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Mudville: November 29, 2022 10:06 am PDT
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Larry Sheets

"It’s good to have the old school guys still in the game."

Larry Sheets is an old school dude.

You could tell that in one baseball conversation with him and that’s before lamenting the current state of Major League Baseball.

The power hitting lefty joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.

When you talk to Sheets about baseball, and in particular Orioles baseball, a clear reverence comes through when he mentions the likes of Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver and, of course his teammates, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray.

It’s a respect for previous generations of baseball greats and those who gave as much to the game as the game gave to them. It’s refreshing to hear at a time when that seems to be fading with the modern player.

Not under Sheets’ watch though.

Sheets is currently the head coach of the Gilman High School baseball team in Maryland and the father of White Sox slugger Gavin Sheets. You know the players who come through Sheets’ successful Gilman program are being taught the right way to play baseball.

The elder Sheets admits that Gavin is the same way too; a throwback who can hit with power (note his 11 home runs in just 54 games last season as a rookie) but who also values contact, run production and other baseball tropes that have been the keys to success for over a century.

That plays well for Tony LaRussa, who now has Gavin as a player after managing against Larry in the 1980s.

He played a role in baseball history while there too. On August 6, 1986 he hit a grand slam off Bobby Witt. Jim Dwyer and Toby Harrah also hit grand slams that day making it the first game in MLB history with three grand slams.

Sheets also had a front row to much of Cal Ripken’s streak. Hell, he had a front row to Ripken’s entire development. Sheets was picked ahead of Ripken by the Orioles in the 1978 draft and they both got their start on the Bluefield Orioles in 1978; Sheets as an 18-year-old and Ripken just 17.

Sheets has a lifetime of lessons learned on the highest levels of the sport and he’s imparting them on younger generations. Frankly, that’s exactly what baseball needs on all levels. Here’s to hoping the pendulum is swinging back the other way on that. But that’s a story for another day.

He’s a straight shooter with a sweet swing, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Larry Sheets.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Sheets. Always enjoy talking to players who I watched as a kid. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into baseball when you were young?

I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and I grew up following baseball from day one. I knew all the lineups, all the batting averages and everything about the sport. I just loved it. Back when I grew up, the Washington Senators and Orioles were the local teams and I fell in love with the Orioles with Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer and all those guys. I grew up a huge Orioles fan.

I can understand how any kid would fall in love with those teams. What was it like to eventually play for the Orioles and get to know those guys?

The thing that I appreciate the most coming through the organization at the time when I did was learning how to play the Oriole Way. Being around Brooks Robinson quite a bit and seeing how he treated people and loved the game was great. He’s a man of character and I might be biased, but I think he’s the greatest third baseman to ever play. I would also say that he’s one of the best human beings. He made that kind of impact on my life.

“The funny thing about it, at one time I had played the most games with Cal during the streak… I always said that in just my eight-year career, I had food poisoning three times. I couldn’t even get out of bed.”

Before we get into some baseball stuff, I wanted to ask about your high school basketball days. In doing some research, I saw you were big high school rivals with basketball Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson. Can you talk about that experience?

Looking back, that has to be the greatest sports moment as far as an impact on my life. Greater than anything that happened in the Major Leagues. You go out on the court to play against Sampson and there’s Dean Smith, Larry Farmer, Terry Holland and they’re all there to watch Ralph play. We beat him as many times as he beat us. It was a sellout every time we played him. As a young person, it made a huge impact on my life and it was something I’ll never forget.

Jumping to baseball, you were a second round pick by the Orioles in 1978 and got your start playing for the Bluefield Orioles in Rookie ball. Looking at the roster, you were 18, Cal Ripken was 17, Mike Boddicker and John Shelby were 20. That’s some great talent on a Rookie Ball team.

