Three years after the Chicago White Sox drafted Gavin Sheets in the second round, his big league dream was running away from him.
With COVID-19 upending minor league baseball last summer, the White Sox had to pick 30 players who would be allowed to work out at the team’s alternate training site. Sheets was not on the list. In other words, the Lutherville native was nowhere near the club’s plans for its major league roster.
As he processed this shock to his system, Sheets did not have to look far for sound counsel. His father, Larry, had banged around the minor leagues for six years before making his debut with the Orioles in 1984. Larry Sheets could have raged on his son’s behalf. Instead, he gave the most practical advice he could summon: “The bottom line is you’re not the man in this organization. There’s only a few people that are the guys. So what you have to do is bring more value to yourself and the organization.”
A year later, Gavin Sheets is home in Baltimore not as a struggling minor leaguer but as a daily contributor for a World Series contender. After a brief call-up in early June during which he saw no game action, he drove in two runs in his big league debut for the White Sox on June 29. He homered in his second game and again two days after that.
“He picked up where he left off in spring training; spring training, he was really a good-looking hitter and then we tried him in the outfield, and he proved he was a good athlete,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said. “We needed an injection of production and right away, his first game with us, he started swinging the bat well.”
After that frank talk with his dad last summer, Sheets remade himself, dropping 15 pounds through workouts with his longtime trainer (and former Orioles strength coach) Tim Bishop and former NFL safety Courtney Greene. He showed up to instructional league in October ready to play the outfield in addition to his familiar first base. His efforts prompted the White Sox to put him on their 40-man roster. After a strong start at Triple-A Charlotte (where his dad played 38 years prior), he’s where he always aspired to be.
“At the time, I was extremely frustrated,” he said Friday. “But looking back at it now, it was kind of a godsend that I stayed home. I changed the way my body worked. I lost a lot of weight. I made playing the outfield a possibility. … I don’t think, without that time, that I’d be here right now.”
His first series at Camden Yards has given the Sheets family a chance to celebrate. Though Larry talks to his son every day, he had never watched him take the field in a big league uniform before Friday. When Gavin was a high school star at Gilman, he took batting practice at Oriole Park with former Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. He and Schoop joked about it last week when the White Sox played Schoop’s Detroit Tigers. A teenager’s fantasy camp was becoming adult reality.
“Absolutely,” Larry Sheets said when asked whether his son’s Baltimore debut would feel momentous. “It’s going to be a fun weekend.”
“Being a visitor in Baltimore felt really weird,” Gavin Sheets said before the game, during which he homered to right field in the White Sox’s 12-1 win. “It’s been a while since I’ve been back [at Camden Yards] but just walking out and sitting in the dugout, taking it in, knowing that I’m here to play, it was a pretty cool moment. Just to take it in and remember growing up here, the days when I’d come here at 2, 3, 4 years old and be on the field with my dad, and now to be playing tonight in the lineup — it’s pretty cool.”
Sheets, 25, came of age around Baltimore baseball royalty. It wasn’t just that his dad played six seasons for the Orioles and popped 31 home runs in 1987. One of his best friends on the varsity baseball team at Gilman was Ryan Ripken. Ripken’s dad, Cal, offered guidance as an assistant on Larry Sheets’ Gilman coaching staff.
Despite those deep ties and his admiration for more recent Orioles such as Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis, Sheets did not face any kind of family mandate to play baseball. In fact, when he was 13, his dad nudged him in a different direction.
“You might want to think about playing golf, because you’re better at it than you are at baseball,” Larry said.
Sheets chose the family business anyway and grew into an All-Metro power hitter and pitcher under his dad’s coaching at Gilman. The Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 37th round in 2014, but he decided he’d do better sharpening his game at Wake Forest. After he hit 21 home runs in just 63 games in 2017, the White Sox drafted him 49th overall.
It wasn’t that Sheets was terrible in his first three minor league seasons. He hit 16 home runs at Double-A Birmingham in 2019, and the ball still jumped off his bat when he made solid contact. But he was not the power-hitting on-base machine he’d been in his junior season at Wake Forest, when he made first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference. Worse still, the White Sox used the third overall pick in the 2019 draft on Andrew Vaughn, another fearsome college slugger who played primarily at first base. Sheets fell behind Vaughn in the pecking order, and both fell behind 2020 American League Most Valuable Player José Abreu.
Sheets did not believe he should have been left out of the White Sox’s plans in 2020, but he read the situation clearly enough to understand a makeover was in order. He’d always be a hit-first prospect, but he needed to become faster and more versatile defensively.
“We came up with a speed plan for him,” Bishop, the former Orioles strength and conditioning coach, said. “I told him, ‘This is going to be really hard, but your legs will never feel any better than they will when you’re done with this.’ And he took it on as a challenge. It’s not rocket science; it’s hard work, goal-oriented hard work. That’s who he is.”
They ripped off 90-minute sessions on a high-speed treadmill at Bishop’s PerformFit training facility in Cockeysville, alternating in plyometric workouts to maintain strength.
Bishop, who has worked with Cal Ripken and hundreds of other pros, said he never doubted Sheets’ talent or character. He watched the White Sox prospect mentor his son, Casey, who recently graduated from Gilman and will play at Towson in the fall. Both Bishops planned to be at Camden Yards to cheer Sheets over the weekend.
“I root for him as a person,” Tim Bishop said. “You root for good people, and that’s what he is before anything else.”
Larry Sheets could hardly believe his eyes as he watched the pounds melt off his son’s 6-foot-5 frame. He was not surprised, however, that Gavin took a coolheaded approach to reviving his career.
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“He’s always been laid-back and low-key, the opposite of his father,” Larry said, laughing. “Instead of sitting at home and feeling sorry for himself, he took it upon himself.”
He expects his son to bring a similarly measured perspective to the inevitable ups and downs faced by a young major leaguer. Already, Sheets saw Minnesota Twins pitchers adjust to him a week after he battered them in his first series for the White Sox.
“He’s a smart baseball player. He’s going through a little rough spell now, and he’s got to learn that you’ve done some damage, so now it’s time for the adjust and readjust,” the elder Sheets said. “He’s very aware of that.”
Gavin Sheets agreed. “The biggest thing I’ve seen so far is just the adjustments that are made on the fly,” he said. “That’s what it takes to play here and stay here.”
Saturday, 4:05 p.m.
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