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Ex-Major Leaguer Sheffield backing Wesley Chapel sports complex

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— As he sat in the home team dugout gazing out onto the field that bears his name, Gary Sheffield let the nostalgia wash over him.

“This is the first field I ever played on,” he said. Back before Tampa renamed the street for Martin Luther King Jr., Sheffield used to brag that his home runs ended up on Buffalo Avenue. “Everything pretty much looks the same ... great memories. Great memories.”

Sheffield, one of Tampa’s greatest home-grown ballplayers, said his experiences playing for the Belmont Heights Little League shaped the player and the person he would become. After 22 years in the big leagues, he has Hall of Fame stats and a fortune to go along with them.

Now Sheffield is more concerned with his legacy, and giving back to his community and to the sport.

Sheffield has signed on as part-owner of Pasco Sports, the company teaming up with Pasco County to build a $34 million baseball complex in Wesley Chapel. The massive project includes nine Major League Baseball regulation-sized fields and a stadium, plus 10 youth-sized fields and on-site dormitories for travel teams.

Sheffield said he was considering building his own ballpark but couldn’t find the right space. In January, Pasco County commissioners agreed to a 45-year contract with James Talton to build and operate the youth sports complex in Wiregrass Ranch, just north of Tampa. Talton, who has to raise $23 million before Pasco will release the $11 million it pledged, reached out to Sheffield to see if he was interested.

“Pasco got behind it. They’re the driving force because they believe in it,” Sheffield said. “And when I got that phone call, it was perfect because it was right down my alley of what I wanted to do — this is what I know. And I tell a lot of guys, you only invest in things you know. I know baseball, and there’s nothing you can run by me that I haven’t seen or heard or did. So I have firsthand information for these kids. We have the pipeline of how to make it to the big leagues.”

Other players have gotten into the youth tournament business, most notably Cal Ripken Jr., who has complexes in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Aberdeen, Md.

Tampa has always had a wealth of baseball talent, and Sheffield says he’s tapping into it, actively recruiting other retired players from the area to join the company.

“Now they’re sitting at home and playing a lot of golf, and they want to give back but don’t know how,” he said. “This is a way they can not only give back to their own community but all the kids.”

Sheffield is putting together an Amateur Athletic Union program with teams of all ages that eventually will use the Pasco site as a home base. He’s already assembling the first teams and planning a trip to Cuba later this summer.

Though he works part time as a sports agent, representing a former teammate and a few minor-league players, Sheffield said he will keep that business separate from the kids in his program.

“I’m not there to recruit anybody,” he said. “I don’t go around looking for athletes. I let it be known what I do, I did my own contracts and I saved my money. So we have a plan of how to do that. So I want to implement that legacy plan for guys who come through Sheffield management. When it comes to this facility, my only objective is to give these kids the same opportunity I had, and even better.”

He said he wants to mentor the kids and give them a taste of the experience he had as an 11-year-old in the Little League World Series.

“It was almost like big-league treatment,” he said. “But I was experiencing that at a young age, so that gave me an outlet to believe I could become something even when I didn’t believe it myself. By going through those experiences, it showed me than I can. I want to be able to provide that experience to those kids, to be exposed to things they normally wouldn’t be exposed to.”

That’s why he’s so excited about the Wiregrass complex. The materials, the turf fields, the instruction — it’s going to be a big-league experience.

“I remember when I was a young kid, we looked at the fields we played on, it was OK. I wasn’t complaining,” he said. “But I could always tell when a team had money or an organization had money, because when you stepped on their field, the ball stayed down. It was nice and smooth. I didn’t get the funny hops. Those type of things I always remembered. So to be able to give kids that at a young age, it’s simulating big leagues, and that’s a big deal for me.”

Sheffield said the company has a strong business plan and a location that will draw players from around the world.

“When you talk about what they’re doing in Cooperstown and all these places, one thing we have the advantage of is we have Disney,” he said. “We have the beaches and we have the weather. And I think when you have those three, you have a combination for success — as well as the fourth thing is we have all the big-league talent here that will be involved. And now these kids are getting one-on-one sessions with big-league ballplayers.”

He said the park’s proximity to so many Florida Grapefruit League spring training sites is another selling point, as well as the possibility that it could one day host a major-league club for spring training.

“Once this gets going, I can almost guarantee this is going to be the mecca, because this is the best weather in the world. This is where all the talent comes from — well, most of the talent. And when everything is up and running, most scouts will be here because this is where spring training is.”

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