The image will forever be embedded in the minds of sports fans – Ben Sheets celebrating on his knees after doing something previously considered to be impossible – shutting out a powerful Cuban National team on three hits in the 2000 Olympic gold medal game in Sydney, Australia.
The performance put American baseball back on the map and propelled Sheets into the national spotlight.
“That’s the thing most visiting fans associate me with,” Sheets said. “If they speak, that’s normally what they speak of.”
The performance immediately put Sheets on an international stage, even though that’s the last place he wants to be. Sheets is a man of few words in the media with his Louisiana accent. And while some might mistake that for an easy-going manner, he’s anything but when he takes the mound.
Sheets was a first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1999 draft, (10th overall) out of the Northeast Louisiana University. Fresh off the Olympian effort, he was introduced to the home crowd in Milwaukee at the final game of County Stadium in front of 56,000 fans, where he received a standing ovation.
He’s been with the team ever since, serving as the team’s ace until the recent acquisition of C.C. Sabathia for this year’s stretch run.
While he has battled injuries over the course of his career that have ranged from an inner-ear infection to a partial tear of the tissue surrounding the tendon of his middle finger. When healthy, Sheets is one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. That fact was no more evident in the first half of the season when Sheets posted an impressive 10-3 record with a 2.85 ERA to earn the start in the All-Star Game. This year marks the fourth appearance in the mid-summer classic for Sheets, something he doesn’t take for granted.
“They never get old,” Sheets said of his all-star berths at a private signing at Legends of the Field (www.legendsofthefield.com) in Hartland, Wis. “The past three I’ve been to have been awesome. I don’t know how they can get old. They’re tiresome, obviously, because that’s your days of rest, but you still have to work.”
In his eight seasons with the Brewers, Sheets has become the team’s all-time leader in strikeouts, breaking the mark of left-hander Teddy Higuera earlier this year.
When asked if records mean something to him, he said, “I think so. People will say it doesn’t, but that kind of record shows that you’ve been somewhere awhile – a longevity.”
However, that longevity with the Brewers might be coming to an end.
The national stage of NYC and the All-Star game will only make him a bigger target when he becomes a free agent this winter. In his final year of a four-year, $38.5 million deal with the Brewers, Sheets has already made it clear he wants to test the waters at the end of the season. The Brewers, in the playoff hunt for the second year in a row, have played a wait-and-see attitude toward Sheets because of his injury history. The team declined to offer an extension in the offseason and said it would wait until after the year to negotiate a deal.
Sheets then made it clear in a June interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he’s looking ahead.
“That’s the direction I’m headed right now,” Sheets said of free agency. “You can’t invite yourself back.
“In all honesty, that would be pretty tough (not to test the market). “We’re getting pretty deep (into the season). It would be hard not to (test the market), especially when you start putting together a (big) year.”
However, that doesn’t mean Sheets is already looking past his current team to greener pastures. He believes the Brewers will be in the playoff race until the end of the season
“I think it all falls down to our starting pitching – if we can keep the team in games,” he said. “I think we’re going to score plenty enough runs – I think we have been. I think we’ve got a good run in us coming, and hopefully it’s a prolonged run.”
Where his pitching run continues next year will be the question many teams will try and find out the answer to this offseason.
Sheets is a student of the game. He can recall certain games from years ago and rattle off statistics with the best of them. And part of that instant recall comes from his childhood fascination with baseball cards and the information on the back of those cards.
“I collected baseball cards. That was really the only thing I collected,” Sheets said. “I played with my baseball cards. I didn’t really collect them. I liked to get them, scan through them and read everything on them.”
But unlike those tales of putting the cards through their paces in bicycle spokes, Sheets used his cards for a different reason.
“I used to have this computer game that I used to get the baseball cards out for,” he said. “Whoever hit the home runs, I liked them. There were people like Tim Teuffel that I thought were awesome. I thought he might be a Hall of Famer because I hit a lot of homers with him.”
Sheets said he didn’t really have any favorites growing up other than whoever hit the most home runs for him in that computer game, but because he has a son named Seaver, you can guess Tom Seaver might have been one of his heroes.
Early in his career, Sheets said he attended various sports shows, including a visit to Richmond, Va., where he met left-hander Warren Spahn. But don’t expect Sheets to be on the roster at The National anytime soon.
“I haven’t in years,” Sheets said of attending shows. “I did some when I was younger. Now my time is more important to me.”
And don’t expect to get anything signed in the mail by Sheets either. Sheets said he gets a lot of requests through the mail, but he hasn’t responded for the past few years.
“It becomes overwhelming,” he said of all of the requests.
Sheets paused when asked what were some of the oddest items he has been asked to sign.
“Plenty of odd things – some stupid things – maybe a banana,” he replied.
Sheets still looks at all of his cards, and in his typical dry humor, he said, “I wish I could put better numbers on the back.”
And it’s those numbers that will drive his legacy, or lack thereof, on the collector market. Currently, Sheets memorabilia is relatively cheap (see sidebar) when being compared to other top pitchers in the game today. If he can remain healthy, Sheets is capable of posting numbers comprablew to any pitcher in the game. And frankly, if he had played on a more successful club than the Brewers (team went 488-645 in his first six seasons), he would already be more of a household name.
With an Olympic pedigree and an offseason filled with possibilities, Sheets’ memorabilia will be something to watch in the future. For now, collectors still look to Sheets’ past, wondering if they will strike gold in the future.