Mike Sharperson was a super-utility man, a valuable role-player who could play any infield position or come off the bench to pinch-hit. While supersubs rarely get the credit they deserve, his skills were such that he made the National League All-Star team. Sharperson spent parts of eight seasons in the major leagues, winning a World Series with the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers and also logging time with the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident while driving to his next major-league opportunity.
Michael Tyrone Sharperson was born on October 4, 1961, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. His parents were Ethel and Mike Sr., and he had two siblings, sister Leslie and brother Vincent. Mike Sr. held a variety of jobs, including slaughtering pigs, fixing sinks, and pushing brooms. Mike Jr. recalled years later a time when he and his brother visited the slaughterhouse where their father worked.
“It was blood everywhere, and my brother and I couldn’t believe it. We asked my dad, ‘Why do you put up with this?’ He said it was because he made good money and could take care of us. I’ll never forget that.”1
Things did not come easy for the Sharperson family. His great-grandmother, who lived to be 106, spoke about the days of slavery. His grandfather talked about the cotton gin. Though Mike Jr. grew up poor, he was proud and principled. He was not invited to the parties held by the rich students in high school. He showed up anyway, with his friends in tow.
“We were the have-nots, but when we showed up, nobody would tell us that we weren’t invited,” recalled John Butler, a childhood friend. “That’s the way Juice [Sharperson’s nickname] is. Real quiet, but real proud.”2
Sharperson was a 1979 graduate of Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School and played baseball for four years, three as a starter at shortstop and the outfield. One of his teammates was future big leaguer Herm Winningham. Sharperson was also a starting wide receiver on the football team and an honor-roll student.3 He and Winningham also played on the Post 4 American Legion team that won the South Carolina state championship in 1978. Sharperson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 41st round of the 1979 June amateur draft, but he elected to attend DeKalb Junior College (now named Georgia Perimeter College).
Sharperson kept getting drafted at every opportunity. The Expos selected him in the second round of the 1980 January Draft-Secondary Phase, and the Tigers took him in the fourth round of the 1981 January Draft-Secondary Phase. He spurned those offers, not because of money, but because he told his parents he would attend college for two years.4
In his second season playing ball at DeKalb, Sharperson hit .392 with 50 RBIs and was a third-team Junior College All-American pick. The Blue Jays picked him in the first round of the 1981 June Draft-Secondary Phase. Though he had accepted a scholarship offer from the University of South Carolina, he decided to begin his professional baseball career with the Jays.5 Sharperson was the 11th overall pick, and his 5.5 career WAR is higher than that of anyone else taken in that round.
The Florence Blue Jays of the South Atlantic League — located less than 100 miles from his hometown of Orangeburg — were Sharperson’s first stop in a five-year journey to the major leagues. In 111 games, the 20-year-old slashed .255/.376/.337. He drew 59 walks and had an equal number of strikeouts, and he stole 28 bases in 35 attempts. Fielding was his weakness. Sharperson played 102 games at shortstop and made 32 errors for a .925 fielding percentage. Overall, the team was high on him as a future Blue Jay.
“Most of the scouts and members of the organization are feeling like I have a good shot of making the big leagues in two or three years with a lot of work,” Sharperson said in January 1983.6
Sharperson moved up to the Kinston Blue Jays of the high Class-A Carolina League in 1983. He raised his fielding percentage at shortstop to .952, and he also demonstrated his versatility in the field. He played four games at second base, 11 games at third, and even a game as catcher. He batted .266 with 20 stolen bases and five home runs, a career high that he matched in two other minor-league seasons.
“What impresses me about Mike is his range both to his left and to his right,” said Kinston statistician Dan Lovallo. “He makes a lot of spectacular plays look routine. When he gets hits, he always does in key situations.”7
The Blue Jays advanced Sharperson to Double-A Knoxville in 1984, and he responded with a team-best .304 batting average, ahead of future major-league stars Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder. A switch to second base didn’t hurt him defensively, as he had a .973 fielding average and was a part of 103 double plays.
Sharperson’s next stop was the Syracuse Chiefs of the Triple-A International League. He played there in 1985 and 1986, turning in two very similar seasons. He batted .289 and scored 86 runs each year. He had 155 hits and 59 RBIs in 1985 and 150 hits and 45 RBIs in 1986. Each season, he was named the Toronto minor-league player of the year. His stolen bases declined significantly, to a total of 31 in those two seasons while being thrown out 28 times. On the plus side, he fielded second base admirably, with .977 and .974 fielding averages.
