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Yankees Magazine: Tough Love

In his heart, Justus Sheffield knows he can compete at the big league level. His tight-knit family has made sure of it
Yankees Magazine

As soon as Masahiro Tanaka ducked out of the visitors' dugout at Citi Field on June 8, having pulled both his hamstrings while tagging up from third base in a 4-1 win over the Mets, Justus Sheffield's name came up. With Jordan Montgomery having undergone Tommy John surgery one day earlier, two-fifths of the Yankees' season-opening rotation was now injured. Attention turned toward PNC Field, 137 miles away in Moosic, Pennsylvania, where Sheffield -- the top-ranked pitching prospect in the Yankees' farm system -- was toeing the rubber for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Making his sixth start there after being promoted from Double-A Trenton on May 4, Sheffield tossed six innings of one-hit ball, allowing two unearned runs while striking out eight Louisville Bats -- including former Yankees outfielder Mason Williams twice -- to pick up his first Triple-A win.

Needless to say, there was plenty of chatter in the days that followed about when -- not if -- Sheffield would get the call to the big leagues. But the Yankees demurred, saying that Sheffield needed to polish his game before it was ready for The Show. When Tanaka's turn in the rotation came up again, the Yankees summoned right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga, a 23-year-old Nicaragua native whose shoulder woes caused him to miss all of 2014 and 2015 and who had never pitched above Double-A -- but who, unlike Sheffield, was already on the Yankees' 40-man roster.

As soon as Masahiro Tanaka ducked out of the visitors' dugout at Citi Field on June 8, having pulled both his hamstrings while tagging up from third base in a 4-1 win over the Mets, Justus Sheffield's name came up. With Jordan Montgomery having undergone Tommy John surgery one day earlier, two-fifths of the Yankees' season-opening rotation was now injured. Attention turned toward PNC Field, 137 miles away in Moosic, Pennsylvania, where Sheffield -- the top-ranked pitching prospect in the Yankees' farm system -- was toeing the rubber for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Making his sixth start there after being promoted from Double-A Trenton on May 4, Sheffield tossed six innings of one-hit ball, allowing two unearned runs while striking out eight Louisville Bats -- including former Yankees outfielder Mason Williams twice -- to pick up his first Triple-A win.

Needless to say, there was plenty of chatter in the days that followed about when -- not if -- Sheffield would get the call to the big leagues. But the Yankees demurred, saying that Sheffield needed to polish his game before it was ready for The Show. When Tanaka's turn in the rotation came up again, the Yankees summoned right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga, a 23-year-old Nicaragua native whose shoulder woes caused him to miss all of 2014 and 2015 and who had never pitched above Double-A -- but who, unlike Sheffield, was already on the Yankees' 40-man roster.

If Sheffield was bummed out, he didn't show it. He merely did what he has always done -- he went to work preparing for his next start so that when his number was called again, he would be ready to compete. Whether that start would be in the Majors or the Minors was not up to him, and Sheffield knows all too well that, for better or worse, he can only control the things that he is responsible for.

***

It's winter, a couple weeks before Spring Training, and the Sheffield boys are back home in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Jordan Sheffield, 11 months older than Justus and a right-handed starter in the Dodgers' organization, spots an open barrel outside the fieldhouse at Tullahoma High School, about 30 feet away. He scoops up a handful of snow, forms it into a tightly packed ball and lofts it toward the barrel, a perfect Steph Curry rainbow.

Swish. Jaxon Sheffield, the youngest of the three brothers -- and the most athletically gifted, according to Justus and Jordan -- has a big basketball game coming up that evening against a rival middle school team. He tries to match Jordan's shot, but to no avail.

Of course, Justus has to get in on the action. He reaches down for some white stuff, packs it into a sphere and quickly locks in on his target like it's a catcher's mitt. With that golden left arm of his -- the one that fools batters by mixing a mid-90s fastball with a slider and change-up that both sit in the 80s -- he lobs a snowball in the sky and watches as it arcs majestically toward the barrel.

