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Learning Curve It's been a season of dizzying highs and lows for Ben Sheets, the Brewers' All-Star rookie pitcher, and SI charted his progress all the way

Oct. 01, 2001
Oct. 01, 2001

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Oct. 1, 2001

Baseball

Learning Curve It's been a season of dizzying highs and lows for Ben Sheets, the Brewers' All-Star rookie pitcher, and SI charted his progress all the way

Candles atop starched white linen tablecloths set the room aglow,
giving the proper air of sophistication to an upscale steak house
in downtown Milwaukee one cool evening in July. Sitting at the
table, ready to order, is Ben Sheets, though for 10 months, ever
since he shut out the mighty Cuban team in the gold medal game of
the 2000 Summer Olympics, the world has referred to the Milwaukee
Brewers pitcher as Olympic Hero Ben Sheets, as if he had legally
changed his name in Sydney.

This is an article from the Oct. 1, 2001 issue Original Layout

"The 15-ounce fillet," Sheets says.

"Yes," the waiter says, scribbling on his pad. He hardly pauses
and doesn't bother to look up before he adds, "And will that be
with ketchup?"

Sheets has been to this place before. They know him well. "Yep,"
he says. "We don't know any better in Louisiana. We put ketchup
on everything."

Major league baseball may have disavowed its proletarian heritage
and become a bearnaise sauce kind of sport--in a defining moment,
two ball clubs nearly came to blows this season over a pitcher's
diamond earrings--but Sheets is a ketchup kind of guy. If a Geiger
counter could be rigged to measure the sense of entitlement so
many ballplayers radiate, Sheets couldn't make the needle so much
as quiver.

He is a rookie who until this season had only 34 games of
professional experience, all in the minor leagues. He is also,
thanks to a humble high school career and a small-college
background, blissfully ignorant of the pampered life of a star in
the making. He is a blank slate. A true freshman.

"We're treated like royalty," Sheets declares halfway through the
season. "We get to a hotel, and everything is done to get you
into your room as quickly as possible: Your key's waiting, and
your bags are taken care of. We stay in nice hotels. In Los
Angeles I had a room on the 15th floor with a balcony overlooking
the city. Man, it was something. The first time we went on the
road, my wife asked me, 'So who's your roommate?' I said, 'This
is the big leagues. You get your own room.' The way we're treated
is something else. Candy and movies in the clubhouse."

Disillusionment is part of the lesson plan too. Sheets is a
baseball junkie who watches highlight shows, reads baseball
books, devours magazines and newspapers, scans the Internet for
baseball news and studies stats. (He can tick off Curt
Schilling's home runs allowed or Paul Lo Duca's strikeouts.) It
puzzles him to find teammates who are not passionate about their
vocation.

"The thing I don't understand is all the players who don't know
anything about the game," he says. "I'll want to talk with guys
about what's going on around baseball, like during batting
practice, and they don't know what I'm talking about or don't
care. I'm amazed how many guys don't care."

The first year in the big leagues for any pitcher is a year of
discovery. Sheets will learn, among other things, how to survive
the grind of a six-month season (one month longer than in the
minors), how his stuff measures up against big league hitters,
and how hard it is to find authentic jambalaya in downtown
Milwaukee. He allowed SI to share in his season of discovery. It
is the education of a rookie pitcher.

PROLOGUE

Sheets grew up in St. Amant, La., amid the petrochemical
companies, livestock shows and LSU football games that are part
of the culture of Ascension Parish. His father, Arnold, owns and
operates a water-well drilling business. Ben was such a poor high
school pitcher that he threw only 27 innings as a junior and even
fewer, 13, as a senior. He got a lot stronger that summer,
though, while pitching for an American Legion team, and his
fastball jumped from 84 mph to 89 mph. Northeast Louisiana's
coach at the time, Smoke Laval, who lived in Ascension Parish,
offered him half a scholarship. Sheets accepted.

Three years later, in June 1999, the Brewers made him their
first-round draft pick. A year after that he was humbling
Castro's men with a three-hitter. "It wasn't a big deal to me,"
Sheets says. "I didn't know much about them. Sometimes being a
little stupid is better. If you never heard of the New York
Yankees and then went out to pitch against them, you'd be better
off than if you knew all about Jeter, O'Neill and all those guys.
Keep it simple. You have to go with your strengths no matter who
you're facing. Just try to super-dee-dooper locate your pitches."

The kid who made only two starts as a senior for St. Amant High
has blossomed into what the Brewers think is a franchise pitcher.
He is armed with a 91-mph two-seam sinking fastball, a 96-mph
four-seam rising fastball, a decent changeup, a hellacious
curveball and cold-blooded confidence. "When I'm on the mound,"
he says, "I believe I'm better than anybody who steps into that
box. If you don't, why bother going out there?"

