Durability Sheffield's trademark

Durability Sheffield's trademark

DETROIT -- For all that has made Gary Sheffield famous, Monday brought up his quiet durability. When the season comes around, he answers the bell.

He has dealt with his share of injuries over the course of his career, most recently the chronic shoulder problems that eventual led to surgery on his torn right labrum last October. Yet every year, he's ready for Opening Day.

Sheffield has never started a season on the disabled list. When he was in the Tigers' lineup as the designated hitter on Monday, it marked the 20th consecutive Opening Day in which he has played, the longest streak in the Majors among active players.

For all the statistical feats he has accomplished or will soon reach in his career -- he needs 20 home runs for 500 in his career, and he became one of the oldest players with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in the same season last year -- that kind of durability means something.

Sheffield credits at least part of it to clean living, on top of his offseason workouts.

"I never did drugs in my life, never smoked, none of those things," Sheffield said. "I took pride in that. So I think a lot of that has to do with it.

"I think by my uncle [Dwight Gooden] being in the big leagues, it prepared me for the responsibility that I had as a player. And as a key figure, you have to be accountable. I think that comes along with a lot of the responsibility when an organization depends on you a lot."

Not only has he never missed an opener since starting the 1989 season as Milwaukee's shortstop, but Sheffield has never come close. This year, while he was still recovering from surgery when he first reported to Spring Training, was the biggest threat. Even then, Sheffield was confident in mid-February he'd be ready long before camp broke.

"Never had any doubt," he said. "Never even a question."

Not only was he ready for the opener, but he was in midseason form. On a day when many players deal with the extra energy of a first game and a sellout crowd, Sheffield drew four walks in five plate appearances.

Only seven Major League players since 1956 have walked four times on Opening Day. Sheffield was the first to do so since Manny Ramirez in 2002. Others on the list include Hall of Famer Paul Molitor in 1982 and Barry Larkin in 1997.

"The thing that impresses me is, to me, that tells me he's feeling good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He wasn't charging, trying to cheat. Knock on wood, hopefully it stays that way."

If it does, Sheffield has a chance to make his fair share of history this season, including the 500-homer plateau. The Opening Day streak, however, was something new for him.

"I didn't even know it until yesterday," Sheffield said. "It's like what's going on with my career now, I'm finding out a lot of things that I'm accomplishing and doing that I never really paid any attention to. I always took the approach that my granddad always told me: 'Just play it out. When it's over, then look back at it and people will tell you what you've done. You don't have to look at what you're doing.'

"That's the approach I've always taken. I've never said I have to have this number or that number. I'll play it out and see where I'm at."

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