By Bill Plaschke
8:00 AM EDT, August 11, 2013
The Stuntman still lives here, his spirit filling the cracks of the faded brick home where his mother mourns.
It’s warm and stuffy inside, the central air conditioning broken and no money to fix it. Outside, the worn street has been blocked, a dozen kids throwing a basketball at a crooked aluminum goal pulled to the curb.
Yet through the vagaries of time, Mike Sharperson’s aura remains as smooth as it was for the 1988 World Series champion Dodgers, when he came off the bench with a group of reserves nicknamed “The Stuntmen” for their willingness to quietly give up egos for the team.
“My Michael is still with us,” says Ethel Sharperson.
He lives in a toy stuffed bear, which is wearing an oversized white Dodgers T-shirt containing his photo and the words, “Can’t Touch Sharpie.” The bear spends its days on his mother’s pillow and nights in her arms.
“I can still hold my boy close,” she says.
He’s also believed to be here in a redbird that flies most mornings to a spot outside his mother’s bedroom window. The bird chirps as if in distress until she gently shoos it away with the same words.
“I say, ‘It’s OK Mike, Mommy’s OK, you can go now,’” she says. “That bird is my Mike, my angel.”
On the 25th anniversary of the Dodgers’ last title, 17 years after his death in a car accident, Sharperson is still stretching the limits of faith by showing up and making solid plays out of nowhere.
Forever a Stuntman.
You remember his gang, right? The coolest kids playing under the most perfect of monikers? Led by Mickey Hatcher, the Stuntmen embodied the 1988 Dodgers by embracing their secondary role with a bench pride and presence rarely seen in today’s baseball world.
Hatcher came out of the shadows to hit two homers with five runs batted in in the World Series victory over Oakland. Rick Dempsey was the catcher in the clinching game, the one forever seen hoisting Orel Hershiser in celebration. Dave Anderson filled in brilliantly for injured starting shortstop Alfredo Griffin in the middle of the season, then played the role of decoy in the on-deck circle before Kirk Gibson replaced him and hit the legendary Game 1 World Series homer.
In the most celebrated moment for the Stuntmen, announcer Bob Costas noticed three of them in the starting lineup for Game 4 of the World Series — Hatcher, Franklin Stubbs and Danny Heep — and wondered if this was possibly the worst lineup in Series history. Yet the injury-riddled Dodgers won the game, 4-3.
The second-most celebrated moment, incidentally, might have been during Fan Appreciation Day when the Stuntmen ran on to the Dodger Stadium field with buckets and rags and washed the grand-prize car.
“Guys who knew their roles and never complained and always showed up — the Stuntmen were the most important guys on our team,” says Gibson.
Among them was a quiet country kid who split time between triple-A Albuquerque and Los Angeles before ending the season with the Dodgers and playing in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. Sharperson didn’t do anything spectacularly, but he did everything with an understated consistency that fit the clubhouse culture. He finished games at second base, third base and shortstop, batting .271 in 46 regular-season games while reaching base once in two postseason plate appearances before being deactivated for the World Series.
“He was a solid guy, a humble guy, a sweet guy, he would do whatever nobody else wanted to do, always there,” remembers Hershiser. “Sharpie was the perfect Stuntman.”
He was known as a guy who was always ready, always on the dugout step, a trait that etched him into history after Gibson’s home run. Watch the television replay of the homer. The first time the camera pans away from Gibson, it focuses on a celebrating Tom Lasorda and Sharperson running to home plate. Sharperson, of course, gets there first.
His other YouTube moment is from the 1992 All-Star game introductions in San Diego. Sharperson, who was selected for the team during the best season of his career, tips his caps and smiles and spreads his arms wide beneath a massive wave of Padre-centric boos.
There’s a whole chapter missing in my brother’s life,"
— Vincent Sharperson,
brother of Mike Sharperson
“He was that little scrapper that nobody ever knew or watched but did just enough to help us win,” says Hatcher. “That was our Sharpie.”
Like the other Stuntmen, his tricks didn’t last. Sharperson was released from the Dodgers less than two years after his All-Star season and spent the next three seasons with four organizations, appearing in just seven major league games during that time. Then, on May 25, 1996, after a night game for Las Vegas, he was summoned to join the San Diego Padres for potentially one final shot.
He was 34 and on his last legs. He shed tears upon hearing the news from Las Vegas Manager Jerry Royster. His teammates gathered around him in the clubhouse as if he had just won another World Series. They later adjourned to the Hard Rock Hotel to celebrate.