Sharperson hit just four home runs for Syracuse in 1986, but that didn’t mean he was completely powerless. Years after the fact, he talked about the time he beat both McGriff and Fielder in a home-run-hitting contest that summer.
“I hit four homers in five swings,” he said. “And every time I see one of those guys, I bring it up.”8
Sharperson had been invited to the Blue Jays spring-training camps, but Damaso Garcia was established firmly at second base. He said that Garcia’s presence basically ruined spring training for him, because he knew there was no room for him on the big-league club.9 But during the 1986 offseason, Garcia was traded to the Braves, creating an opportunity for Sharperson to win the job in 1987.
“There were times when I thought, ‘Hey, why even work? It’s not going to get you everywhere,’” Sharperson said of his past springs. “I could have just taken it easy at Syracuse. But I kept a good attitude, kept working, and now I’m glad I did.”10
Sharperson said that when he heard about Garcia’s trade to Atlanta, he and his wife, Diane, wanted to throw a party, but they decided to hold off until he officially won the job.11
In the spring, Sharperson held off Manuel Lee and was named the Blue Jays’ Opening Day second baseman. The 25-year-old made his major-league debut in Toronto on April 6, 1987, against the Cleveland Indians. Batting ninth, he flied out to left and struck out against Tom Candiotti. In the bottom of the sixth inning, he stepped up to face Doug Jones with runners on first and second. He doubled to left field, scoring Ernie Whitt, and he came around to score a couple of batters later on Lloyd Moseby’s single. Along with a 1-for-4 day, he also handled four chances at second base flawlessly.
Sharperson hit safety in each of his first four games and then went hitless in three. His batting average seesawed back and forth, getting as high as .265 on April 22. After that, he slumped badly. He was demoted after a game in Seattle on May 23. He was hitting just .208 at the time. Sharperson was given the news of his demotion in the middle of his cross-country flight back to Toronto.
Sharperson started 75 games at third base and nine at second base in Syracuse. He batted .299 with 21 doubles and 5 home runs in 88 games, while playing well in the field at both positions. On September 22 Toronto traded him to the Dodgers for right-handed pitcher Juan Guzman.
“By adding Mike to our club, we have strengthened ourselves in the middle infield,” said Dodgers executive vice president Fred Claire.12
At the time of the trade, Guzman had a 20-16 record and 4.03 ERA after three seasons in the low minors with the Dodgers. He would become an All-Star pitcher with the Blue Jays and looked like a pitching ace until injuries curtailed his effectiveness. Still, Guzman’s first three major-league seasons were sensational enough that the trade was looked upon poorly by Dodgers fans, particularly when Sharperson failed to solidify the infield as promised.
After the trade, Sharperson was added to the Dodgers’ big-league roster. He didn’t start immediately, as he had been sitting at home for three weeks without picking up a bat. The Blue Jays had failed to recall him to the majors after Syracuse’s season ended. Sharperson did get into the lineup and started 10 games — seven at third base and three at second. He recorded nine hits in 33 at-bats for a .273 average, including two doubles. The Dodgers envisioned him challenging Steve Sax at second base in 1988. Sharperson, for his part, was just happy to be out of the Blue Jays organization, as he felt he had never been given a real chance in the majors.
“I don’t think 98 at-bats is a fair shot,” he said of his brief time with the Jays at the start of the season. “The numbers I had in Syracuse the last two years deserved a whole year in Toronto. Also, it was my first time in the big leagues and it takes time to adjust.”13
Sharperson did not make it past the first significant round of cuts in 1988 spring training with the Dodgers and began the season with the Triple-A Albuquerque Dukes. He hit .319 in 56 games with 19 stolen bases before he was needed by the Dodgers after shortstop Alfredo Griffin broke his hand. Sharperson was brought back to the majors on May 22. He appeared in 46 games, but only four of those appearances were starts. The bulk of his work came as a late-inning defensive replacement in the infield, primarily at second base. He was also used as a pinch-hitter, though he struggled in that role (3-for-22).
While his chances to step up to the plate were few and far between, Sharperson made the most of his opportunities. He had three hits in four at-bats in May and then hit .308 in June. He was batting .343 on July 25 when he was sent back to Albuquerque after Griffin returned from the disabled list. Sharperson returned to the Dodgers in late August. While he slumped in September, batting .200 in 20 at-bats, Sharperson ended the year with a .271 batting average.