"He's got the best curveball I've seen this year," says Houston
Astros outfielder Lance Berkman. "He's flat-out filthy. When you
get up in the morning and see in the paper that Ben Sheets is
pitching, you pray you might be able to go one for three. Maybe
you get a jam shot for a hit or get hit by a pitch or walk. That
would be a good day."

Sheets, 22 at the start of the season, will learn that his stuff
is good enough to make him an All-Star. He will learn, too, that
it is not enough to get him through the season.

APRIL 5
HOUSTON

Three hours before his major league debut, Sheets is tying his
spikes in the visitors' dugout at Enron Field when his teammates
notice something different about him. Sheets's close-cropped
blond hair was cut that very afternoon. "Oooh, must be a national
TV game," righthander Jimmy Haynes says.

"I want to trick 'em, look younger than I am," Sheets says.

"Yeah," third baseman Tyler Houston says, "so people will say,
'Hey, he's pretty good for 17.' You look like you're about 17."

Sheets laughs along with his teammates. He is as relaxed as he'd
be if he'd bought a ticket to the game, a major departure from
the days when he got so nervous before each start that he would
throw up. The vomiting began when he was a junior at Northeast
Louisiana. "I knew if we didn't win the day I pitched, there was
a good chance we'd lose the series or get swept," he says. "And I
knew scouts were watching and that every day they could change
their minds. One bad game and you'd hear things like, 'He's
dropping [in the draft].'"

Often during the season Sheets could keep down only one meal a
day. He lost 30 pounds as a junior, his final year in college,
withering to 175 pounds by the time the Brewers drafted him. He
kept on losing his lunch through Rookie and Class A ball that
season, and Double A the next.

"I felt like I was under pressure to stand out," Sheets says of
those early days in the minors. "They expect more out of you,
especially being a Number 1 pick. I stopped throwing up when I
got to Triple A [on June 12 last year]. Older guys are there, and
you don't feel like anybody's counting on you to go seven, eight
strong innings every time. Then when you're a rookie, it's the
same. People don't expect much out of you."

An hour before game time pitching coach Bob Apodaca gives Sheets
an abbreviated version of the scouting reports on Houston's
hitters. "I don't want to overload him with information," Apodaca
says. "I'd rather he pitch to his strengths. He's had the
advantage of watching two games here.

"I'll talk to him on the way in from the bullpen to make sure
he's relaxed," the coach continues. "He's human. He's going to be
pumped up, so you want to make sure he doesn't try to do more
than he's capable of doing. When you get excited, you tend to
rush, and when you rush, you open up your front side too soon,
and when you fly open like that, you tend to elevate the ball in
the zone. That's where you're going to get hurt. What I'll be
watching most in those first couple of innings is his tempo."

A former pitcher and pitching coach with the New York Mets,
Apodaca smiles broadly when asked what he sees in Sheets. "Ben is
like that beautiful new shirt you're dying to wear to the prom,"
he says. "You take it out of the wrapper, and it's not quite
ready to wear. There are a few wrinkles that need to be ironed
out. He's not even close to being what he's going to be."

Already Sheets is thrust into the role of stopper. The Brewers
are 0-3, having been outscored 20-9. Sheets is following Jamey
Wright, Haynes and Paul Rigdon in the rotation, with Jeff D'Amico
coming after him. They're all righthanded and all between 22 and
28 years old, and so far none has won more than 38 games in the
big leagues.

The bad start to the season has the Milwaukee manager, Davey
Lopes, in a foul mood even during batting practice. He spots his
second baseman, Ron Belliard, playfully yapping with Astros
pitcher Jose Lima near second base. Lopes yells from near the
batting cage, "Take him out to f------ dinner! He can't f------
help you!" The message is clear: no fraternizing on the ball
field.

Lopes is old school, with the strut and feistiness of a bantam. A
scouting report on him would note that he is short on patience
and long on attitude. Born to an Irish mother and Cape Verdean
father in East Providence, R.I., Davey was one of 12 children. He
grew to be only 5'9" and attended Washburn University in Topeka,
Kans. He was 27 when he finally made it to the big leagues, in
1972, as a second baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He stuck
around for 16 seasons, stole a total of 557 bases for four clubs,
and played in four All-Star Games and four World Series.

Lopes paid his dues as a coach, spending 12 years with three
organizations until, at 54, he landed his first managerial job.
Brewers general manager Dean Taylor announced the hiring on Nov.
4, 1999, at a news conference in Milwaukee attended by team
president Wendy Selig-Prieb. Lopes learned quickly that he wasn't
in moneyed L.A. anymore. After the news conference several
Brewers officials took him to Wendy's for dinner--not
Selig-Prieb's house, but the fast-food joint. Lopes stepped up to
the counter in his spiffy suit and ordered a value meal. Welcome
to Milwaukee.