Splat. Justus's snowball falls short, smashing into a million pieces on the blacktop, and his reaction -- one single word that would probably get him in trouble if he were still a student here -- pretty much sums up the fraternal fire that has been burning since he and Jordan were in diapers.

The first thing you need to know about the Sheffields is that they are a baseball family. No, former Yankees right fielder Gary Sheffield is not related. But Justus's cousin, Tony Sheffield, whom the young Yankees prospect considers an uncle, was a second-round pick of the Red Sox in 1992. And while all three boys excelled in multiple sports, their earliest sports memories revolve around hitting rocks into the fields adjacent to their home and intense games of catch with their father, Travis.

"My wife played softball, and then my side of the family is baseball gung-ho through and through, so the boys didn't really have a choice -- when they were born, they were going to play ball," Travis says.

Teaching his boys the fundamentals of baseball was important to Travis, and if he saw young Justus was cutting corners, the father let him know that it was unacceptable, "to the point that tears would come up, and he'd be like, 'Well, I'm going in the house!'" But mother Misty wasn't having it, either. She'd march Justus right back outside with instructions to practice harder.

"I think that's probably how we started throwing so hard," Jordan says. "Playing catch outside with our dad, getting mad, and just letting it rip."

Jordan was a grade ahead, so Justus had to raise his game to keep up. By the time Jordan got to high school, he was being talked about as the "stud athlete," but Justus knew he could compete with the older kids -- and he'd soon get a chance to prove it.

It was a road game in Knoxville in 2011. Justus was in the outfield, and Jordan, a sophomore, was on the mound facing Farragut High's Nicky Delmonico -- who would be drafted by the Orioles that June and is now an outfielder for the White Sox. "It was my first time starting varsity, so I was already nervous before the game," Justus recalls. "He hit a shot to the wall, and I made a sick, diving catch. I think we ended up turning two, doubled the guy up at first, and I couldn't even believe I made the play."

With that confidence booster, Justus's prep career took off. He dazzled in the field and at the plate, and when coach Brad White handed him the ball once a week or so, Sheffield discovered he could get the job done on the mound, too.

"The thing that stuck out about him was how competitive he was -- but he had to be, growing up in the house he did with a big brother who's so talented," White says. "Jordan was the more athletic guy and had all the accolades. He overshadowed Justus, and I think that made Justus a lot better because he had to work harder."

As a sophomore, Justus came into his own as a pitcher, going 9-0 with a 0.79 ERA and striking out 96 batters in 53 innings. "That's when I realized, dang, I could actually go to college, actually start doing something with this," Justus says. "I started working out, quit football, quit basketball, just started focusing on baseball, working harder."

That hard work extended to the classroom, where in four years at Tullahoma, Justus received only one grade lower than an A. (He thinks it was in personal finance.) Part of his motivation at first was that Travis and Misty had a rule: If you bring home a C, you lose all privileges -- no phone, no friends, no video games -- for nine weeks. But for Justus, it went deeper than that.

"Everybody expected him just to be an athlete, and a lot of people think athletes are not very smart or they can't compete academically," Misty says. "I think that really bothered Justus and probably drove him to prove people wrong."

As he developed into a legitimate pitching prospect on the baseball field, Justus was maturing off of it, too. Which made the night of Jan. 11, 2015, that much more shocking.

***

"I wanted to kill him," Justus's mother says. The entire family has just finished up a hearty home-cooked meal courtesy of Misty's parents, Harold and Sandy Holloway, who live next door to the Sheffields. Sandy's savory Southern cooking -- chicken and dressing, baked ham, mashed potatoes -- coupled with sweet tea and Harold's banana pie for dessert elicits smiles and talks of naps, and when the elders are asked about Justus and Jordan's rise, the feeling of love in the room is palpable.

"I'm just an old, poor country boy -- had to work my whole life and still do. For them to have the opportunities they have now and see them work for it, it's really amazing," Harold says. "But even if Justus wasn't in baseball, I'm so proud of him because he's turned out to be a super, wonderful grandson. I couldn't want no one different. He's near perfect."

Like any teen, Misty's son had done a couple knucklehead things in high school. There was the time that he had broken a team rule on a Saturday and had to complete 25 miles worth of running if he wanted to pitch in a district game that Tuesday. (He did.)

