0

Tigers release Sheffield one homer away from his 500th

LAKELAND, Fla. - Gary Sheffield's next home run will be his 500th in the major leagues.

The question is: What uniform will he be wearing when he hits it?

The Detroit Tigers released the nine-time All-Star on Tuesday, leaving him without a team as he closes in on becoming the 25th player to reach the milestone.

Sheffield left camp as the rest of his former teammates were reporting for an afternoon game against the Washington Nationals.

'I wouldn't say I'm shocked, but I am surprised,' Sheffield told The Oakland Press of Pontiac. 'To do this when somebody is one home run away ... I don't know how to react to it.'

'Jim (Leyland) said, 'We're going to go with versatility.' When he said that word I thought to myself, 'I'm probably the most athletic guy on this team.' But they're entitled to their opinion,' Sheffield said.

Marcus Thames, who will take Sheffield's place in the lineup as designated hitter, also was surprised by the move.

'Somebody told me he was released, and I couldn't believe it,' he said. '(Miguel) Cabrera looked like he was in a state of shock.'

Leyland, the Tigers manager, said he had a hard time sleeping Monday night, knowing he was going to release a future Hall of Famer.

'I lit two Marlboros at the same time,' Leyland said. 'I couldn't sleep. But I feel better that it's over with than I did at 3 in the morning.'

Leyland said it wasn't a personality issue and still was struggling over the decision after Sheffield packed up his locker and left.

'It doesn't mean it's right, but I feel good. This thing has been eating at me. We need to be a more (versatile) team, and that's why it happened.'

The slugger's stay in Detroit was a disappointing one. The team was hopeful Sheffield would be a powerful presence at the plate in the final season of the $28 million, two-year contract extension it gave him after acquiring him from the Yankees for prospects.

But Sheffield failed to deliver in large part because he often was injured. Any team can sign him for the $400,000 minimum, with Detroit paying the rest of his $14 million salary.

The move came a day after the Tigers acquired outfielder Josh Anderson from Atlanta, forcing the team to make some tough decisions about its roster a week ahead of opening the season in Toronto.

The 40-year-old Sheffield had a .178 batting average in 18 spring training games this year. The designated hitter had eight hits - including five home runs - in 45 at-bats.

'It's one of those things where you move on, you know?' Sheffield told the Detroit Free Press. 'I was surprised. I thought I was getting ready for the season. I never thought that I wasn't going to be playing with the Detroit Tigers this year. It's probably a blessing.'

In other moves Tuesday, the Tigers placed starting pitcher Jeremy Bonderman on the 15-day disabled list and optioned the contract of outfielder Clete Thomas to Triple-A Toledo.

The team said Bonderman's placement on the DL was retroactive to Monday as the right-hander continues to recover from shoulder surgery that sidelined him for most of last season.

Infielder Will Rhymes and outfielder Timo Perez were assigned to minor league camp.

The moves leave Detroit with 31 players remaining in camp.

Shoulder and assorted other injuries - and perhaps age - limited Sheffield to 114 games and a .225 average last year and 133 games and a .265 average two seasons ago with the Tigers.

Sheffield said he didn't need surgery in the offseason for the first time in several years, making him feel better during spring training than he has been since 2001.

His uncle, Doc Gooden, and other family members had planned to attend Detroit's season-opening series, hoping to watch him reach 500.

Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson are the only players in baseball history with as many home runs as Sheffield, plus at least 2,500 hits, 1,500 RBIs and 200 stolen bases.

In All-Star games, he has represented San Diego, Florida, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta and the Yankees since making his debut two decades ago in Milwaukee.

The career .292 hitter has 1,633 RBIs, putting him 27th on the all-time list.

Sheffield said he doesn't believe his career is over.

'No,' he told The Detroit News. 'It ain't close.'