It’s not difficult to pinpoint the most memorable of the six seasons Larry Sheets spent in an Orioles uniform. Just peruse his career stats and his stellar 1987 season - when he batted .316, hit 31 homers and drove in 94 runs - stick out as a high-water mark for a guy drafted 18 picks ahead of Cal Ripken Jr. by the O’s in 1978.
“It was magical,” Sheets, now 52, said recently after participating in the Orioles Alumni Autograph Series. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to duplicate it after that. But it was one of those years where everything went right. I had a chance to play every day, which was the big key.”
Sheets was primarily an outfielder during his major league career, which lasted eight seasons and also included stints with the Tigers and Mariners. He may have had some defensive limitations, but Sheets’ bat played big enough that managers always found a way to write his name into the batting order.
When it came to lineup creativity, no one was better than ex-Orioles skipper Earl Weaver, who even used Sheets at third base and behind the plate in 1986 just to take advantage of the left-handed-hitting slugger’s offensive capabilities. Weaver had Sheets working out as a catcher in instructional league in order to increase his value to the club.
“Earl always wanted a power-hitting, left-handed catcher. That year, I caught a few innings and all of a sudden, we were ... in Oakland and he had me play third base for two games,” Sheets recalled. “Earl’s philosophy was if you won the game, you were going to be in the lineup in that same spot the next night. We lost on that Sunday, we went to Anaheim, I walked into the ballpark and I knew nothing about it. I was catching and Scotty McGregor was pitching. Scotty had a great night that night. When I went out of the game, it was 8-0. I was catching (Mike Flanagan) the next day and I could hardly move. Flanny’s arm was a little bit tired and the ball was running all over the place and I was struggling behind the plate. So that was the last time we did that.”
After that, Sheets rotated between right field, left field and designated hitter, compiling a lifetime .266 average with 94 homers and 339 RBIs. In January 1990, the Orioles traded him to the Tigers for infielder Mike Brumley, but Sheets spent only one season in Detroit and sat out 1991 before trying to revive his career with the Taiyo Whales of the Japanese Central League in 1992.
“It was a great year,” said Sheets, who batted .280 with 18 homers and 98 RBIs in Japan. “I went over and I really felt like I had gotten my confidence back, and that’s the reason I didn’t go back. I went to spring training with Milwaukee and played Triple-A with them, getting traded to Seattle at the end of the year and finished up my career there.”
Since retiring, Sheets has stayed connected to the game in a number of ways. He’s been a private hitting coach, working with area youth league and high school players to improve their batting strokes. And he’s operated Larry Sheets’ Players Family Amusement Center in Westminster.
“I was working with kids on hitting - I figured if golf pros could do it, why not ex-baseball players?” Sheets said. “I did a lot of one-on-one (coaching) and I still do. ... (At the amusement center), we’ve got birthday parties, laser tag, glow-in-the-dark golf, a lot of things for kids. That’s my passion now.”
He’s currently a physical education teacher at Gilman, where three years ago, Sheets took over the coaching reins for the Greyhounds baseball program. At Gilman, he’s got a rather well-known assistant coach.
“It’s been terrific,” Sheets said. “Before I took the job, I called Cal because his son was at the school and my son’s at the school. I told him I’d been offered the job, but I wasn’t going to take it unless he came out and helped. Cal and I have a special relationship. We signed together back in ‘78, so he came on board and we rekindled a friendship and had the chance to coach each other’s kids. It’s been a real positive last three years.”
Sheets offered this scouting report on first baseman Ryan Ripken, who was a 20th-round selection by the Orioles in the June First-Year Player Draft:
“Ryan was our most-improved senior this year. His swing really came together and he was able to keep it for the entire year. I feel like the sky’s the limit for him. He’s a terrific first baseman and probably the best first baseman I’ve seen at this age and I think he’s going to hit. He’s 6-5 and he’s growing into his body and if he gets on a weight program, I think he’s going to hit with power.”
Ryan Ripken has a scholarship offer from South Carolina, and Sheets believes he will wind up with the Gamecocks rather than in the O’s minor leagues.
“I’m pretty excited to see what unfolds over the next three or four years for him at (South Carolina),” Sheets said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Sheets’ son, rising junior Gavin Sheets, isnan outfielder/first baseman who also pitches a bit. Could Gavin follow in his father’s footsteps?
“He’s had two solid years at the high school level and if he continues to improve, like we hope he does, I think he’s got a bright future in college and then we’ll see what happens,” Larry Sheets said. “He’s left-handed, he’s 6-3, 220 lbs. Again, there’s a lot of people who have ability as a sophomore and it just doesn’t keep on building. That’s what we’ve got to make sure happens.”
Sheets thinks most of his charges at Gilman know of his major league background, though they don’t make a big deal about it. He’s thrilled he has the chance to impact young lives.
“The best thing about coaching? I think it’s the opportunity to have a positive influence with the kids,” he said. “I think that’s first and foremost.”
Signing autographs and posing for photos with other Orioles alumni helps Sheets reconnect with both his past and fans who haven’t forgotten him. Former Orioles players and coaches sign for free for an hour 90 minutes before home games on Mondays and Thursdays outside of Dempsey’s Brew Pub and Restaurant on Eutaw Street.
With the Orioles’ success in the first half, Sheets has noticed a change in the attitude of fans. Sheets’ career in Baltimore came after the 1983 World Series and before back-to-back trips to the playoffs in 1996 and 1997, so he’s aware of how desperate fans are for success on the field. He thinks the way current Orioles work hard to connect with their audience has paid dividends.
“I’ve been here maybe five or six times and I really see a difference in the attitude, a difference in the enthusiasm,” he said. “I hope, because I know when we played, we did it right because we interacted with the fans a lot more - it wasn’t such a huge business as it is now. The bottom line is, they all need to understand that without these people walking around here, they don’t have a job. I’m hoping that will come back.”