The swing is still there -- a combination of grace and power that few hitters achieve.
But instead of putting it to use in the big leagues, as he did for 6 1/2 years, Larry Sheets now uses it to show kids and other non-professionals how to swing a bat. The Larry Sheets Batting Academy operates at Sports, situated in a cavernous barn just east of York Road in Cockeysville.
Since March, Sheets has been giving personal hitting lessons for hourly and half-hourly rates. That's a far cry from playing in the majors with players averaging $1.2 million, but Larry is comfortable with it.
"This is a way of giving something back," Sheets was saying yesterday between lessons. "I really enjoy teaching kids, seeing them improve, seeing their parents' eyes light up.
"I've got some old people who take lessons. It helps them to understand the game better."
They could hardly have a much better teacher. Sheets appeared to have been born with a sweet swing. In 1987 he hit .316, had 31 home runs and drove in 94 runs for the Orioles. Now he's 34 years old, the same age his old friend and teammate Cal Ripken reached yesterday, and Sheets is out of the game.
"Do you think you could still hit in the big leagues?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered.
"Do you think you'll ever get another chance?"
"No," he said.
Why not? Despite having a few gray hairs, Sheets is still fit. He still has a swing to die for.
"The problem with professional baseball," Larry said, "was it never depended on your ability. It depended on who liked you. It's very political.
"A player like me can go 0-for-4 and he's on the bench the next night. Great hitters like Cal and Eddie Murray can go 0-for-4 and everybody knows they'll come back and hit the next night, or the night after that.
"But I was a marginal player. A manager won't stay long with a marginal player who's slumping."
Sheets played five years, 27 days with the Orioles, and spent time with Milwaukee and Seattle. He doesn't want it to look as if he's blaming other people, such as the managers he played for.
"I played for everybody," he said. "I played for Joe Altobelli, and he was a carry-over from Earl Weaver. I played for Earl. He was strictly a platoon guy. I played for Cal Ripken Sr., and I was playing every night and doing well. But Cal was fired six games into the '88 season.
"I played for Frank Robinson. The team was so bad at that point that he was changing the lineup constantly, trying to find a
combination that worked.
"Frank taught me a lot. In '85 he was a coach and he used to go over things with me. He'd say, 'What was your reason for doing it? You have to have a reason for doing it.' He made me appreciate what a thinking game this is."
Sheets played for Sparky Anderson in Detroit. Says Larry: "As long as you played hard, you didn't know he was there."
The thing that bothered Sheets most wherever he found it was a lack of communication.
"If I'm going to be a pinch hitter," he said, "tell me I'm going to be a pinch hitter. I don't want to read it in the newspaper. Keep it in the family."
Larry then found a strange thing happening to him. He was losing his love for the game. What had once come to him so naturally, almost effortlessly, had become difficult to handle.
"It was no longer a game," he said. "It was a business. When you're involved in actually playing the game, there's nothing like it. But the off-the-field stuff -- the politics -- can be tough."
Sheets went to Japan in 1992, had a good year, made more
money than he had ever made in his life, money that enabled him to buy the house in Baltimore County he and his wife and their 8-year-old daughter Lauren now live in. He discovered something else, too.
"I thought I'd rekindled my love for the game over there," he says. "I came back here and went to camp with Milwaukee last year. They sent me to New Orleans. I had 98 RBIs with five games left in the season when I was traded to Seattle.
"When I got there, [manager] Lou Piniella told me, 'You're going to get your at-bats here.' I got four at-bats. Then I sat out ten days. Over the winter I didn't get a nibble from any club. I knew in late February that I'd not be playing in '94."
Sheets is not bitter. He had "a pretty good run" and there aren't too many players 34 or older in the big leagues.
"I've been blessed," he says. "I have the batting academy here. I want to have some students on a maintenance program -- have them come in once a week or whatever during the winter. I have camps in Pocomoke and in my hometown, Staunton (Va.). I've got a baseball pension. Things are fine."
Sheets' friends are ballplayers. He goes to Cal Ripken's gym and plays him one-on-one. He played golf this week at Hunt Valley with Mark Williamson. He's proud to have friends like them and Eddie Murray.
"Loved Eddie," Larry said with feeling. "I always felt he sort of took me under his wing and helped me. Eddie was great to have on the club. He was a good hitter in the third, fourth and fifth innings. In the seventh, eighth and ninth innings he was a great hitter. It was really something to see him rise to that night after night."