Eric Gagne was throwing BBs.
Not that that came as a surprise, of course. Eric Gagne always throws BBs. Gagne is perhaps the only closer in the game who can match John Smoltz’ exquisite combination of high velocity, extreme movement with his breaking pitches, and near pin-point control. Add to this the fact that Gagne looks like a lumberjack who does his optical shopping at the Horace Grant Surplus Shoppe, and you have one intimidating closer.
It’s remarkably hard to hit a baseball thrown at 97 MPH by a massive Canadian man, especially when that fastball is backed up by some Doug Jones-esque mutated foshball that drops off a cliff right in front of the plate.
And on a 2-1 pitch, Gagne threw one of those 97 MPH fastballs to Gary Sheffield. It was neck high, an all too dangerous pitch for most hitters. A high fastball, aside from being ridiculously hard to hit with any authority, also is right at eye level for the batter. For most hitters, the most lethal pitch is the unhittable one they think they can hit.
The rules of hitting don’t apply to Gary Sheffield. The ball that came in at 97 left at roughly thrice that speed. The Air Force could have used the thing to shoot down SCUDS, except it didn’t get high enough in the air. That’s a common theme for Sheffield, who must lose 10 home runs a year on balls he hit too hard to get over the fence. He’s going to hit one through a fence at some point, and prompt one heck of a ground rules debate.
Or take August 4th of 2002, against the Cardinals. In the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, Sheffield led off against Dave Veres. Veres threw him a splitter that might have dropped in at the knees. Sheffield scowled at the umpire.
The 0-1 pitch was in the exact same spot. Strike two. Sheffield scowled at the umpire. Gary does that a lot, actually.
The 0-2 pitch was another splitter, but this one was on a level with Sheffield’s ankles.
And he hit it 410 feet for the walk-off homerun. He left Jon Miller, covering the game for ESPN, speechless. Not Joe Morgan, but you have to walk before you can run.
Or take…You see, that’s the thing. There is always another “Or take…” when it comes to Gary Sheffield. There’s a never ending supply of amazing stories told by shocked observers about Gary Sheffield.
Quite simply, I am in awe of Gary Sheffield.
I shouldn’t be, I know. Oh, it’s not that I believe that baseball players aren’t worthy of awe or admiration. In an increasingly languid culture, acts of great physical prowess deserve great acclaim. But Sheffield is perhaps the wrong man to admire. To say his past is checkered would be to understate things dramatically. In an interview, Sheffield once admitted to purposefully botching plays while in Milwaukee so that he would be traded. The best-case scenario has that statement as a bit of braggadocio, as an immature man thumbing his nose at his former employers in a breathtaking display of arrogance and hubris. In the worst-case scenario, Sheffield committed the ultimate, unpardonable sin of Major League Baseball.
While in Los Angeles, the outfielder seemed to be engaged in a perpetual contract dispute with Dodger management. He became the prime example of the spoiled athlete, whining about lack of “respect” while cashing multi-million dollar checks and demanding still larger ones, all the while insisting it wasn’t about the money. As an ethicist, Gary Sheffield leaves much to be desired.
But I still find myself in awe of his work at the plate. He is perhaps the most unique hitter in Braves’ history. Not the best; that designation belongs to Hank Aaron. But Sheffield hits the ball harder, more consistently, than any player in the game today, save perhaps his best friend, the immortal Barry Bonds.
That object Sheffield waves so menacingly when he’s in the box isn’t a baseball bat made of ash or maple. It is Thor’s own hammer, one of Zeus’ thunderbolts. (He’s basically wearing the Aegis on his elbow and forearm as well, but I’m all out of moral indignation today, so we’ll save the body armor column for another day.) He’s a hitter with massive, game breaking power (his .630 slugging percentage ranks him third in the NL) who strikes out breathtakingly few times. (Only 10 Ks in 2003. Jose Hernandez calls that Thursday.) He’s a hitter with a keen eye and excellent plate discipline. (On pace to draw 89 walks. Barry Bonds calls that July) And yet, Sheffield often displays Vlad-esque plate coverage, hitting seemingly impossible pitches a long, long way.
He doesn’t have the prettiest swing on the Braves. That designation belongs to Chipper Jones. Sheffield’s swing is murderous efficiency epitomized, a breathtakingly fast stroke that sends the head of the bat whipping through the zone quickly enough to catch up to any fastball.
A unique swing for a unique hitter.
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