Sheets regains yen for the game

KEN ROSENTHAL

March 15, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CHANDLER, ARIZ — CHANDLER, Ariz. -- No one blinked when the Orioles release Larry Sheets in the spring of 1991 -- no one, that is, except Sheets. The experience left him so bitter, he sat out the entire season, and spent the next one in Japan.

Now, he's back for one last shot at the majors, pounding line drive after line drive for the Milwaukee Brewers. He faces long odds this spring, but finally seems at peace. He has rediscovered his love for the game, a love that all but disappeared in '91.

"I can't say anything about '91 without getting very upset at an individual, so it's best not to say anything," Sheets says. "After I got through the six weeks of hell I was in, I hated baseball. I hated it with a passion. It was the worst six weeks of my life."

Sheets, 33, won't single out former Orioles manager Frank Robinson by name, but that's clearly the individual he's talking -- about. The implication is that Robinson didn't gave him a fair shot in '91, and made his life miserable in the process.

"It was meant to be difficult on me -- it mentally fried me," Sheets says. "There were some opportunities after that. Some teams wanted me to come play Triple-A. But I didn't want to. I didn't want to see a baseball. I was mentally frazzled."

As a non-roster player, Sheets batted only 26 times that spring, coming off a year in which he hit .261 with 10 homers and 52 RBI for Detroit. Robinson, however, says he doesn't recall playing mind games with Sheets. In fact, he says he helped get Sheets invited to camp in the first place.

"I don't remember being hard on Larry Sheets," Robinson says of the veteran, who was an Oriole from 1984 to '89 before getting traded to Detroit for infielder Mike Brumley. "I'm the one who said, 'Let's give him a shot.' Nobody else wanted him around."

As it turned out, Sheets took the entire '91 season off, living in Cockeysville, spending his days playing golf. "I never missed baseball," he says, "but at the end of the year we were building a house, and the Japan thing came up. Financially, it was a good thing. My wife and daughter were excited about it. So, we did it."

Former Orioles as different as Jim Traber and Phil Bradley hated Japan. Sheets, however, describes his season with the Yokohama Taiyo Whales as a revelation. He earned more than $1 million and the club provided an $8,000-a-month apartment. He also batted .308 with 26 homers, and led the country with 100 RBI.

His experience no doubt would have been different had he not performed well -- "They expect an awful lot of American players," he says. "They can make it difficult on you." But Sheets returned to the United States convinced he still could make an impact in the majors.

"I went over there and really started to enjoy playing again," Sheets says. "Now, I've got a tremendous desire to play. I know I can help teams. I'm swinging the bat this spring training better than in any spring training before. And it's fun."

It sounds like a fairy-tale ending, especially the way Sheets is crushing the ball -- he's 6-for-18 this spring, with four doubles and six RBI. But 12 days after signing Sheets to a minor-league contract in November, the Brewers traded for his baseball twin -- Kevin Reimer.

Reimer, 28, is another left-handed power hitter who fields poorly and is most useful as a designated hitter. The difference is, he's five years younger than Sheets, and coming off a pair of seasons in Texas which he averaged 18 homers and 64 RBI.

Manager Phil Garner says Reimer is certain to make the team, while Sheets is competing for the 25th spot. It seems unlikely the Brewers, a team so committed to speed, would carry two such plodders. But Sheets figures if he stays hot all spring, some team will want him.

He had only one outstanding season for the Orioles, and that was in 1987, the year the ball was juiced. Talk about an aberration: Sheets hit .316 with 31 homers and 94 RBI in '87. In his other five seasons, he batted .247 and averaged 12 homers and 48 RBI.

Assuming Reimer stays healthy, the Brewers likely will ask Sheets to be their Triple-A first baseman, at which point he'll be forced to make a decision. He can retire knowing he gave it one last shot. Or he could go to Triple-A clinging to the notion of a comeback.

If he makes it, well, there will be at least one delicious irony. Sheets couldn't be No. 19 with the Brewers, because his old Orioles number belongs to Robin Yount. So, intentionally or not, he's wearing a number that serves as a constant reminder of his old adversary, Frank Robinson.

You guessed it.

He's No. 20.

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