I’m always proud of the 1978 draft. Nobody has ever told me this, but I think it’s the greatest draft that the Orioles ever had. It was Cal, myself, Boddicker, Don Welchel and Bobby Bonner. When you get five guys make the Big Leagues out of a draft, that’s pretty strong. Having the opportunity to play with Cal back then, he was head and shoulders above all of us with his knowledge of the game. He wasn’t the best player on the team at that time, but he turned out to be OK. His knowledge of the game helped him to get to the Hall of Fame. He was highly intelligent, studied the game and really knew the game. That’s what I remember most about the early years.

From meeting as teenagers to playing on the Orioles together all those years, what was it like for you to watch him during his streak and seeing everything he accomplished in his career?

The funny thing about it, at one time I had played the most games with Cal during the streak. I guess it was after they got rid of Eddie Murray. I always said that in just my eight-year career, I had food poisoning three times. I couldn’t even get out of bed. That has nothing to do with baseball. The fact that he was able to avoid things like that. Eating in restaurants and coming down with some sickness or things like that was incredible. I look back and say, “Oh my God, the guy has more consecutive games played than I have at bats!” That’s pretty phenomenal.

That’s some great perspective. I grew up watching baseball in the 1980s when it was just four playoff teams. You had to win your division to make the playoffs. Looking back at the AL East when you played, every team except maybe the Indians, was pretty solid every year and most had multiple Hall of Famers. What was it like playing in the AL East at that time?

It was incredible. It’s hard for someone who came through that era to hear that they’re now talking about 12 playoff teams. We had one in each division, two in the American and two in the National. The drawback was that the Yankees weren’t very good at the time, but the Blue Jays were unreal. The Red Sox were very good and the Orioles were very good. Milwaukee was tough at that time too. You’re starting the season saying, “Man, if we don’t come in first place [ahead of those teams], we’re not going to the playoffs.”

In 1989 we had that opportunity going into Toronto, but it didn’t happen. If that was today, we get in as a Wild Card and then you never know what’s gonna happen. It was a tough era to play. The American League East is still strong. With the exception of the Orioles, everyone should be quite good.

Outfielder Larry Sheets of the Detroit Tigers goes for the ball during a game.

You mentioned that 1989 season, which was magical for Baltimore, considering the year before. What was it like being a part of that 54-win team in ’88 and then improve by 33 games the next year?

I believe wholeheartedly that if that Orioles didn’t fire Cal Ripken, Sr., we would have never lost 21 games to start the 1988 season. There’s just no way. When they hired Frank Robinson, he had previously had Eddie Murray’s brother [on the 1983 Giants] and Eddie wasn’t happy with him. Cal and Billy weren’t happy and everybody else around the Orioles at that time had the utmost respect for Cal Sr. It just upset the whole apple cart. As the losing streak went on, it was always, “What are we gonna do tonight to lose?”

The following year we got off to a good start and were playing well. I think we were up seven games at the break, but then Frank felt compelled to make some changes. Things fell apart, but we had an opportunity the final weekend. It was exciting and it would have been nice to make the playoffs for once, but it didn’t happen.

I have a stat of yours I want to throw out there and want to see what your reaction is to this. Against Jack Morris, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver and Dave Stewart, you were a combined 50-126 for a .396 batting average. What’s your reaction to beating up on all those legends?

It’s funny how baseball works, right? You face guys and they always get you out and you can’t figure out why. Then guys who should get you out don’t. That’s quite a stat that I wasn’t aware of. I knew I had done well against Nolan Ryan. To me, when you’re facing guys like that who win consistently, maybe the batter focuses a little more because he doesn’t want them to embarrass him. Maybe those guys just brought out the best in me. Man, I wish I would have spread some of that around. Maybe I would have done better!

The thing that struck me about that list is that not only are those guys great pitchers, but they’re probably the five most competitive starters of that era. All old school winners with an intimidating presence.

No doubt about it. I played one year with Jack Morris and I always said that if I had to win one game, I would pick Jack Morris to be my pitcher.