Still, Sharperson made the postseason roster only because utility infielder Dave Anderson aggravated a back injury two days before the end of the season.14 He appeared in two games of the seven-game NL Championship Series against the New York Mets. In Game Three, he pinch-hit for Danny Heep (who was pinch-hitting for starting pitcher Orel Hershiser) and drew a bases-loaded walk from Mets reliever Randy Myers in the eighth inning. He had walked only once in 64 regular-season plate appearances. That walk broke a 3-3 tie, but the Dodgers bullpen imploded in the bottom of the inning, resulting in an 8-4 Mets win. Sharperson played shortstop for that final inning. He bunted into a force play as a pinch-hitter in the 11th inning of Game Four and took over third base for the rest of the game, which the Dodgers won 5-4 in 12 innings. Sharperson was on the 25-man roster for the World Series, but he did not play as Los Angeles defeated the Oakland A’s in five games.
The Dodgers slipped to fourth place in 1989, with a 77-83 record. Sharperson bounced back and forth between Los Angeles and Albuquerque. Griffin was once again healthy enough to play shortstop, and free agent Willie Randolph took over the starting second-base spot. When Sharperson didn’t make the 25-man roster out of spring training, he flew home to Stone Mountain, Georgia, instead of Albuquerque. He threatened to quit baseball entirely and even made plans to work in a nearby carpet factory. Diane persuaded her husband to report to Triple A for the start of the season.15
Sharperson started the season in Albuquerque, saw limited action with the Dodgers in May when Kirk Gibson was sent to the disabled list, and returned again to the big leagues at the start of August. He hit .309 for the Dukes and helped them finish first in the Pacific Coast League South Division. He played in 27 games for Los Angeles and had a .250 average, with seven hits and five RBIs. He did find ways to lead the Dodgers to victories, though. He hit a tie-breaking sacrifice fly against the Giants on August 13 for a 3-2 win and drew a bases-loaded walk against the Braves’ Mike Stanton in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 1-0 win on September 16.
Sharperson was poised to spend 1990 as a Dodgers utility infielder once again; then third baseman Jeff Hamilton went down early with an injury. This time, Sharperson was given the chance to fill in as the starter. He still kept the role of a supersub, starting games at all four infield positions and pinch-hitting in 25 games. He played in more than 100 major-league games for the first time in his career and finished 1990 with a slash line of .297/.376/.373. He had an OPS+ of 110 and even hit his first major-league home run — his first three home runs, in fact. The first, off the Mets’ Ron Darling on August 16, came four years and 446 at-bats after he made his major-league debut. It ended his status as a “Zero Hero” — a player who’d gone the longest without a homer. The distinction, as noted by Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Jayson Stark, had been held previously by Felix Fermin, Lance Johnson, and Alvaro Espinoza before it went to Sharperson. He passed the mantle of Zero Hero on to Junior Noboa.16
To his Dodgers teammates and manager, Sharperson was far from a zero. Tommy Lasorda called him a manager’s delight.
“He’s unselfish, he gets along with everybody on the club and plays hard,” Lasorda said. “That’s my idea of a team player. I need a few more like him.”17
Sharperson, in turn, enjoyed his expanded role, even if he wasn’t playing every inning of every game. He knew his role.
“Sure it would be nice if they elected a utility man to the All-Star team. But I don’t think that will happen anytime soon,” he said. “I’ll just take my playing time and be happy with that.”18
He would be proved wrong about utility players getting All-Star nods, but it would be a couple of years away.
Sharperson, a slow starter, spent the first portion of the 1991 season hitting under .200. He then racked up five hits in two games against the Cubs and Pirates on June 19 and 20, including his first home run of the year, to raise his batting average nearly 100 points to .234. He hit .290 the rest of the season to end with a .278 average in 105 games, with 20 RBIs and two home runs. It wasn’t enough to help the Dodgers finish first, as the 93-win team finished a game behind the Braves.
The Dodgers fell from second place all the way into the cellar in 1992, with a 63-99 record. Sharperson, however, had his best all-around season; he slashed .300/.287/.394, with a 124 OPS+. In 128 games, he hit 21 doubles and 3 home runs while driving in 36 runs and drawing 47 walks. All those numbers were career highs. An injury to second baseman Juan Samuel gave him the opportunity to start regularly, and by the All-Star break, he was hitting .328. He would have ranked third in the National League in batting average, but he didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Still, on a team that featured stars like Darryl Strawberry, Brett Butler, Eric Davis, Orel Hershiser, and Eric Karros, Sharperson — and only Sharperson — was selected to the NL All-Star team to represent the Dodgers. His selection was prompted by the rule that every major-league team be represented at the All-Star Game. It was an unconventional pick, but given his production, a logical one.
