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Sheffield's trademark stroke settles in

Sheff's trademark stroke settles in

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Gary Sheffield took his hugs. Then he took his hacks.

For someone who says he has never picked up a bat during the offseason, it was hard to tell on Wednesday. The first day of full-squad workouts was otherwise known as the first day of Sheffield batting practice in Tiger Town. It wasn't one of those home run derby type of sessions with one tape-measure shot after another, but it was a day to watch Sheffield's trademark quick hands whip the bat through the strike zone.

"When you watch it," manager Jim Leyland said, "it goes through as quick as anybody I've ever seen."

It was one of those days when Sheffield reminded people why he's here. Sheffield stepped into a Tigers uniform and hit.

"I just add another presence," he said. "I know what I can do. Mr. Leyland knows what I can do. Dave Dombrowski knows what I can do. It's just a matter of going out and doing it."

Sheffield expects to get his hacks. The hugs were a bit of a surprise.

He was ready for the lingering questions about his departure from the Yankees. He declined comment on the well-reported relationship between his former teammates, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. He remarked how sad it is to see Bernie Williams' time in pinstripes come to an end. But after an unceremonious end to his three years in the Bronx Zoo, the reception Sheffield received upon walking into the Tigers clubhouse was new.

"Guys were like they were happy to see me," he said. "It feels good to be wanted. When I walked in, guys seemed like they wanted me to be here.

"It was getting the high fives and the hugs. That's unusual coming into a new clubhouse. It's usually like, 'We're going to see how you come in,' and just getting a feel for you. Here, it's different. The [winter] caravan helped a lot because we spent the whole week together."

It was a new situation, he said, but an old, familiar face controlling it.

Without Leyland, there's a good chance Sheffield wouldn't have been donning a Tigers uniform. It wasn't necessarily that Leyland recruited Sheffield to accept a November trade; that's not what Leyland does. Simply knowing Leyland was the manager helped Sheffield feel comfortable about the situation.

Leyland insists he doesn't treat Sheffield any different than he treats any other player. When asked about his observations watching Sheffield in batting practice Wednesday, Leyland was initially reluctant to answer, saying he doesn't like to point out individual players on the first day.

In a way, though, Leyland and Sheffield are of a similar mindset. Sheffield credits Leyland for allowing him to be himself.

"I am what I am," Leyland said. "I always say if you don't want the truth, don't ask me. People who tend to speak the truth tend to get in a lot of trouble. I guess that would be me."

Leyland, too, believes in speaking the truth. He'll let his players speak their mind, but he reserves the right to answer back, even if it's in print. He believes his years managing in the Minor Leagues prepared him for that. He still remembers being a young manager in Clinton, Iowa, and having to tell a player he was cut -- essentially, that his baseball dreams were probably over. The player cried, but later sent him a letter thanking him for being upfront.

Nearly a decade ago, it was Leyland who broke the news to Sheffield that the world champion Marlins were breaking up. He wanted to let Sheffield know how bad it was going to get so he didn't hear it second-hand, so he knew what to expect when his name popped up on the trading block.

"He told me to take the best situation," Sheffield said. "That's how I wound up going to LA. I took his advice and that's the only reason I left."

He ventured to Los Angeles, to Atlanta, then to New York, and now to Detroit. He's on his seventh team in his 20th Major League season. He made a point not to say he's glad to be here instead of in Yankees camp, and he insists he's not bitter about the way his Yankees tenure ended. Wherever he is, he says, he's happy.

"I actually like going from team to team," he said. "A lot of people look at it as it's a big adjustment. For me, it's like a new toy."

For Leyland, Sheffield is anything but a new face -- or a new personality.

"I hope he doesn't go to any more teams," he said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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