In spring training this year, when asked about an observation by
Chicago Cubs manager Don Baylor that the Brewers' lineup was ripe
with strikeouts, Lopes blurted, "Let Don Baylor manage his own
f------ team. Last time I checked he had plenty of f------
strikeouts in his own lineup." (In July, Lopes will be suspended
for two games for telling the San Diego Padres' Rickey Henderson
that he would have instructed his pitchers to throw at
Henderson--who had the audacity to steal second base with his team
ahead by seven runs in the seventh inning--if the outfielder had
stayed in the game.)

Lopes cuts no slack, not even to a kid pitcher making his big
league debut. Against the Astros, Sheets throws 20 strikes among
his first 27 pitches before losing control with two outs in the
second inning. He walks catcher Brad Ausmus, bringing up third
baseman Chris Truby with the pitcher, Wade Miller, on deck.
Sheets leaves a 2-and-1, 93-mph fastball over the heart of the
plate. Truby wallops it onto the train tracks beyond Enron's
leftfield for his third homer in as many nights. Sheets is even
more wobbly in the third inning, when he walks three batters,
hits another and yields three more runs. He does, however,
recover with three scoreless innings. His pitching line in the
8-2 loss: six innings, six hits, five earned runs, five walks,
five strikeouts.

After the game it matters little to Lopes that Sheets righted
himself against a powerful lineup in a bandbox of a ballpark. No
compliments will be thrown the rookie's way tonight, not by the
manager of an 0-4 team. "It's just bad pitching on our part in
all three games [against Houston]," Lopes says. "When you've got
the pitcher coming up next, you cannot [throw] a pitch that can
be hit out of the ballpark. That's basic pitching. This is not
spring training anymore. It's the real deal. You cannot--and I
emphasize cannot--make mistakes like that. I don't want any
rationalization. There's no excuse."

Asked to comment in general about Sheets, Lopes says, "He looked
like two people out there. We saw the good and the bad." Then
Lopes mentions the possibility of demoting Sheets--after only one
start. "If our pitchers can't make pitches they're supposed to
make, I'll find pitchers who will," he says. "We have people in
the minor leagues who are waiting for an opportunity. The bottom
line is, he's here and he has a job to do. You cannot allow the
eighth-place hitter a swing like that. You're at the major league
level. If you miss [the strike zone], so what? You've still got
an open base with the pitcher coming up."

Sheets is relaxed, even smiling a bit, as he dresses in a black
suit and powder-blue V-neck knit shirt. He handles typical
first-game questions casually. Nervous? No. Tickets? About 30 for
friends and family. He is asked about the pitch to Truby. "I was
trying to get the ball in, but I left it over the middle of the
plate," Sheets says. "He did what you're supposed to do with a
pitch like that. He hit it over the tracks."

Then Sheets giggles. If this was the start of his learning curve,
he shows no concern about the difficulty of the curriculum. Asked
what he learned from this experience, he says, "Just stuff you
already know: Get ahead of hitters. It's an easy game. Well, it's
not easy, but it's a little easier when you get ahead of
hitters."

Later, though, he will admit to Apodaca a classic rookie mistake:
He hadn't been aware the pitcher was on deck when he delivered
the room-service fastball to Truby.

APRIL 15
RICHMOND

Lopes wasn't kidding: Sheets is back in the minors, joining
Indianapolis for a series against the Atlanta Braves' Richmond
affiliate. His stay in the big leagues lasted two starts. His
second outing was a quality start--three earned runs over six
innings--but Miller outpitched him again in a 7-1 Houston win.
Lopes and Taylor were careful to explain to the media and to
Sheets that he wasn't being punished. The Brewers, they say,
don't need a fifth starter for the next two weeks because of off
days on the schedule. Publicly, Sheets gracefully accepts the
explanation. Privately, he seethes. He calls his wife, Julie, and
says, "I promise you I will never allow myself to be in this
position again, to be a fifth starter they can dump whenever they
want."

Later in the season he will admit, "If it looks like a demotion,
smells like a demotion and feels like a demotion, it is a
demotion. That's the way I took it. It would be different if we
had a Roger Clemens or a Pedro Martinez. Guys like that you want
pitching every fifth day. You don't want them to get off their
schedule. I didn't see a Clemens or a Pedro on our staff. I
didn't see anybody who absolutely had to stay on his fifth day
and not get an extra day. I didn't understand that."

