"I think certain guys were still allowed to wear it after that," said Sheffield, who will don the number for the Tigers' series finale at Toronto a week from Sunday. "But after that, you never even conceived of wearing that number. I think it was a good idea by Griffey to be able to do that. What that says about it is that he has a platform, and this is a way for him to use the platform that he has.
"It just justifies what I've always said. Certain players have a platform, and they can make a difference in that area. It's just if you're willing to go there. I think that this is a good start."
The area to which Sheffield refers is the concept of baseball embracing African-American history, as well as reaching out to the African-American community now. He doesn't just mean honoring Robinson.
Part of that legacy, he believes, is to keep the game alive in cities. Sheffield has tried to support efforts to promote the game. He talked to kids in south central Los Angeles while he was with the Dodgers, he said, and he was influential in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program. After 2004, his first year with the Yankees, he received the Thurman Munson Award for excellence on the field and charitable efforts off it.
Sheffield said he'd like to see Major League Baseball support the game more at home while it tries to spread it internationally, echoing comments from C.C. Sabathia last month that interest is waning too low in the African-American community.
A study by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed just 8.5 percent of Major League players in 2005 were African-American, lowest since the report started in the mid-1980s.
Part of tackling that, Sheffield believes, involves star players speaking out and being promoted as examples.
"I've been saying it until I'm blue in the face," he said. "The thing is, you have to realize that where we're from, we're easily influenced in a negative way because we never think we can reach certain things from childhood. If we don't see people who look like us and talk like us, we never think we can reach those goals. So [without that] we're already feeling defeated.
"When you're feeling like you're already playing behind the 8-ball, you need something to give you hope, and by showing faces in baseball in TV and promoting the game and saying it's a good game to play, that's what should be happening. If I was a kid and I didn't see anything, I would've never thought about playing baseball."
He has credited baseball with keeping him out of trouble growing up in Tampa, Fla., but he credited that to having his uncle, Dwight Gooden, as someone to follow and his grandfather to push the game on him. As important as Gooden was, however, Sheffield would like to leave more of a legacy when his career is over.
"It's one of those things where I was able to learn firsthand about what I'm talking about now," Sheffield said, "about making a difference and being a voice for people who don't have one. I saw my uncle have that platform, and he had the biggest platform, and he didn't use it. Now he's out of the game, and people are saying he's such a good guy, but what difference did it make? That's the point.
"We're not just here to make a whole lot of money and just drift off into the sunset or whatever. We're here to make a difference for other people. That way when people come up behind us, they can say, 'Because this guy did such-and-such, I'm able to be in this position.' I think that guys before us take great pride in saying that about us."
He would like to make a difference in Detroit while he's here. He signed copies of his just-released autobiography Wednesday night to benefit the Detroit Tigers Foundation.
"There's a lot of inner city here. I've done it everywhere I've been," he said. "It's not an issue to me of if I'm going to do it, but when I'm going to do it. It's just something I think has to be done."