The Sheffield Shuffle

It’s a tabloid truism that baseball sells papers. That’s why, in late November–with the Jets, Giants and Knicks winning and the Rangers hosting former captain Mark Messier–the back page of the New York Post on Nov. 25 was devoted to a baseball player from Florida.

The Post and the Daily News are in the midst of a protracted circulation war; sports coverage is the weapon of choice, and the battleground is slugger Gary Sheffield of the Florida Marlins. The two newspapers have been skirmishing over whether or not Mr. Sheffield will join the Mets for next season. The Post clearly wants Mr. Sheffield at Shea Stadium; the News seems content to live without him.

Throughout the Sheffield soap opera, the two tabloids have behaved like bickering brothers. They disagree by rote, taking different positions in their reporting apparently just for the sake of it.

The Post has pumped up the story, reporting at one point that a trade for the player was all but done. Then, 10 days later, after trade talks had fallen apart, they tried to deliver the story a little CPR. Their back-page headline on Nov. 25–“Sheffield’s Met Dream”–was basically a lengthy plaint by Mr. Sheffield that trade talks had been called off. The Post’s Mets beat writer, David Waldstein, somehow got Mr. Sheffield on the phone and started taking dictation. “I’ve always had it in my heart to play for the Mets,” Mr. Sheffield said. But the chances of that had all but disappeared two days before. So what was the Post doing by giving such prominent play to the yearnings of a ballplayer with a less-than-savory reputation?

Some beat writers have grumbled that the Post is getting its stories from someone connected to the Marlins who wants to create the impression that demand for Mr. Sheffield’s services is heavy. If the papers say the Mets really want him, maybe they will someday. It is almost as though the Post shares Mr. Sheffield’s Mets dream and believes it can will Mr. Sheffield, one of the best hitters in baseball, into a Met uniform.

The dream began when the Marlins, fresh from winning this year’s World Series, announced that they would gut their roster to trim the payroll. Mr. Sheffield, at $10 million a year, was the most expensive talent on the team and therefore very available. Most teams, however, were scared off by his mammoth contract. The remaining few, including the Mets, had to consider Mr. Sheffield’s stormy past. Fred Wilpon, co-owner of the Mets, conceded to The Observer that he wants no repeats of well-publicized incidents several seasons ago, when the Met locker room seemed to be filled with men behaving badly. “The writers knew that I was unhappy when we were, in my view, burned in the early 90’s by a lack of production and a lot of turmoil,” Mr. Wilpon said. “This is not what we wanted.” After underachieving outfielder Vince Coleman threw a large firecracker at fans in Los Angeles and pitcher Bret Saberhagen sprayed bleach on a group of reporters, Mr. Wilpon decided to purge his team of “bad citizens.”

No Hits, Several Errors

Mr. Sheffield does have something of a spotty reputation, one that his personal publicist insists is not deserved. Mr. Sheffield, who is pitcher Dwight Gooden’s nephew, has been investigated for substance abuse, for leaving two bullets and a threatening note on the doorstep of the mother of one of his three kids, and for a mysterious incident in which Mr. Sheffield himself was wounded by gunfire.

Nothing ever stuck; the consensus seems to be that he’s a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, fall-in-with-a-bad-crowd kind of guy. But, by his own admission, he is no Joe DiMaggio: He has stated publicly that he committed fielding errors on purpose years ago in an effort to get himself traded from the Milwaukee Brewers.

But that’s so much history at the Post. Mr. Waldstein wrote: “Reports of Sheffield’s past seem greatly exaggerated, and even if they were true, he is trying hard to reverse them. Through the Sheffield Foundation, he is reported to have organized and funded many charities …. ” In other words he’s a swell guy, Mr. Wilpon. Whaddaya say?

Throughout it all, the Daily News has been forced to respond. Sports fans tend to reach for those big back pages. If the News isn’t going to run them, then the paper at least has to refute them. That’s how the tabloid game is played.

On Saturday, Sept. 15, the Post ran a story in its limited-run evening edition declaring that the Mets were about to acquire Mr. Sheffield, pending the approval of Mr. Wilpon. The next morning, the Post revisited the story on its front page: “Amazin’ Trade: Mets Set to Deal for World Series Slugging Star.”

When Daily News editors in New York saw the Saturday-evening Post story, they panicked. They had been scooped. So they called Bill Madden, their lead baseball writer who was in Arizona covering the expansion draft and the annual meeting of general managers, and they asked him to look into it.

At around 11 p.m., New York time, Mr. Madden reached Mr. Wilpon at home. Mr. Wilpon denied the reports, saying no deal was in the works. So on Sunday, Sept. 16, the News ran a story denying the Post’s contention that the deal was nearly done. (Both papers, it should be noted, are in a heated battle for Sunday readers.) It seemed as though the News was acting the part of party pooper, while fans hungry for a big-time hitter in the Mets lineup bought the Post–and the Post’s spin–instead.

“What we have here is what I call the new journalism, in which papers create their own story,” Mr. Madden complained.

A Character Issue?

Meanwhile, Mr. Madden’s conversation with Mr. Wilpon may have created a story of its own. On Thursday, Nov. 20, Lawrence Rocca, the Mets beat reporter for the New Jersey–based Star-Ledger, wrote a piece assessing the team’s chances of landing Mr. Sheffield. Mr. Rocca said that the player’s personality had “recently emerged” as a source of concern. Mr. Rocca then cited a conversation between Mr. Wilpon and “a longtime baseball writer at a New York newspaper.” According to Mr. Rocca’s piece, which cited sources within the Mets organization, the writer–whom he did not identify–told Mr. Wilpon that a trade for Mr. Sheffield “would guarantee a stream of negative publicity for the team,” because of the character issue.

Contacted by The Observer, Mr. Rocca stood by his story, but refused to identify the “longtime baseball writer.” “I don’t think the identity of the writer is relevant,” he said. Other sources, however, speculated that the writer in question was Mr. Madden, the dubious theory being that he was trying to prevent a trade from happening to render his reporting accurate–and the Post’s story inaccurate. “That’s total absolute bullshit,” Mr. Madden said.

For his part, Mr. Wilpon denied that his conversation with Mr. Madden included any advice about press reaction to Mr. Sheffield. “That’s nonsense,” he told The Observer. “It’s a total fabrication.” He said that he had talked to several baseball writers, including Mr. Madden, about Mr. Sheffield, but no writer warned him about a possible press campaign against the slugger.

Mr. Madden was livid that his name was injected into the dispute, but he could take solace in the fact that his skeptical take on the Met-Marlin talks had prevailed. By the time a week had passed, Mr. Wilpon had apparently decided he did not want Mr. Sheffield. Trade talks between the Marlins and the Mets ended on Nov. 23. The Mets cited differences over money.

But as of Nov. 25, the story lived on in the Post, albeit on life support. It is still possible, after all, that Mr. Sheffield’s price will come down. Very few teams can afford him. Perhaps Mr. Wilpon will have another chance to weigh the character issue, to worry whether Mr. Sheffield would be a step forward (pennant chases, a hot bat in the middle of the order) or a step back (remember Bobby Bonilla?).

And if, in January or June, the Mets do manage to get Mr. Sheffield, you can rest assured that the Post, on its back page, will crow, “We told you so!”