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Smizik: Sheffield, Thomas earn fans' contempt

Tuesday, February 27, 2001

It was just a few weeks ago that fans and media jumped all over the Pirates' John Vander Wal because he had expressed a desire to be traded. Vander Wal, it seemed, was messing with team chemistry, which is difficult to do on a team that had no chemistry.

In view of what has transpired in baseball in the past week, Vander Wal, who wanted nothing more than regular playing time, could pass for a choirboy in the eyes of even his harshest Pittsburgh critic.

Baseball was hit in recent days by what apparently is the first fallout from a flurry of exceedingly high salaries negotiated in the off-season. It was ugly; pure greed usually its cause.

The actions of Gary Sheffield of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, two men not adverse to publicly displaying the extent of their petty jealousy and mean-spiritedness, were a powerful blow to baseball, a sport struggling to show the public it's not filled with greedy millionaires. Sheffield and Thomas showed themselves to be just that and more.

Sheffield and Thomas are apparently hurt and stunned that other players are making significantly more money than they are. That seems to be the reason they are attempting to break or extend their existing contracts and bully their own or other teams into paying them more money.

Sheffield claimed his feud was not about money but about respect. Thomas, to his credit, told the truth and said his absence from camp is about money, that it is about the fact his salary has fallen behind the highest in the game.

Sheffield, in the middle of a six-year, $60 million contract, has demanded a trade -- and then only to the New York Mets, New York Yankees or Atlanta Braves. Thomas, signed through 2006 to a contract that could be worth $85 million, reported to spring training, walked out and, as of yesterday, had yet to return.

Both players are vital components of teams expected to contend for a title, which means they are not just disappointing their fans but also their teammates. They've put themselves in front of everyone.

To the credit of both teams, neither has capitulated to the threats. In owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Thomas is messing with a guy capable of letting him sit out the season. The Dodgers issued a strongly worded statement yesterday, which they said would be the final word on the matter until it is resolved.

"If we can provide Gary with his request, we'll do so, but we have to get fair value. If not, there's a good chance Gary will play for the Dodgers this season. We've all heard what Gary has had to say and we'll take that into consideration, but we will not make any bad trades just to fulfill his requests."

Bravo to the Dodgers, who have been put in an impossible situation by Sheffield's lowlife tactics. There is virtually no possibility they can get equal return for Sheffield. There are not many players his equal, for starters, and the three teams in question, all championship caliber, would be hesitant to give up their best players for a career malcontent.

Sheffield said if he's traded to a team other than Atlanta or New York he will, as is his right, demand to be traded after this season, which would make a deal to another team difficult.

The sorry behavior of Sheffield and Thomas is so unacceptable that even their fellow players are turning against them, a rare sight in modern team sports.

Pedro Martinez, arguably the most valuable commodity in baseball aside from Alex Rodriquez, has a six-year contract that pays him $75 million, about $12.5 million a season. That is significantly below what he could make on the open market.

Martinez spoke strongly of the two players to the Boston Globe:

"At the time [they signed], they were better paid than most of the players. They just have to stick to it. They are professional. They have to understand that if they agreed to that, they keep their word. They can't complain.

"I mean, we're like spoiled babies now. Ten million dollars is a lot of money."

Todd Zeile of the Mets told CBS SportsLine, "It's my position that ownership should stand as firm as they can on it.

"The whole crux of the matter is this: Signing a multiyear contract is a risk for both player and club. It gives the player security, but there also is the chance that his contract will be less than market value by the time it reaches the last couple of years."

Thomas' case is particularly reprehensible because in the first two years of his contract, he played below expectations. He did not, of course, offer to give any of his salary back.

Sheffield is the lowest of the low, despite a recent attempt to mend his reputation by actually comporting himself as a team player. He is the guy who admitted intentionally making throwing errors while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1980s.

There is an upside to all this. For once, there are spring training stories to root for: We can only fervently hope that Sheffield never gets his trade and that Thomas be left to hold out all season.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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