TAMPA, Fla. -- There is no place in sports quite like the New York Yankees and their own inimitable universe.
So naturally, there is also no relief in sports as profound as the relief the Yankees felt Tuesday upon learning Gary Sheffield won't have to visit his friendly neighborhood thumb surgeon.
What would life without Sheffield have meant to the Yankees? It would have meant, of course, that they might have had to try to muddle along this year with just seven All-Star bats in their lineup, instead of eight.
Either that, or they'd have to trade for, say, Vladimir Guerrero to get them through the next few weeks. Assuming, that is, that Reggie Jackson couldn't be talked into an emergency comeback.
In the Yankees' world, they reach only for the sky. And that shouldn't surprise anybody anymore. They are who they are. They do what they do. And they do it as well as it can be done, with no pretense, no embarrassment and no regrets.
So there's no telling who might have shown up had Sheffield not been told Tuesday, by New York hand specialist Dr. Melvin Rosenwasser, that he can try to keep playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb.
The possibilities are truly endless: Hank Aaron? Andre Dawson? Sammy Sosa? Some descendant of Tris Speaker maybe?
Remember, George Steinbrenner stopped by the Letterman show last month to make a Top 10 joke about acquiring Ty Cobb. But if somebody like Sheffield ever does go down, we bet every one of those New York tabloids will have to make at least a call or two to make sure he was only kidding.
Heck, all it took was the suggestion Monday that there was even a chance Sheffield might miss two to three months, and the first Junior Griffey-to-the-Yankees rumor of the spring was right there in the New York Post.
Why the Yankees would want to trade for a guy with five years and $65 million left on his contract to fill a temporary, injury-induced hole -- when they actually have too many outfielders now -- is a question people could laugh at uproariously on 29 other teams.
But this is where we are bound, by journalistic responsibility, to point out once again: These are the Yankees.
"Around here," laughed one Yankee, "you don't rule anything out."
Well, you can this time. For now, anyway.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman admits there is still the possibility that Sheffield might need surgery. But let's just say it caught the Yankees' attention that after Sheffield suffered a similar injury last July, he only managed to hit .327, with 17 homers, 62 RBI and a .596 slugging percentage, the rest of the season.
When Braves manager Bobby Cox was asked Tuesday what he recalled about Sheffield's injury last year, Cox took off his hat, scratched his head and gave one of those looks that could be translated loosely as: Hey, leave me the heck out of this.
"I can't remember," Cox said, quizzically. "How many games did he miss?"
And the answer to that would be precisely ... um ... one (July 11).
"Gary never complains," Cox said. "About anything. He'll play. Gary plays."
Asked if there was ever any thought of sending Sheffield for an MRI last summer, Cox showed his appreciation for modern medical technology and all it has wrought by replying, jovially: "If the bone ain't showing, you play, right?"
For the record, the bone still isn't showing. And also for the record, the Yankees still aren't making any sort of damaged-goods claim on Sheffield. As well they shouldn't.
If he can hit .327 when he's hurt, they don't need to file a grievance. They need to send the rest of the lineup out to get hurt exactly that way.
"I don't think Gary knew what he had going on," Cashman said. "I don't think Atlanta knew what he had going on. And certainly his performance didn't dictate what was going on."
Which is all true. But just in case that stance should ever change, Braves GM John Schuerholz felt obliged to point out that his team was trying as hard to sign Sheffield this winter as the Yankees were. Which it no doubt wouldn't have pursued if it had thought he was a thumb catastrophe waiting to happen.
"I know we don't have the cadre of medical people the Yankees have," Schuerholz quipped. "But our sawbones looked at him, too -- and said, 'Here you go.' "
Schuerholz did concede that Sheffield has jammed his thumb "three or four times" over the years -- "but it obviously didn't bother his swing," Schuerholz said. "He had like supersonic bat speed."
Matter of fact, several of his sonic booms are still ringing in the ears of the men who had to pitch against him -- including some of his current teammates.
"If he had this last year, he sure didn't look like it," said Javier Vazquez, who made four starts against Sheffield and the Braves last year as a member of the Expos. "He was a tough out, man. If he was hurt, I don't want to see him when he's healthy."
"The thing I noticed," said White, who faced the Braves three times in relief for the Reds last year, "is that it was almost like (Gary) got overconscious of the ball inside. The way he described this thing to me, he said it always felt like he just got jammed. So it seemed like he wanted to make sure he didn't get jammed for real.
"Last year, I told him that every time he came up, you could count on him pulling one foul ball that he hit so hard, nobody could even see where it went. I remember one game where we came in on him really hard, and he hit the ball in the upper deck in Atlanta, almost out of the stadium. I just think he was a little sore, so he seemed to be determined to make sure nobody knew that."
Well, if he was planning on doing that this year, it's too late now. But he and his new franchise stand an excellent chance of surviving this little mix-up no matter how it turns out. And you can quote us on that.
"You look around this clubhouse," Vazquez said, "and you've got All-Star players beside you everywhere you look. Coming from Montreal, we just had Vlad. I mean, we had some other good players there, too. Don't get me wrong. But coming here, you've got 10-12 All-Stars and all these veteran players. It's a different world."
Yep, it's the only $185-million baseball-team world on our planet. And with or without Sheffield, the Yankees will get what they pay for.
"When we first heard (Monday) that Sheff might be out," said reliever Paul Quantrill, another of the new Yankees, "we were actually joking about it. Somebody said, 'Yeah, I guess our season's over,' and we all kind of giggled. The truth is, we've got so many veteran guys who can play, that's what makes this team. We have so much depth, it means you can even lose a guy as good as Gary Sheffield and say, 'Hey, we're still good. In a division that's very tough, we're still the team to beat.' "
White told the story of the surreal feeling that came over him before the home opener this spring at Legends Field, when he found himself listening to the names in the Yankees' starting lineup being bellowed over the p.a. system.
"I'm standing there, listening to the names, and I'm thinking, 'I guess (Hideki) Matsui isn't playing today,' " White said. "But they just hadn't gotten to him yet because he was hitting sixth or seventh in the order. I'll tell you, when they announce those first six, seven, eight guys and they're all All-Stars, it's very cool."
Unless you're the team on the other side of the field, that is. In which case, it's very scary. And what's really scary is that that will be true whether Sheffield can play 162 games, 60 games or even just two.
It will also be true even if they don't go out and get Griffey, Magglio Ordonez, Juan Gonzalez or anybody else. As long as the Yankees can move Matsui to right, install Bernie Williams in left and play Kenny Lofton in center, that's still a three-All-Star outfield.
And how many other teams in this sport can run one of those out there on days when they aren't playing their first team? Let's just say none come to mind.
"This is an amazing place," said White. "You know, I don't care who you are. When you go through life, it doesn't matter what it is -- women, cars, anything -- everything always looks better when somebody else has it. Then you get it and you find out it really isn't better.
"Well, I've always viewed the Yankees like that. But now that I'm here, I know the difference. There's nowhere else where it's better than this. I understand that now. I really think everyone should get to play for the Yankees one time, because there's nowhere like it."
And the beauty of the Yankees, friends, is that that's a sentiment we can all agree on. It's a good thing if you're there. It's a bad thing if you're not. And it's a particularly fascinating thing to contemplate on a day when the $39-million right fielder is the owner of the most talked-about right thumb in America.