Growing up, Gavin Sheets was a better golfer than a baseball player.
So much better that his dad suggested he push aside baseball to concentrate on golf.
That’s never an easy conversation, especially since the kid’s father, Larry Sheets, knows a bit about baseball. The elder Sheets spent eight seasons in the big leagues — six in Baltimore — including 1987, when the outfielder was named Most Valuable Oriole.
“When he was 13, I finally went up to him and told him he should start thinking about golf, because he was better at that than baseball,” Larry Sheets said. “I told him it wouldn’t hurt my feelings.”
His son listened to the advice, but kept swinging a bat instead of a club. The kid made the right call.
Now, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound, left-handed-hitting first baseman is creating a baseball legacy of his own; the Gilman School graduate and Wake Forest University junior is one of the most feared power hitters in the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference.
His stats have improved each year at the collegiate level and he’s currently on pace to break his previous highs in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. Subsequently, his name is popping up on draft watch lists, and the sense is he’ll be selected within the first three rounds this June.
Loving the game – Orioles’ style
Sheets’ love for baseball began as soon as he could hold a bat. His dad often would take him to the ballpark while he interacted with former teammates. That included Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr., whom the Orioles selected 19 picks after they took Sheets in the second round of the 1978 draft. The elder Sheets and Ripken became good friends and their sons bonded too, with Gavin Sheets and Ryan Ripken, now in the Washington Nationals organization, becoming buddies.
“(Gavin) spent a good deal of time at Camden Yards,” Larry Sheets said. “Whether it was doing promotional work for the O’s or watching the guys take batting practice, he was there quite a bit.”
With that kind of lineage comes lofty expectations.
“There were times where I wasn’t the best player and that was frustrating, especially when you have that name on your back,” Gavin Sheets said.
He attended Gilman starting in the first grade; before he reached high school, however, his dad was appointed head baseball coach. That only made things tougher for Sheets, who didn’t have an easy start to his high school career.
“When he was a freshman, if the older guys had to jump through one hoop, he had to jump through three,” Larry Sheets said.
As his high school career progressed, college coaches and MLB teams expressed interest. Sheets wanted to play in the ACC, and, ultimately, he chose Wake Forest over the University of North Carolina, his original dream school, because he felt Winston-Salem was a great fit.
That June, the Atlanta Braves selected Sheets out of high school in the 37th round of the 2014 draft.
“Tons of excitement with that,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t realistic to sign, and my dad knew what was best for me. … By far the best decision I’ve made.”
Home with the Demon Deacons
“He fits the Wake Forest profile as far as being a first-class human being. He’s someone who can handle the academic load here and be a good player,” said Tom Walter, Wake Forest’s head baseball coach. “It’s not every day you meet a kid who can (be) all three of those things. And if you’re only two out of the three, you can’t play here.”
Sheets has progressed in each of his seasons at Wake, partially because of his work ethic. Walter remembers leaving a home football game against Louisville on Halloween night, 2015.
“It was about 25 degrees outside when the game ended,” Walter said. “I was walking back to my car and saw the lights on in the baseball stadium.”
Sheets, a sophomore at the time, and a few teammates were hitting on the field in sub-freezing temperatures during one of the best party nights on college campuses.
That dedication and hard work is paying off. Through 17 games this year, Sheets has six home runs, 30 RBIs and is hitting .328. His draft stock is soaring.
“It’s exciting,” Sheets says. “It’s tough to ignore, but I try not to look at that stuff. You hear people tell you about it all the time, though.”
His college coach is buying the draft talk – he doesn’t expect Sheets to be around as a senior.
“I think the top three rounds is fair. He’s got to continue to put up numbers and play well,” Walter said. “We know he’s not coming back to school next year though. He’s ready.”
As for the elder Sheets, he selfishly hopes his son is drafted by the Orioles – especially because all of the club’s farm teams are within driving distance of Baltimore
For now, the first baseman is focusing on his Demon Deacons (13-5). They opened ACC play by taking two of three from 20th-ranked North Carolina State and have the goal of playing for a national championship.
“I don’t think that Omaha is out of the question,” Sheets said. “And I probably wouldn’t say that about us these last two years.”
It’s likely his final chance at a collegiate crown before turning pro – in the sport that was his second-best as a kid.
BaltimoreBaseball.com’s Top Performers of the Week
Michael Adams, RHP, Towson University
Jr./Mechanicsburg, Pa./Cumberland Valley HS
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound righty was named CAA Co-Pitcher of the Week after throwing six scoreless against Norfolk State to improve to 2-0 on the season. None of the four hits he allowed left the infield. The Pennsylvania native struck out seven batters, one short of his career-high.
Tyler Blohm, LHP, University of Maryland
Fr./Severna Park, Md./Archbishop Spalding
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound lefty was dominant in the second game of a doubleheader against Bryant (R.I.) University. He tossed six scoreless frames, allowing three hits and tying his career-high with six strikeouts. The performance earned Blohm (3-1, 2.45 ERA) the Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week Award.
Zach Jancarski, OF, University of Maryland
Jr./ East Norriton, Pa./Chestnut Hill Academy
The Terps’ leadoff hitter was named Big Ten Player of the Week by batting .450 with six runs scored, three doubles, six RBIs and three stolen bases in five games. He’s the first Maryland player to receive the honor since Nick Dunn last March.
Moments worth mentioning
Maryland has won eight games in a row after being swept by LSU two weekends ago. A couple of mid-week victories over William & Mary and St. Joseph’s combined with a weekend sweep of Bryant has the Terps sporting a 9-5 record. … After a slow start to the season, Navy is riding a four-game win streak. The Midshipmen went undefeated this week, beating University of Maryland Eastern Shore on Wednesday and sweeping the weekend against Marist and Central Connecticut. … University of Maryland Eastern Shore picked up the first two wins of its 2017 season against Iona (N.Y.). The Hawks took the first two of the three-game series, 6-1 and 4-3. UMES is now 2-11 on the year. … McDaniel College beat William Patterson 11-0 on Wednesday thanks to a seven-run third inning and a three-hit shutout by sophomore right-hander Robbie Mays, a Hereford High graduate.
Matchup to watch
Coppin State hosts UMES this weekend for a three-game series at Joe Cannon Stadium in Hanover. The Hawks and Eagles will play a doubleheader Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. and finish the series Sunday at noon. Both teams have struggled, combining for a record of 3-21.