Happy union turns sour

NEW YORK -- There once was a time when the Yankees eagerly highlighted Dec. 7 on the calendar, making it the landmark to finally unveil Gary Sheffield's three-year, $39 million contract. As soon as the Braves declined to offer the right fielder salary arbitration, the marriage between Sheffield and the Pinstripes -- not to mention George Steinbrenner's cash -- would be official.

But Sunday's deadline came and went, the Braves never lifted a finger to keep Sheffield -- and the deal with the Yankees is teetering. Sometime this week, perhaps in the next 24 hours, Steinbrenner will decide whether Sheffield's post-handshake demand for more guaranteed money, a higher interest rate on the deferred payments and larger buyout for the 2007 season are reasons enough to cut ties.

If he does, it's a near certainty the Yankees will turn their gaze toward Vladimir Guerrero, who became more attractive to the Yankees when he, too, wasn't offered arbitration by his former team, the Expos.

The Guerrero-to-the-Bronx scenario is still a long shot -- the Orioles are considered the frontrunners for the right fielder -- but it's far from impossible. The fact that Guerrero's name is even being mentioned in Tampa reveals just how quickly the Yankees' relationship with Sheffield has deteriorated.

Just last week, Sheffield bragged about his contract in a national publication. He was seen working out at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa. He took and passed his physical. Everything was in place, including an agreement on money.

Negotiating without an agent -- Scott Boras was dismissed several months ago -- Sheffield believed he'd prevailed over Steinbrenner in extracting a deal for $12 million a year through 2006. In 2007, there would be a $12 million option or a $3 million buyout.

It was an impressive coup for Steinbrenner, as well. With a .330 average, 39 home runs and 132 RBI last year with the Braves, Sheffield had better offensive numbers than any Yankee in 2003. During their face-to-face meetings in Tampa last week, the Boss all but anointed Sheffield as the lineup's new star.

According to USA Today's Baseball Weekly, Steinbrenner told Sheffield, "I want you to make (Derek) Jeter and (Jason) Giambi better."

Steinbrenner also played heavily on Yankee tradition in courting Sheffield, telling him, "I want guys who are Hall of Famers, and I want you wearing that Yankee cap in the Hall. When you get to 500 (home runs) we'll make it a big issue. I think you'll do it in three years."

The two men agreed on the contract, and since Steinbrenner and Sheffield trusted and liked each other, none of it was put in writing. But over the weekend, Sheffield started having second thoughts, according to friends. He wanted another $3 million guaranteed, among other perks, and was angry he didn't lean on Steinbrenner more forcefully.

Sheffield's mood turned even darker as Sunday's deadline approached. He began telling peers that unless the Yankees came up with more money, he might accept the Braves' arbitration offer, after all. Word of Sheffield's threats got back to Steinbrenner, and by Monday night, the owner froze the negotiation, perhaps killing it altogether.

As it turned out, the Braves turned their backs on Sheffield, too. But their real quarrel is with the Yankees. In filing a grievance with the Commissioner's Office. Atlanta insists the outfielder was signed by the Yankees on Nov. 25, as he himself claimed in Baseball Weekly, and that any Yankee claim to the contrary was just posturing to avoid losing a draft pick.

In explaining why the Braves thus decided not to offer Sheffield arbitration, GM John Schuerholz told Newsday, "We experienced a similar situation last year where (Greg Maddux) took us to arbitration when we all thought he had multiyear offers and was definitely going to take one of them. That cost us $4.75 million on our payroll. Without a certainty that (Sheffield) was signed -- and the only way there's a certainty is if the terms are announced -- we couldn't take that chance."

The Braves are demanding two of the Yankees' picks in the 2004 draft: their first-round selection, and another pick between the first and second rounds. One Yankee insider said the Braves have "no chance whatsoever" at winning such a grievance, pointing to the fresh and apparently very real dispute between Sheffield and Steinbrenner.

"As of right now, there's no deal. Nothing's on the table," said the source.

Ultimately, members of both camps believe Steinbrenner and Sheffield will reach a cold peace, and the contract will be reconstituted. One major-league executive put it most candidly, when he said, "Gary has nowhere else to go."

Just to reinforce that point, Steinbrenner instructed GM Brian Cashman to contact Guerrero's agent and, according to the New York Post, the Boss intends to reach out to Juan Gonzalez, as well. Whether the Yankees' interest is real or cosmetic, Steinbrenner wants Sheffield to know the Yankees have options.

And, mostly, the Boss wants Sheffield to remember this: a deal's a deal. Yankee insiders say that Steinbrenner will consider only the original set of numbers -- $39 million for three years -- and that's only if the marriage with Sheffield is still alive.

Is it? The Yankee community is awaiting the Boss' verdict. One way or another, there'll soon be a resolution to this bizarre and suddenly pock-marked negotiation.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.