Oil Can Boyd, RHP, free agent: The Can informs me he'll likely be pitching for Ottawa in the Can-Am League at age 49. He also informs me he'll throw before a couple of major league scouts in an effort to get back to the big leagues. "The ball is coming out of my hand free and easy for the first time in years," he said. "I just want to prove I can throw 100 pitches for 30 starts and dominate." The Can still has his repertoire of fastball, 12-to-6 curve, changeup, and screwball, and he's adding a "hard" knuckleball. "This is really nothing new," he said. "I've been throwing it for 10 years. I'm just going to use it more."

2. Ty Wigginton, INF, Baltimore: A few people in the Houston organization are kicking themselves for letting Wigginton become a free agent, especially now that Aaron Boone is facing heart surgery and is done for the season. Wigginton seemed the perfect fit for the Astros at third, but in a cost-cutting measure, they elected to go with Boone.

3. Brett Gardner, CF, Yankees: His teammates are rooting for him to get the starting job, but there's a growing feeling that the Yankees may rekindle talks with Milwaukee on Mike Cameron. Why? As one scout put it, "He's a very streaky kid. He'll have a couple of weeks where he'll get big hits and really be an effective leadoff hitter and another two weeks where you need to hide him as the No. 9 hitter."

4. Michael Cuddyer, OF, Twins: The Twins will go with a four-man outfield rotation of Cuddyer, Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez, and Denard Span. There are questions about how it will work, but Cuddyer said, "It'll work just fine. You leave your ego at the door and you do what it takes to win games as a team. It's a good problem to have because it means you have good players." Span has had the worst spring of the four, but he's the truest leadoff hitter and therefore will see a lot of playing time.

5. Josh Bard, C, free agent: Lots of baseball people were surprised that the Red Sox dumped him last week. He signed a minor league deal with the Nationals, and other interested teams were the Marlins, Giants, Mets, White Sox, and Twins. A lot of surprise, too, that the Sox would go with George Kottaras as the backup catcher. "I'm guessing another shoe is about to drop," said an AL general manager.

6. Kevin Cash, C, Yankees: Joe Girardi is encouraged that Jorge Posada will be able to be the No. 1 catcher. That would leave Jose Molina as No. 2 and Cash likely heading for Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with a June 1 out clause in his contract. Right now Girardi doesn't foresee three catchers on the roster, barring more concern about Posada or an injury to Molina. Cash remains puzzled by Boston's decision not to offer him a contract after a successful year of catching Tim Wakefield, especially now with Bard being waived.

7. Shea Hillenbrand, 1B-3B, free agent: It's amazing how baseball people just don't get that a guy can change. Hillenbrand might have been one of the biggest pains in the backside, but here's a guy who could fall off a horse at his Arizona ranch and hit, yet he can't even get a tryout. He's also a guy who spends his days giving sick children tours of his farm and petting zoo. Wouldn't want a guy like that in the clubhouse.

8. Roy Halladay, RHP, Blue Jays: Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi will scream at the top of his lungs that Halladay will not be a midseason acquisition for anyone. But there are a few teams out there keeping a close eye. Ricciardi knows that 2010 (and beyond) will be a better gauge of where the Jays are heading, with Dustin McGowan and Shawn Marcum coming back from injuries and young pitchers coming up. Ricciardi wants Halladay to anchor that resurgence, but with the economy tanking and teams willing to offer a Bartolo Colon-like deal, he may reconsider. On June 27, 2002, Colon and Tim Drew were traded to Montreal for Lee Stevens, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore. At the time, Colon was one of the game's elite pitchers.

9. Cliff Lee, LHP, Indians: The Indians can only hope he is "just working on things." Lee, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, comes into today's start with an 18.90 spring ERA. Opponents are batting .528 against him; in 6 2/3 innings, he has allowed 14 earned runs and 19 hits.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: "Current Dodger Matt Kemp's first three years are very similar to former Dodger great Willie Davis's first three years. Kemp has six fewer plate appearances (1,134), scored one fewer run (170), drove home one more run (141), drew two fewer walks (71), and they each hit 35 homers. Kemp has a substantial lead in batting average (.299 to .278) and in strikeouts (272 to 130)." Also, "Here's an interesting trio: Will Clark (1988), Terry Pendleton (1989), and Jeff Bagwell (1997) - each appeared in 162 games and garnered 162 hits." . . . Happy birthdays to Justin Masterson (24), Ramon Martinez (41), Sean Berry (43), and Dick Ellsworth (69).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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