Gary Sheffield has reached the 500 home run mark, the 25th man in history to do so. But the question needs to be asked, as it will be asked many more times of many more players from this complicated era: Is he a Hall of Famer? With some pause and trepidation, I say yes.
It is not an easy call. Sheffield's candidacy for Cooperstown has several issues -- some character and behavioral -- that could keep him out of the Hall in his first year of eligibility. Maybe his first five years. Maybe forever. But the statistics, the raw numbers, aren't an issue.
There have been nearly 17,000 players in major league history, and only 25 players have hit 500 home runs. That's roughly two players in every one thousand. Factor in Sheffield's .292 career batting average, and it's an even more select group: Twelve players all time have 500 home runs and a career average above .290. Sheffield has also hit 30 home runs in a season eight times.
But his career has been about more than homers. Sheffield is one of 25 players in history with 1,500 RBIs and 1,500 runs scored; of those 25, 19 are in Cooperstown, and the other six are Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds -- all of whom have Hall of Fame numbers. In 2008, Sheffield passed Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Mike Schmidt and George Brett to move into the top 30 all-time in RBIs. He has had six seasons of batting .300, hitting 30 homers and having 100 RBIs -- two more such seasons than Griffey.
Sheffield's career on-base average is .394 (compared to Joe DiMaggio's .398) and his lifetime slugging mark (.516) is ahead of Killebrew's and just behind Schmidt's. His OPS -- on base percentage plus slugging percentage -- is higher than Schmidt's. He has done all this while having more walks than strikeouts, which is extremely uncommon in today's game where strikeouts are so accepted.
In 1992, when Sheffield won the National League batting title (.330), he hit 33 home runs, and became the first player since Ted Kluszewski (1953-56) to hit that many home runs in a season while recording 40 or fewer strikeouts. Over the past 25 years, the only players with a better home-run-to-strikeout ratio than Sheffield are Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero and Albert Pujols.
Sheffield has also made nine All-Star teams. Since the MVP voting began in 1931, he is tied with Rickey Henderson with the 38th most MVP votes, more than a huge group of Hall of Famers, including Carl Yastrzemki, Cal Ripken and Willie McCovey. A friend of mine who runs statistics for a living ranked the five most productive players over the last 25 years. They are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell and Sheffield. And Sheffield has 251 steals: The only other members of the 500 Home Run Club with at least 251 steals are Bonds, Rodriguez and Willie Mays.
Sheffield's numbers are compelling, but they're not easy to quantify because he accumulated them for eight teams: the Brewers, Padres, Marlins, Dodgers, Braves, Yankees, Tigers and Mets. No one in the 500 Home Run Club has played for more than five teams, if that means anything. Sheffield never spent more than six years with any team, which means he's not the best player in the history of any franchise. He has never hit as many as 150 home runs for any team. Simply put, it's very hard to identify him with one team.
Sheffield's candidacy for Cooperstown has several issues -- some character and behavioral -- that could keep him out of the Hall in his first year of eligibility. Maybe his first five years. Maybe forever. But the statistics, the raw numbers, aren't an issue.
That will work against him in the Hall of Fame voting, as will his defense and his petulant ways with more than one team.
He once acknowledged purposely making throwing errors as a young player, to get himself traded out of Milwaukee. He has had a tendency to say too much publicly at times, to speak without thinking and to speak on subjects about which he has no business talking, which led to more than one unpleasant departure from a team. More than once, he whined about his contract, which was one reason why the Dodgers traded him to the Braves after the 2001 season. And after he was traded by the Yankees to the Tigers after the 2006 season, he didn't say manager Joe Torre was a racist, but said Torre treated black players differently than white players.
Sheffield was not named in the Mitchell report, but in his testimony before a grand jury in the BALCO case in 2003, he acknowledged using "the cream" and "the clear," but said he didn't know they were steroids at the time. Still, that admission raises questions about steroid use even though he has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. From 1988-98, he had two 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons. From 1999-on, which appears to be the height of the steroid era, he had seven straight years of 25 homers, and six of his eight 100-RBI seasons.
Sheffield's case is a tricky one. He has always played hard, he has often helped his team win, and he has been a middle-of-the-order hitter in the postseason with three different organizations, including a world championship team (the 1997 Marlins). He is not DiMaggio, obviously. He is not Schmidt, Griffey or Yastrzemski. Despite having similar numbers, he is not even close to being Frank Robinson, all things considered.
The marks against him are noticeable and troublesome, but his numbers -- especially 500 home runs -- are very impressive. His case is debatable, but I believe he's a Hall of Famer.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.