Ben Sheets brought his gold medal to the Milwaukee Brewers'
farewell game at County Stadium against the Cincinnati Reds last
Thursday, the reward for having dispatched the international
Reds 35 1/2 hours earlier and 16 time zones away. Next season
Sheets will simply bring the cheese to new Miller Park in
Milwaukee. Considering the extraordinary nature of Sheets's
cheese--a four-seam fastball that explodes at 96 mph and had
scouts drooling and Cubans flailing--that will hardly be
bringing coals to Newcastle. The roar that poured down on Sheets
during his fifth-inning introduction to Brewers fans was not
only a hearty thank-you for his three-hit, 4-0 shutout of Cuba
in the Olympic final but also a down payment for next April,
when he's expected to join Milwaukee's rotation in the new
Sheets belongs to the U.S. now, but next spring he'll again be
chattel of the Brewers, who on Sept. 1 released Sheets, the 10th
pick in the 1999 draft, to the Olympic team with trepidation. As
David Wilder, who's probably as patriotic as the next major
league vice president of player personnel, says, "Our biggest
worry was that he stay healthy, because while what he did at the
Games was important, it's more important what he does in the
future with the Brewers."
The righthanded Sheets will bring ice as well as heat to the
majors. Manager Tommy Lasorda had Sheets start against Japan in
the Americans' tournament opener with the long view of pitching
him again in the final, inevitably against Cuba, because he
sensed Sheets would shrug at the prospect of facing a team that
was 25-1 in Olympic play. His managerial intuition was correct.
Lasorda reported, "He asked me before the [gold medal] game,
'Hey, Skip, who are we playing?'"
Of course Sheets knew about the Cubans even before they pasted
the U.S. 6-1 in a round-robin game. Though the Cuban team gets
broad display just once a quadrennium, powerful third baseman
Omar Linares, 32, mercurial shortstop German Mesa, 33, and
slugging first baseman Orestes Kindelan, 36, are more familiar
to U.S. fans than most of the September call-ups littering
late-season box scores. While Cuba was winning gold in 1996,
Sheets was pitching at Northeast Louisiana. While Linares, Mesa
and Kindelan were playing their combined 750th game for their
country shortly before the Sydney Games, Sheets (3-5, 2.87 ERA,
59 strikeouts in 81 2/3 innings) was shutting down Triple A
hitters for the Indianapolis Indians.
These were hardened men from whom the 22-year-old Sheets was
asked to wrest the gold medal. He did it with astonishing ease,
delivering overhand curves and a jitterbug change with a motion
so sweet that he looked like a young Tom Seaver. Sheets worked
quickly, and the Cubans hacked with equal dispatch, chasing first
pitches with more resignation than resolve. The game contracted.
The only moments that mattered were the ones when Sheets stood on
the mound. "I've never wanted to make outs in my life," U.S.
first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said, "but I was happy [fouling
out in the eighth] just to keep the game moving."
A power pitcher, Sheets imposed a power rhythm on the game. The
Cubans could not sacrifice or steal or run the bases like
banshees because the righthander offered no options. He gave up
only three singles and had 16 ground ball outs. He struck out
five and walked none. But his grandest achievement came in the
eighth inning. While Sheets was safely tucked in the dugout,
catcher Pat Borders stood at first after a two-out single,
gabbing with a smiling Kindelan. Suddenly chirpy, sneering Cuba
had become just another overmatched team playing out the string
against an unhittable pitcher on a lazy, late-September day.
Sheets had pulled off an amazing trick: He had turned the a on
the Cuba uniforms into an s.