He also said he was "flabbergasted" and "totally caught off guard."
It comes down to a difference in the interpretation of platooning, and whether that's what Sheffield is doing right now.
While the Tigers were in Chicago last week for their series against the White Sox, Sheffield told Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo that he feels well enough to play the outfield, instead of serving as the designated hitter.
"I can be in the outfield and play every day," Sheffield told Cafardo. "I don't want to DH. I don't feel like a baseball player when I DH. I don't know how to be the leader that I am from the bench. I can't be a vocal leader. I can't talk to guys from the bench, because I don't feel right about it. I'm in a role now where I don't know what to do, really."
On his playing time, he said, "I don't prefer platooning here, but I understand because I got off to a slow start, that's part of it. But I feel I'm playing better now. I'm back to being a threat I need to be."
When Leyland was asked on Monday what he made of Sheffield's comments, he said, "Tough."
Then he went into detail.
"I was totally flabbergasted by that article, and totally caught off guard," Leyland said. "When we made the trade for Gary Sheffield, we received permission from the Commissioner's Office to speak with Gary, which I did. I told him that all I had here for him was the DH role, and maybe play in the outfield once in a great while. [I told him], 'If you do not want to accept that, do not accept the trade.'"
It was more the platoon term, however, that had Leyland disputing the comments, mainly because he considered a platoon a situation in which two players split time. It also got him to counting Sheffield's playing time this year, though he said he understood the veteran's frustration.
"You're talking about a player that's been banged up -- I mean, brutally banged up -- and still playing," Leyland said. "A lot of people wouldn't be playing, to his credit. I just think it's frustrating for Gary that the injuries have not enabled him to do things that he's been able to do in the past. And I can understand that. I totally understand that. And obviously, from a medical standpoint, we've tried to get him through this as best we can, give him a blow once in a while.
"You're doing what you think is right and somebody's mad because they got a blow? I don't buy that. I'm sorry. I looked at the games. Thirty-nine [games played] out of 51 before he got hurt, and about seven [more] he would've played, except his shoulder was clicking and he needed some time off. So that's about 46 out of 51. Since the [stint on the disabled list], it's 36 out of 43. I hardly consider that platooning, I'm sorry."
Leyland said he had not talked with Sheffield about his role.
Asked for a reaction afterward, Sheffield said he wasn't trying to express frustration. He was asked about his role, he said, and he answered. He was mainly referring to a stretch earlier this summer when Leyland was trying to find semi-regular playing time for Sheffield and left fielders Marcus Thames and Matt Joyce, but also alluded to Tigers position players in general finding time at DH, something that has happened on occasion.
"They told me I'm not going to play the outfield, so I'm asked to play one role, and that's DH," Sheffield said. "When I come in and sometimes I'm not playing, I don't see where I need rest to DH. If other players need blows, then take a blow. But when other players need blows and then they DH, that's all I get to do.
"I wouldn't let them put me down as a DH [on the roster], because in my mind, I'm not going to accept that that's what I am. But that's my position; that's fine. I understand that. There's no rift in that aspect of it. If that one little sentence or comment about platoon or whatever is offensive to anyone -- but that's just the way I see it. If I'm not playing every day, then I'm platooning."
When Sheffield was presented with Leyland's definition of a platoon, he said, "Well, then we disagree on it, because that's what I call platooning. I mean, if you're an everyday player, you play 59 out of 59, unless you can't play.
"Call it what you want. Anybody can call it what they want. I call it what I want."
Detroit played Sheffield in the outfield in May after he suggested to coaches that he could get out of an early-season slump if he was playing the field. The Tigers were concerned about the move following Sheffield's surgery last offseason to repair a torn right labrum, but they agreed. He started six games in the outfield before moving back to designated hitter.
"To me, the production was no different," Leyland said. "And I think the lack of production that we've gotten from Gary this year is solely due to several injuries and trying to fight through it. And I applaud him for trying to fight through some real serious operations."
Those health concerns were another reason that his stint in left field ended.
"He couldn't throw in from the outfield," Leyland said, "and it was the suggestion of a lot of [medical] people that it's going to get hurt again, probably worse [if he plays the outfield]. I tried that because at one point, Gary suggested he felt like he hit better when he played [there]. That did not work. So I'm totally flabbergasted by this article."
Soon after moving back to DH, Sheffield strained his left oblique on Memorial Day against the Angels and went on the 15-day disabled list for about four weeks.
"In total fairness, I think that all but about three months here, it's been frustrating for Gary because he hasn't been healthy," Leyland said. "And nobody feels worse about that than me. You talk about winning and wanting to be on a winner and everything -- that's why we got Gary Sheffield. And for the last year, when he was healthy, he was one of the more productive [players] we had. But I can't help it that he's had injuries. That's not my fault. But like I said, I just got blindsided by this."
Leyland also disagreed with Sheffield's comment about leadership.
"I don't buy that," Leyland said. "People lead by example. The type of leadership that Gary Sheffield is, is knocking in runs, pounding the ball, stealing bases. That's the kind of leader he's been. That's the kind of leader I want, somebody that busts his tail. ... That's how you lead. That's the way it is, guys. People want to tell it like it is; I tell it like it is.
"I'm not mad at him. I'm just saying I'm totally surprised by all this."
Sheffield doesn't sound like he's mad, either. But there's certainly a difference of opinion.
"I'm at a position in my career where I don't have to argue about anything," Sheffield said. "I don't have to dispute anything. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. It's not going to affect me one way or another. My point is that I'm giving you facts. A guy asked me a question. I answered it. He asked me about my role.
"Like I told him, I don't like it, but I understand. That's all I said."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.