Sharperson never made it to the Padres. On his drive back to his Las Vegas apartment in the early morning hours, he flipped his Ford Explorer into an embankment while attempting a sudden change of freeways in the rain. He was ejected through a sunroof that had popped open during the crash. He died shortly thereafter.
After hearing the news, seemingly every corner of the baseball world mourned. Eric Karros excused himself from Dodgers batting practice. Five Cincinnati Reds penciled “Sharpe 27” into their caps. The man who replaced Sharperson at third base in Las Vegas, Paul Russo, buried his head into a towel between innings and wept.
“It figures that when he passed, my brother had finally fought his way back up to the big leagues,” recalls brother Vincent. “But he never quite got there.”
The high point of Sharperson’s career was that last unlikely Dodgers title. He added it to many of his autographs, “Mike Sharperson, World Champions, 1988.”
It is believed he was wearing his 1988 World Series ring at the time of his death. The ring has not been seen since. It’s disappearance has became symbolic of a nightmarish chain of events that erase nearly ever tangible memory of his Dodgers days.
“There’s a whole chapter missing in my brother’s life,” says Vincent.
When Sharperson died, he was in the middle of divorce proceedings from wife Diane. He was engaged to girlfriend Zelda Taylor, with whom he had a 9-month old daughter, Zalia Taylor-Sharperson. He was also very close to his parents and two siblings in Orangeburg.
“Mike was being tugged in different directions,” remembers sister Leslie. “In the end, it all kind of came apart.”
In the end, there were two funerals, one in Sharperson’s Atlanta home arranged by Diane, the other in his Orangeburg hometown arranged by the family. There were disputes over other issues, including the final resting place of his remains. There was a fire in Diane’s Atlanta home that demolished much of his memorabilia. There were things stolen from Zelda Taylor’s home. His family in Orangeburg was unable to recover anything.
“We don’t have anything to hang on the walls, we have nothing to put on the TV,” says Vincent. “But at least we have him in our minds.”
That is where he exists with all of his loved ones today, in their minds, on their pillows, outside their bedroom windows, as they still try to come to grips with the giant gap this so-called role player left in their lives.
His widow, Diane, who has never remarried, says she drove to Dodger Stadium during a visit to Los Angeles a couple of years ago but didn’t make it past the guarded front gates.
“I realized I didn’t know anybody there anymore, I didn’t know where to go, so I just left,” she says.
His daughter Zalia, now 17 and the spitting image of her father, doesn’t tell anybody he was a ballplayer because she can’t really say anything more about him.
“I wish I had stuff from my Dad, I wish I knew him more,” she says, tears streaming down her cheeks during a recent interview in her mother’s Atlanta home. “He was a sweet man, right?”
Back in Orangeburg, where the funeral filled the local high school gymnasium, the folks closest to him continue to find him when they need him, just as Lasorda always did when he turned back to his bench.
“We still talk to him, we still feel him,” says Leslie.
They have not been contacted by anyone from the Dodgers since his death. Other than an autographed photo and videos they purchased, their only real evidence that Sharperson even was a Dodger is a 1988 autographed ball that is kept in a cup on a mantel in his mom’s house.
Yet they will make frequent visits to the simple bronze marker adorned with a baseball player swinging a bat. It sits on his cemetery plot surrounded by tall magnolias that gracefully dull the roar of a nearby freeway.
They will visit the plaque that was erected in his honor at the ancient local American Legion field. They will spin stories while driving through the weed-choked neighborhoods where he once hit balls that broke windows and gutted bushes.
But best of all, on summer nights, they will gather on thin bleachers surrounding a cramped youth league field to watch little Mike.
He is Mike Gilyard, Sharperson’s nephew, the son of sister Leslie and brother-in-law Benjamin Gilyard. He is 10 years old, and all ballplayer.
He wears one of Uncle Mike’s gloves. On his travel team, he wears Uncle Mike’s number 27. He has Uncle Mike’s stout build, Uncle Mike’s stare and has even received some of Uncle Mike’s childhood awards.
“Watching him feels like a reincarnation,” says Vincent. “It feels like the world telling us what’s next.”
Little Mike is a catcher, and once this summer he suddenly ran to the mound to talk to the pitcher without consulting the manager. The conversation worked, the pitcher escaped a jam, the manager shrugged, the fans swooned.
A solid move. Out of nowhere. Forever a Stuntman.
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