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Street Smarts
Peter Gammons
April 05, 1989
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April 05, 1989

Street Smarts


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I wouldn't ever come here at night," said Gary Sheffield, glass crunching beneath his feet as he walked across the playground parking lot. The walls of the dugouts on the baseball diamond were covered with graffiti, and the infield was littered with beer cans and broken bottles. In rightfield somebody had dumped trash from the burned-out projects across the street.

"This is where I started playing Little League," said Sheffield. "It was great. The stands were packed. Now look at them. Some aren't even here anymore, and what's left is falling apart."

The Cyrus Green Playground is in the Belmont Heights section of Tampa, and as a boy, Sheffield would go there daily to play ball with his uncle, New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. What Sheffield calls "the neighborhood" covers a square mile surrounding the playground. No other neighborhood in the country has turned out so much baseball talent. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Floyd Youmans grew up there, as did California Angels pitcher Vance Lovelace. The neighborhood has also produced Ty Griffin, an infielder with the Chicago Cubs organization; Derek Bell, an outfielder who may be the best prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system; Maurice Crum, a high school teammate of Sheffield's who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox but is currently a linebacker for the University of Miami; and Sheffield's cousin, Derrick Pedro, an outfielder at Hillsborough Community College who is certain to be drafted in June. "Another dozen could have been good, but they got messed up," said Sheffield.

Sheffield turned and looked at the housing project across the street. In February 1987 a race riot erupted there after a police officer, using a choke hold, killed a young black man. "Drug deal," said Sheffield. "Isn't everything? They were setting trash cans and fields and houses on fire. We could hear the sirens all night. All that stood between the worst of the rioting and the neighborhood was this park, and look at this place. The police are afraid to come here. After the riots they had to close down the Little League for a while, and even now they've had to cut the number of teams way down because they can't get enough kids. It's drugs, the lure of easy money. Kids that would be playing in these programs—I mean 12-and 10-year-olds—don't want to go to school or play sports. They're selling drugs. It's everywhere."

Seven years ago Sheffield pitched Belmont Heights to the senior Little League world title. Griffin was on the team. So were Bell, Pedro and Crum. All five were also members of the 1980 junior team that lost 4-3 to Taiwan in the championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Now, at 20, Sheffield is a power-hitting shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers and the most heralded rookie in the American League.

"In a lot of ways this place is what I am," said Sheffield, surveying the neighborhood. "But a turning point in my life was when I moved away from here in October 1987. I left a lot of good friends and a ton of great memories. But things have changed in the neighborhood, things I had to leave behind."

That fall, with the help of Dwight's bankroll, Sheffield, his mother—also Dwight's older sister—Betty Jones, his stepfather Harold Jones and other family members moved across Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg. "The family got together and decided it's something we had to do," says Gary's mother. "Understand, first, that this is a very close family, and second, Dwight is a very generous, family-oriented person."

The clan bought three houses on a cul-de-sac overlooking the Bay. Dwight lives in the middle house with his wife, Monica, his parents and his grandmother. Out back are a batting cage, a swimming pool and a satellite dish, so his folks can watch all his games. On the right side of Dwight, in the white house with the indoor pool, resides Sheffield, his fiancée, Sherry Gary, and Harold and Betty. On the left side are Dwight's other sister, Mercedes Pedro, and her son, Derrick.

As soon as Sheffield returned home from his visit to Belmont Heights he had to address the problem of packing for spring training. He was leaving for the Brewers' camp in Chandler, Ariz., in three days, and he would probably need that much time to sort through the mountain of sweaters and slacks on his bed and the more than two dozen pairs of shoes lined up on the floor. "Ever since we moved here, I've been able to focus on what I have to do to make it in the big leagues," said Sheffield. "If I were back in the neighborhood, there would be too many distractions. I would always have something going at night. Some of my old friends think I've gone big time or that I'm a snob. I'm not, but with all that's going on, just to be associated with some people could be bad publicity. What's that line the newspapers always use: 'Unidentified sources say that such and such associates with known drug users'?"

That night, as he waited for Sherry, a model and former Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleader, to get home, Sheffield watched TV with his stepfather. Somebody on ESPN was talking about the season's most promising rookies. The first player mentioned was Mets infielder Gregg Jefferies. "He was born to hit," said the announcer. Next up was Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Ramon Martinez. "I told you about him," said Sheffield during the accompanying commentary. Finally, Sheffield himself was featured. "The question about this kid is his checkered past," said the announcer. Sheffield hung his head and stared at the floor.

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