In an essay titled “Do You Believe Me Now?” published by The Players' Tribune on Friday, nine-time all-star Gary Sheffield details his experiences with police brutality, an issue that has been at the forefront of the national conversation since the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police.
Sheffield describes a pair of incidents, beginning with one in December 1986 when he attended a University of South Florida basketball game with Dwight Gooden, his uncle, and some friends. Gooden -- who had just won a World Series with the Mets -- was one of the most celebrated players in the Majors at the time, but as the group left the game in three cars, Sheffield -- who had been Drafted sixth overall by Milwaukee the previous June -- said they were all pulled over without cause. Gooden was detained, handcuffed and thrown face-first into the ground, prompting Sheffield to take action.
“At that moment, I didn’t see police officers -- I saw men in uniform illegally harassing and assaulting my uncle,” Sheffield wrote. “Instinctively, I ran over full-speed to confront them. There were five or six of them, and needless to say it didn’t go well.
“In fact, I could’ve been killed.”
Sheffield said the police “beat all of us unmercifully” with flashlights, then loaded them into their cars and took them to an empty dog track, “where they proceeded to assault us again until we were black, blue and swollen.”
Sheffield, Gooden and their friends were then arrested.
According to a New York Times report on the incident that was published at the time, police described it as “a routine traffic offense that turned into a furious fight.” Gooden was charged with battery on a police officer and violently resisting arrest -- both third-degree felonies -- as well as disorderly conduct (a second-degree felony) and careless driving. Sheffield and the three other members of their party were also charged with two felonies, according to the Times report.
Charles Ehrlich, who was Gooden’s lawyer at the time, told the newspaper, ''Gooden got out of his car and asked the officer why he had been stopped; the officer told him to 'shut up,' and it was downhill from there.''
The police said one officer was kicked in the head and another was kneed in the groin during the incident, the Times reported, while witnesses said Gooden was “beaten to the ground with nightsticks and flashlights before being handcuffed and shackled.”
Ehrlich accused the police of using “excessive force” and “piling on charges to cover their excesses” at the time. All five defendants were Black, while all six officers involved were white, the Times reported, leading Ehrlich to note there ''was reason to believe that racism was involved.''
Jay Horwitz, the Mets’ long-time media relations director, told the newspaper that Gooden was “pretty well beaten up,” even believing at one point that his left wrist might have been broken. Horwitz said Gooden had “bruises on his head, a bloodshot eye and cuts on his arms,” spending 4 1/2 hours in police custody.
According to Horwitz, Gooden told him, ''I don't know what I did. They never told me what they stopped me for.'
In his Players’ Tribune piece, Sheffield wrote, “Dwight and I got probation. Nothing ever happened to the cops.”
In his piece, Sheffield also described an incident in 2015 during which he and two friends (one of whom was boxer Winky Wright) were driving his white Rolls-Royce from Tampa, Fla., to Miami for a charity golf tournament.
“Smoking a cigar, I waved at a police officer as we passed his car on the highway -- and he subsequently pulled us over,” Sheffield wrote. “The officer recognized me, told me that he was a fan and soon disappeared. But in his place appeared five additional police cars and a K-9 unit.
“They searched everything.”
Sheffield said police were scattering all of their belongings along the highway during the illegal search, so he began to film the officers.
“At that point I was told I couldn’t film anything because it was a ‘criminal investigation,’ Sheffield wrote. “Agitated, an officer grabbed my arm, and we stood eye to eye. I told the officer, ‘I’m gonna count to three, and you better take your hands off of me.’ He did, and then he told us we were free to go.
“Again, I could’ve been killed.”
Sheffield points out that the “unfortunate reality is that my stories aren’t unique. They’re not special or extraordinary, and neither am I. What happened to George Floyd could have easily -- and far too often -- happened to me or others.”
Floyd’s death -- which was captured on film and has sparked weeks of protests -- is a “defining moment” for the country, Sheffield wrote, because we actually saw it happen.
Sheffield knows he was often labeled as an “outspoken” or “controversial” player during his 22-year big league career, and while his willingness to speak his mind got him in some hot water from time to time, he now admits that he has “worn each of those labels as a badge of honor.” Now a player agent, Sheffield isn’t about to stay quiet during such an important time.
“I wasn’t afraid to call out racial bias when I saw it, even when nobody backed me up,” he wrote. “So I ask you: Now do you believe me?
“Because I stood alone then. But we stand together now -- and that’s why I’m sharing my stories. For Black people, these injustices are nothing new. But for white people, people of privilege, this is revelatory. Their eyes have been forced open to view life through the same harsh lens as a person of color.
“This is our time -- our time to do God’s work. It isn’t the time to let up. It isn’t the time for superficial comments and empty statements. This is our moment to turn tragedy into triumph. It is our opportunity to put a stop to years of systemic racism, oppression and discrimination.
“It ends now. And it ends with us. All of us.”