Larry Sheets #19 of the Baltimore Orioles gets ready to bat during practice before a game in the 1989 season. (Photo by: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Hard to go wrong there! I also saw something that caught my attention looking at your career stats. I always remembered you as strictly an outfielder, then I saw that you played catcher for six games in 1986, but never before or after. What’s the story there?

Earl Weaver always wanted a lefty hitting catcher that could hit with power. That was always his dream for some reason. In 1978 when I signed, he wanted to do it, but I was fighting against it. He brought it back in ’86 and I realized that I needed every little inch to keep myself in the game. I may have caught about 20 innings total and only started two games. That was a whole Earl thing though. He wanted that catcher who could bat lefty and hit home runs.  

What was your experience was like playing for Earl Weaver?

I played two years for Earl. I really and truly feel that I wouldn’t be an Oriole unless I had the opportunity to play for him. He was so far ahead of his time coaching and managing. Just brilliant. He would hurt your feelings; he didn’t have a problem doing that. But the bottom line is that there was no doghouse with Earl, which I always appreciated. If he thought you were the guy to be in a position to have the best chance to win, you were gonna be in that position. A lot of managers don’t manage like that. You get in the doghouse and you stay in it for a while, but not with Earl. The best man for that spot was going to be in the game. Watching how he and Cal Sr. operated was incredible. You always knew where you stood. If you were on the bench, you knew at least an inning in advance if you were going to be needed. They always had things planned out that far.

You have been a successful high school baseball coach yourself now. Do you take lessons learned from Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken, Sr. into your coaching?

I really do. A lot of the things we do are similar to what we did then. I’d certainly be more in the Sparky Anderson line in the way I talk to the kids. There’s no doubt that you reflect back to what you learned. I still hear myself saying things that those guys said to me. It’s been a big part of my coaching career. It’s funny, because my son is in the Big Leagues now with the White Sox playing for Tony LaRussa. We had battles with Tony in the ‘80s and here it is and he’s still managing in 2022. It’s good to have the old school guys still in the game. I’m not sure the new school guys get the whole picture, but that’s another story.

That’s a pretty crazy connection I didn’t think of. You were going against LaRussa’s A’s 30 something years ago and now your son, Gavin Sheets, is playing for him. What has that been like for you to watch?

It’s been fun and stressful. You want him to succeed. You see him getting an opportunity and sometimes that opportunity doesn’t last long. The first time he got sent down, the numbers just got him. Then they brought him back up, things went well and he had an opportunity in the playoffs. I played eight years and never sniffed the playoffs and he had been in the Big Leagues for two months and got to the playoffs, so that was pretty cool.

I can imagine having you for a dad, he was brought up on old school baseball, which has to benefit him playing for LaRussa. How does Gavin balance that old school approach and playing for Tony LaRussa with all the changes to today’s game?    

He’s mentioned a few times that some things Tony said were the same things I say too. I’m so thankful that he’s not a launch angle guy. You hit and do what you can do. Strikeouts matter, RBIs count and those kind of things are considered old school.

That’s awesome and I can say that all of us at BallNine completely agree. That brings me to my final question, which is open-ended. What final thoughts about baseball in general would you like to leave our readers with?

Oh boy. It’s a fabulous game, but I hope that this modern baseball doesn’t ruin it. You gotta get back to where strikeouts count, hits are great and RBIs really matter because there are a lot of hitters that don’t want to hit with runners in scoring position. Home runs aren’t the be-all and end-all. I love what they’re talking about having all four infielders on the dirt. Those are all things that can get us back to playing real baseball and not short right field softball.

If bunts mattered and hitting the other way mattered, [the shift] could have taken care of itself. But when the bottom line is how much power you’re hitting with, people aren’t willing to take the ball the other way in that situation. I remember hearing Earl Weaver going to [Orioles General Manager] Hank Peters to stick up for guys saying that they may not have the stats, but they did little things like moving runners to help the ball club. Earl would go fight for those guys for contracts for the following year. Let’s get back to the exciting game it used to be when managers actually managed.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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