NEW YORK - Gary Sheffield emerged from the trainer's room after games, his left shoulder wrapped in bandages that resembled football pads. Most days, one or two fingers were taped, too.
He played through bursitis that twice required cortisone shots and forced him to catch fly balls hip high, a torn ligament in his right thumb that has bothered him since spring training and nearly a year of controversy about his appearance before a federal grand jury investigating illegal distribution of steroids.
Yet, he made it out on the field for 154 of the Yankees' 162 games and led the team with 121 RBI. After a winter of worry among fans that he could be a disruptive force in the Yankees clubhouse, he became a fan favorite, serenaded throughout September with chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!"
"People don't understand what I have to go through to get to play a game," he said matter-of-factly, without a trace of complaint. "I have to go through an hour-and-a half worth of treatment before I can talk to anybody."
Three years ago he was a malcontent in Los Angeles, demanding that the Dodgers trade him. Baseball executives wondered why he had passed through so many teams. But there was no doubt about his talent - he's only the second player in major league history to reach 100 RBI with five teams, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first since Hall of Famer Dan Brouthers from 1887-1904.
Now, in the spotlight of New York, his image has transformed. George Steinbrenner personally negotiated a $39 million, three-year contract when his baseball executives would have rather spent the money on pitching. Sheffield, speaking softly and repeatedly saying God has a plan for him, says he couldn't be happier, at ease with the constant scrutiny the Yankees come under. He says it's unlike anything he experienced before. Uncle Dwight (Gooden) prepared him for it.
"Every detail, everything you do right, everything you do wrong, that's just the way it is," Sheffield said before praising Yankees fans for filling the ballpark close to capacity each night. "I've been places where, and playoffs included, other ballclubs come into town and you think they have their home-field."
When he arrived at Tampa, Fla., for spring training, he was questioned about his testimony in the BALCO steroids investigation. Sports Illustrated reported in this week's issue that Sheffield admitted using a cream supplied by BALCO on his surgically repaired right knee in 2002, though he was not told it contained an illegal steroid.
"That's why I was mad," he told the magazine.
"I want everybody to be on an even playing field."
Bob Holley, the lawyer for BALCO president Victor Conte, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Tuesday that "BALCO provided Gary Sheffield with no illegal substances and the check BALCO received from Sheffield was for legal nutritional supplements."
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