Sharperson’s mother, Ethel, flew to San Diego to see her son. Mike Sr., though, did not like flying and couldn’t make it. Mike Jr. did what he could to give his father the All-Star experience by taking videos and talking to him on the phone. While the Home Run Derby was taking place, Sharperson was in the American League dugout collecting autographs.19 He struck out against the A’s Dennis Eckersley in his only All-Star at-bat, but he enjoyed the experience to the fullest.
“If nothing else, I hope that because I made the All-Star team, kids today who don’t think they have a chance will decide to keep trying,” he said.20
Sharperson never had the chance to repeat his success. The Dodgers revamped their roster in 1993, adding second baseman Jody Reed and third baseman Tim Wallach, and Sharperson was moved back to the role of pinch-hitter and utility infielder. Once again he struggled at the start of the season, with a sub-.200 average into July. Though he eventually raised his average to a respectable .256, only 12 of his 73 appearances were in the starting lineup. The bulk of his appearances — 53 — came as a pinch-hitter. He hit .255 in that role, but it seemed clear that the Dodgers just did not envision him as a starter.
The Dodgers let Sharperson go as a free agent at the end of the 1993 season but signed him to a minor-league deal in February 1994. He was released in April, when manager Lasorda decided to keep an extra pitcher on the roster. Sharperson had no hard feelings over the decision.
“The Dodgers were fair to me,” he said. “They took care of me and my family. I had some great years with them. They provided me a chance to make an All-Star team, and I had a chance to win a world championship. I also made some money there.”21
Sharperson signed a minor-league contract with the Boston Red Sox and performed well for Triple-A Pawtucket, hitting .298 in 37 games. However, he didn’t fit into the Red Sox youth movement plans and was released. He then caught on with the Iowa Cubs; Ron Clark, Sharperson’s manager in Kinston, was the Cubs’ coordinator of minor-league instruction. He thought Sharperson had a career ahead of him as a coach when his playing days were over. Sharperson wasn’t ready to retire yet and signed with the Cubs to try to get back to the majors.22 He hit .278 with Iowa, but any hopes of joining the Cubs were dashed when the players strike brought the 1994 season to an early end.
As he once more entered the offseason as a free agent, Sharperson was left in a tough position because of the strike. He wanted to land a job with a major-league team, but he was unwilling to cross the picket line to do it. He ultimately signed with the Braves in February and reported to the team’s minor-league training camp, but he would not play in any spring-training games with the replacement players whom the Braves (and every other team) had brought to spring training. He did say that he would be willing to report to Triple-A Richmond should the strike carry over to the start of the season.
Sharperson stood out from the other minor leaguers at camp, not only for his experience but for his Dodgers World Series ring. “I’m starting to wear it a little more now, because I’ve got a feeling that Atlanta is going to win another one, and hopefully I’ll be a part of that,” he said, prophetically. “I’m going to bring it out and let some of the guys see it … just to loosen everybody up and just to give them a reminder of what one does look like.”23
The strike came to an end, and Sharperson’s position during the strike didn’t cause any problems with his teammates once they showed up to camp. His chances to contribute to the Braves’ World Series run were extremely limited, however. He made the Opening Day roster because Ryan Klesko started the season on the disabled list. Used exclusively as a pinch-hitter, he went hitless in his first four games before he entered the May 16 game to replace Jose Oliva in the top of the seventh. In the bottom of the eighth, he lined a two-run double to left field to help the Braves to an easy 15-3 win over the Rockies.
Sharperson was sent back to Richmond when Klesko was activated from the DL but returned when Mark Lemke was hurt. He went hitless in two at-bats and was returned to Triple A. All told, he went 1-for-7 with the Braves, who did indeed win the World Series as Sharperson predicted. He batted .319 for Richmond and left the Braves as a free agent after the season.
Sharperson was one of a group of 14 nonroster players invited to spring training by the San Diego Padres in 1996. He spent most of spring training playing the corner infield positions and was one of the last roster cuts. The Padres opted to keep outfielder Chris Gwynn on the roster, and Sharperson was assigned to Las Vegas Stars of the Pacific Coast League.24
Sharperson proceeded to demonstrate that he had plenty of baseball left in him. He had four hits and two RBIs in a game against Tucson on April 30, broke a scoreless tie against Calgary with a two-run homer on May 11 and drove in two more runs the next day. In 32 games with the Stars, Sharperson had a .304 batting average and 21 RBIs as the everyday third baseman.