But this was different. How many times had Travis sat his boys in the barber chair in their garage and warned them about the three lures that get young men into trouble: the car keys, the perfume and the alcohol. Those "deadly sins" had converged to sway Justus into making a bad decision. It could have been worse, but now that he was a professional baseball player, it garnered widespread attention. The Associated Press reported:

Cleveland Indians minor league pitcher and recent first-round draft pick Justus Sheffield was arrested on charges of aggravated burglary and violating the drinking-age law.

The arrest warrant provided by the Coffee County General Sessions Court said the 18-year-old Sheffield entered a residence in Tullahoma on Sunday without the owner's consent.

The warrant says Sheffield "went to the bedroom of an acquaintance and began yelling and threatening the victim."

The warrant also says Sheffield acknowledged that he'd been drinking. He was released after posting $5,500 bond.

The AP went on to list some of Sheffield's baseball accomplishments and note -- erroneously -- that he was "the nephew of former All-Star outfielder Gary Sheffield." The charge was reduced to criminal trespass and eventually expunged from his record, but, Sheffield says, "That was definitely the hardest thing, the hardest obstacle, I had to overcome."

The previous year and a half had been like a dream. As a junior, Justus had led Tullahoma to its first state tournament in eight years and committed to play at national powerhouse Vanderbilt, where his brother was headed. He was nominated for the 2013 Gatorade National Player of the Year Award, which went to a kid from Loganville, Georgia, named Clint Frazier. As a senior, Sheffield was Homecoming King, Mr. Popular. "He would say 'Hi' to everybody in the hallway," recalls the school librarian, Mrs. Holliday. "It didn't matter if you were a freshman or you were a senior; he just enjoyed life."

On June 4, 2014, after finishing 10-0 with a 0.34 ERA, Sheffield was surprised to walk into school one day and find former big leaguer Trot Nixon along with a camera crew from MLB Network. Nixon, it turned out, was there to present Sheffield with the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award -- the first time it had gone to a player from Tennessee. Seeing his name on that trophy with the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and, yes, Gary Sheffield -- "It was incredible," Sheffield says. "One of my biggest accomplishments."

Two weeks later, when the Indians made Sheffield the 31st overall pick in the draft, he agonized over what to do. He loved Vanderbilt, the coaching staff, and the thought of competing for a College World Series with Jordan. Only twice since 1980 -- CC Sabathia in 1998 and Derek Thompson in 2000 -- had the Indians invested a first-round draft pick on a left-handed high school pitcher. When the Tribe agreed to pay for eight semesters at Vandy at any point in the future -- on top of a $1.6 million signing bonus -- Sheffield decided to go pro.

"In high school, if you said one of them's going to Vanderbilt, one of them's going pro, I think that's easy: Jordan's going pro and Justus is going to Vanderbilt," says White. "But fate intervened and Jordan hurt his elbow and so he went to Vanderbilt, and then Justus did better than what most people thought, which has kind of been the thing all his life, you know? He's not the second kid; he's an equal man in his own right and going to be as successful or more successful [than his brother]."

Now, his skyrocketing career seemed to come crashing down to earth. Seeing his name in the police blotter made Sheffield an easy target for anonymous "fans" online who knew nothing of the young man's character, yet were quick to peg him as some entitled teenager, coddled throughout his athletic career and ill prepared to handle the demands of fortune and modest fame.

He couldn't care less about that, though. Sheffield thought about his brothers, his grandparents, the Indians organization, his teachers, his community -- all the folks that flocked to historic Grider Stadium to cheer him on as he pitched for the Wildcats. Most of all, he thought about his parents. He felt like he let them all down. And he was devastated.

After all they had talked about, of course Travis and Misty were disappointed. But seeing how difficult it was on him was way harder. Their gregarious, warm-hearted son, the one who befriended classmates with developmental disabilities and was asked to lead the town's Christmas parade, shut down.

