The Detroit Tigers’ Other Members of the 500 Home Run Club

Gary Sheffield, circa 2007. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Gary Sheffield, circa 2007. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /
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Gary Sheffield

Sheffield is the only member of ‘the 500 Club’ to make his major league debut at Tiger Stadium. On September 3, 1988, the 19-year-old Milwaukee Brewers prospect entered the game to play shortstop in the ninth inning of a 7-3 Detroit loss. The next day, Tigers pitchers Walt Terrell, Paul Gibson, and Guillermo Hernandez held young Sheff hitless, although the Brewers came out on top, 6-1.

After the Brewers traded Sheffield to the San Diego Padres, he blossomed. In 1992, he hit .330 to win the National League batting crown and enjoyed the first of his eight seasons of 30 or more home runs. Twice, he hit over 40 in a season. Sheffield went on to play for the Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, and New York Yankees before he was traded to the Tigers on November 10, 2006. Detroit was coming off a World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, and the team’s overall weak performance at the plate in the five-game Series revealed a glaring need for an impact hitter. Sheffield fit the bill.

Detroit Tigers
The well-traveled Gary Sheffield. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

The right-handed hitting veteran had accumulated 455 home runs by the time he joined the Tigers. Sheffield hit his first Detroit homer on a very cold Saturday afternoon in Kansas City. First-pitch temperature on April 7, 2007, was an astonishing 29 degrees. With two outs in the bottom of the first, he smashed the first pitch he saw from Royals righty Gil Meche. It landed in the left-field seats. (One season later, Meche gave up the first home run that Miguel Cabrera hit for the Tigers.) Later in the game, Sheff added an RBI single, and the Tigers won, 6-5.

The Tigers and Cleveland Indians battled for first place in the American League Central that summer. The two teams met for an important three-game series in early July at Comerica Park and split the first pair of contests. The pitching matchup for the finale on July 5 was Justin Verlander vs. CC Sabathia. Nearly 41,000 fans were on hand. Sheffield’s sacrifice fly in bottom of the third tied the game at 2-2. Carlos Guillen hit a three-run home run later in the inning to give the Tigers a 5-2 lead. Sheffield, who homered in the series opener, lined a 398-foot drive to left-center. It was gone. The two-run jack was an effective knockout punch, but the Tigers piled on more runs later in the game and crushed the Indians, 12-3.

Sabathia, the AL’s Cy Young Award winner that year, only lasted four innings. Verlander, who enjoyed a successful sophomore season, picked up his 10th win. For Sheffield, the homer was his 475th, which tied him with Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Willie Stargell on the all-time list. The Tigers’ designated hitter was more fired up about the victory, which narrowed Cleveland’s division lead to one game. He exclaimed,

"“You could see it in guys’ eyes when they came in today. We didn’t want Cleveland to win the series. We didn’t want those guys walking out of here with the attitude and confidence that they can beat us. We want to show them (that) we can beat you also.”"

The Indians had the last laugh, however. They won the division, and the Tigers finished eight games out in second place. Sheffield was also a second-place finisher. He hit 25 home runs, three fewer than team leader Magglio Ordoñez. Unfortunately, Sheffield really wasn’t the same after he hurt his right shoulder in a collision with second baseman Placido Polanco in late July during one of Sheff’s rare appearances in right field. He slumped in the season’s final two months, and when the sore shoulder got worse, it knocked him out of the lineup for a total of 19 games. He underwent arthroscopic surgery after the season.

Sheffield proclaimed that he was pain-free the following spring training, and the 2008 Tigers’ lineup looked like it would it be even more potent with a healthy Sheff and new acquisition Miguel Cabrera. It wasn’t. Sheffield hit only three home runs in his first 39 games before a strained left oblique landed him on the disabled list. The injury cost him 24 games.

Detroit Tigers
Gary Sheffield and Miguel Cabrera high-five on September 27, 2008. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

He homered in his return on June 24, which cut a Cardinals lead to 8-4. That ended up as the final score. Two days later, he hit a game-tying home run to left field in the bottom of the ninth against Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin. With a Win Probability Added of .465, it was Sheffield’s biggest homer as a Tiger. He was in the on-deck circle when the Tigers won on Clete Thomas’ bases-loaded walk in the 10th. Afterward, Sheffield said that he was going to “make up for lost time” and “get stronger”.

Although Sheffield did stay in the lineup for the remainder of the season, his highlights were sparse. He smacked two home runs in a game against the A’s in a 14-8 win at Comerica Park on September 8, a solo shot to left in the first inning and a grand slam to left-center in the second. At home against the Rays on September 26, Sheffield hit another pair of round-trippers. In the bottom of the first, his solo homer to right field gave the Tigers a 3-0 lead. He boosted that lead to 6-3 with a solo blast to left-center. The latter was Sheffield’s 499th home run, which prompted chants of “Gary! Gary! Gary!” from the 39,617 in attendance. He was closing in on history, and it was an exciting moment for everyone. After the 6-4 victory, Sheff remarked,

"“Something big is about to happen. You never expect something like this. I didn’t think it would sink in, but it is. It’s something I never envisioned happening.”"

There were three games left in the season, but Sheffield collected only a single and three walks in 14 plate appearances. Game 162 ended with him standing in the on-deck circle after Curtis Granderson’s flyout retired the Tigers in the ninth inning of an 8-2 loss to the White Sox in Chicago. Sheffield finished the season with 19 home runs. Nobody knew it at the time, but he would never make another plate appearance for the Tigers in a regular season game.

Detroit released the 40-year-old Sheffield on March 31, 2009 after a dismal showing in spring training. With one year left on his contract and $14 million still owed to him, it was quite a surprise. Even manager Jim Leyland was shocked. He called the news “a bomb”. Sheffield said he didn’t know how to react. A few days later, the New York Mets signed him. In his sixth game with the Mets, on April 17, Sheffield hit his 500th home run to lead off the seventh inning against his original team, the Brewers. It tied the game at 4-4. He hit 10 homers that season and finished his career with 509.