Sharperson’s play was also noticed by the Padres, who were dealing with injuries at the big-league level. Third baseman Ken Caminiti had groin and shoulder injuries and was expected to be put on the disabled list. The Padres juggled their 40-man roster by putting prospect Homer Bush on the 60-day DL to free up a spot for Sharperson.26
The first reports that the Padres were planning a roster move came on May 21. San Diego, though, was hesitant about putting Caminiti on the DL and losing the eventual National League MVP for 15 days. Manager Bruce Bochy said he preferred to get by until Caminiti was healthy, so the Padres held steady.27
Caminiti continued to miss games and, according to Padres spokesman Roger Riley, Sharperson was told on Saturday, May 25, to fly to Montreal and meet the team there. There was no guarantee that he would be promoted to the big-league roster, but the team wanted him there in case Caminiti wasn’t ready for the series against the Expos.28
At about 2:45 A.M. on May 26, Sharperson was driving out of Las Vegas on I-15 South and missed his exit. He attempted to swerve onto the exit anyway, but he lost control of his vehicle in the rain and crashed. Sharperson was not wearing his seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle through the sun roof.29 He died about two hours later, on the operating table at University Medical Center. Highway Patrol trooper Steve Harney said that wearing a seat belt might have made a difference.30 Sharperson was 34 years old.
Stars manager Royster was in tears as he talked about the loss of his player. “This really, really hurts. The guys are trying to sort this thing out. Baseball has lost a real friend. Baseball will definitely mourn the death of Mike Sharperson.”31
Tommy Lasorda, Sharperson’s former Dodgers manager, said he was “sick all day” over the news. “I loved Mike Sharperson. I loved him and his family very dearly. He was a great guy to have on the team.”32
In parts of eight major-league seasons, Sharperson had a slash line of .280/355/.364. He had 337 hits that included 61 doubles, 5 triples, and 10 home runs. He played 256 games at third base, 156 at second base, 41 at shortstop, and 19 at first base. He also played an inning in right field in 1993.
Sharperson is buried at Belleville Memorial Gardens in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Bill Plaschke, “Bringing Game Home,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1992.
3 “Post 4 Profile, Mike Sharperson,” Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina), July 6, 1979.
5 “Sharperson, Wilson Sign Baseball Pacts with Carolina,” Times and Democrat, July 10, 1981.
6 Gage Bleakley, “Two Baseball Pros Were Among the Best from Area,” Times and Democrat, January 18, 1983.
7 Gage Bleakley, “Local Stars Hope for Chance to Make the Big Leagues,” Times and Democrat, May 29, 1983.
8 Tim Sullivan, “Sharperson More Like Commonperson,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 15, 1992.
9 Robbie Andreu, “Jays Rookie Sharperson Enjoying Spring Camp A.D. — after Damaso,” South Florida Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), March 18, 1987.
12 “Baseball Notes: Dodgers Trade Guzman,” Greenville (South Carolina) News, September 22, 1987.
13 Sam McMannis, “Newest Dodger: Is He Just a Face in the Crowd, or a Challenger to Sax?,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1987.
14 Ken Rosenthal, “Jogging GMs Hammered Out A’s-L.A. Deal,” Baltimore Evening Sun, October 14, 1988.
16 Jayson Stark, “A Quiz for Those Who Know Their No-Hitters,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 21, 1990.
17 “Sharperson Has All Bases Covered with the Dodgers,” Atlanta Constitution, July 5, 1990.
18 “Sharperson Has All Bases Covered.”
21 Randy Peterson, “Wanted: Return to Majors,” Des Moines Register, July 31, 1994.
23 Tim Luke, “Playing a Waiting Game…,” Greenville (North Carolina) News, February 23, 1995.
24 “Around the Majors,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1996.
25 “Sharperson Dies after Car Accident,” Daily News (New York), May 27, 1996.
26 “NL Report,” Philadelphia Daily News, May 21, 1996.
27 “Padres Will Forgo Placing Caminiti on the DL,” Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), May 23, 1996.
28 “Sharperson Dies after Car Accident.”
29 Mike Downey, “‘Sharpie’ Is Remembered Fondly by Padres and Dodgers,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1996.
30 “Sharperson Dies after Car Accident.”
31 “Sharperson Dies after Car Accident.”
32 “Sharperson Dies after Car Accident.”