"Me and my wife kind of felt like we were preparing him for the big picture and then when that happened, I'm not going to say it was a letdown, but it was almost like, 'Justus, man, why? We know you're a whole lot smarter than that,'" Travis says. "But to see what it had done to him for like two or three months -- I mean the dude would never come out of his room; Misty was basically taking him his food upstairs -- just to see the effect that it had on him, it hurt us. It tore us up as a family. Not tore us apart; it probably brought us together, which is crazy to think that something like that would make us stronger, but it did. It really did."

Video: Top Prospects: Justus Sheffield, LHP, Yankees

Embarrassed and ashamed, Justus eventually reached out to White to see if he could work out at the Wildcats' indoor training facility. "Justus, you're always welcome here," White told him. "We love you."

The coach wasn't lying when he said "we." Everywhere the Sheffields went that winter, Tullahomans offered words of support and encouragement that "the incident" was just a youthful mistake.

"Obviously, I wish it never happened, I really do," Justus says, and the emotion in his voice and his eyes back up his claim. "But then again, I'm kind of glad that it did because it was a real eye-opener. It was definitely not a moment I'm proud of, but definitely a moment that I'll never forget, and I'm thankful that I learned from it and overcame it and just got past it. And that was the toughest thing, just getting past it, moving on [from] thinking about what other people would think about me, because that's not me. I'm not that guy. If I could go back and talk to my 18-year-old self, it'd be like, 'Yo, what are you doing? You're being dumb right now. You've got the opportunity of your life right here, and you're going to ruin it.' But you know, I got past it and learned from it and, thank god, I moved on from it."

***

CC Sabathia only has a couple minutes before he needs to leave his locker and go stretch with the other Yankees pitchers. He's happy to answer a reporter's question, but when he learns that the topic is Justus Sheffield, he asks if it can wait.

"Can we do it after stretch? I love that kid. I want to give you a good quote."

The Majors' active strikeouts leader sees a younger version of himself in Sheffield -- a pitcher hungry to be great, willing to do whatever it takes to get there, yet still needing to learn how to properly wield all his tools.

"His stuff is off the charts, he just needs to slow down and make good pitches when he needs to," Sabathia says. "I'd laugh at him in Spring Training. Everybody was saying he had a good spring, but he had some good innings. The first inning of the start would be good, and then he'd get in the dugout and be like, 'I'm striking out the side.' So, that's just being young. We talked about it. But his stuff is there."

The soon-to-be 38-year-old veteran and the 22-year-old soon-to-be big leaguer text often, and Sabathia is confident that when Sheffield does arrive, he'll fit right in. "He's got a great head on his shoulders, he's mature for his age, he's focused, and he knows what he wants to do, so I think he's got a great future ahead of him," he says.

By the time you read this story, Sheffield might have finally gotten the call he has been waiting for. Or, he might still be refining his command in the minor leagues. Heck, some general manager might have wowed Brian Cashman with a deal to pry Sheffield away, just as Cashman did in 2016 when he sent All-Star reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland for Sheffield, Frazier, Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. In any case, Sheffield will one day soon see his name in a big league box score. Where he goes from there is up to him -- and that's exactly how he wants it to be. He has goals -- not just to be a big leaguer, but to be a great one. An ace. There are other goals, too. But if there is one thing he wishes most of all, one accomplishment that would mean more to him than anything in the world, it would be to take care of the two people most responsible for him getting to this point.

"My mom and dad, they've worked all their lives and are still working hard, just to let us do what we want to do and give us a good Christmas and things like that, make sure we have food on the table, paying for things with the baseball," Sheffield says. "They've done everything for me. My parents were 17, 18 when they had me, so they never really got to experience their 20s like that; they had to raise us, they had to grind, they had to fight. So to get down the road and give them a break and let them enjoy life -- just live and not have to work -- that's the ultimate goal."

His path to the bigs may not be as smoothly paved as it has been for others, but the twists and turns and bumps in the road along the way have provided him with lessons that will surely serve Sheffield well when he gets there. And when he finally arrives, you can bet that his supporters will be there watching.

"I'm excited for that day, that's for sure," Sabathia says. "No matter if I'm still playing or not, I'll be here."

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Justus Sheffield