The Brewers, however, have an ulterior motive for sending him
down: to get him to relax. Apodaca believes his fears about a
young pitcher rushing on the mound have been confirmed. He orders
the Indianapolis staff to have Sheets throw a higher percentage
of changeups than he normally does. "It was like he had Wile E.
Coyote's Acme springs in his left foot, and that was getting him
into a rocking mode," Apodaca says. "We have to slow him down. I
thought [his first] time out he was functioning on pure
adrenaline. I talked to him after the [Truby home run] about
recognizing the situation and controlling his emotions."

MAY 8
MILWAUKEE

Like it or not, the time spent in the minors helped. Sheets won
his first game back with the Brewers, on April 28 against the
Montreal Expos, with a pitching line similar to his second loss
to Houston (6 1/3 innings, seven hits, four runs, two earned). He
sparkled in his next start, beating the Braves in Atlanta with
six shutout innings.

"He's more relaxed," says David Wilder, Brewers vice president
for player personnel. "There was too much hype. The last game he
pitched, he was in total control. He won the gold medal game, and
people expected him to pitch like that right away."

The curveball is Sheets's best friend, so reliable that he rarely
has to work on it between starts. In the big leagues, though,
throwing it for strikes isn't enough. He must use it judiciously.
Says Milwaukee outfielder Geoff Jenkins, "If anything, he was
around the plate too much. You need to know when to go in there
and when not to. That comes with experience."

On this day Sheets is matched against the Cubs' Kerry Wood in the
first of what could be many duels between the two National League
Central righthanders in the years to come. (Wood is only 13
months older than Sheets.) Wood carries a no-hitter into the
fifth and strikes out 12 batters in seven innings, but Milwaukee
scratches out a run in the fifth and three more in the sixth.
Sheets throws a season-high seven innings and 104 pitches without
permitting a run. But Lopes pushes him further. He leaves Sheets
in the game to bat with one out and nobody on base in the bottom
of the seventh. "I thought he still had enough to go back out for
the eighth," Lopes says later. "He got over one hump by getting
through the seventh. It was a good time to see about the eighth.
That's the next hump."

The first batter Sheets faces in the eighth, centerfielder Damon
Buford, crushes a hanging curve for a home run. Lopes lifts
Sheets. The bullpen holds Chicago hitless to lock up a 4-1 win,
after which Lopes can't contain his glee. "I don't deny a
rivalry," he says about facing Chicago. "I don't like losing to
the Cubs. I do not care for them, to be honest."

Sheets is his Cubs killer. The rookie will beat them three
straight times in the first half of the season, often buckling
the knees of Sammy Sosa (2 for 9) with his curveball. Today,
eight of the 14 pitches he throws Sosa are curves. "Wow, he's
very good," Sosa says. "He's been almost unhittable. He's going
to win 15 to 20 games in the big leagues each year. I can't
remember a righthander with a curveball like that. Maybe the guy
from Minnesota, Brad Radke. I could compare Sheets to him."

MAY 16
PHILADELPHIA

Sheets does not normally watch videotape, but in the visitors'
clubhouse of Veterans Stadium he is studying his most recent
start, his fourth consecutive win, against the Pittsburgh
Pirates. He replays his curveballs again and again, on the
lookout for two danger signs. First, he wants to make sure he is
not tipping his pitches. He found out from teammates in spring
training that every time he threw his curveball, he would raise
the index finger on his left hand, the finger that sticks out
from the hole on the back of his glove. Minor league hitters
might miss such a subtle giveaway. Major league hitters will not.
Sheets solved that problem by ordering a glove with a leather
sheath above the opening that he could slide his index finger
into.

Sheets also studies the angle of his body as he reaches back to
throw a curve. He has a tendency to arch his back, causing him to
lean slightly toward first base, which throws off the pitch's
location. He likes what he sees on the tape: an erect posture,
mostly.

When he is done watching the tape, Sheets admits he has another
concern. It is only May, but he is anxious about how he will hold
up physically over the length of the season. He threw 175 2/3
innings last year, including 22 innings in the Olympics, and
enjoyed a two-week respite between the end of his minor league
season and the start of the Olympics. This year he is expected to
throw around 200 innings--much more stressful innings than the
ones he threw in the minors. It's like comparing the ease of
highway driving on a car engine with the wear and tear of city
driving. Sheets eats as if a famine is forecast. Each of his
three days in Philadelphia, for instance, he lunches at the same
cheesesteak joint.

Sheets also eats big meals late at night after games. Sandy
Koufax, at the request of Lopes, met with Sheets and other
Brewers pitchers in spring training, and one thing Koufax told
them was that as a player he stayed up late so that when he
pitched a night game, his body would feel as if it were the
middle of the day. "Turn night into day," Koufax said. Sheets
does this by eating, watching TV and surfing the Web until near
dawn.

"Eat, sleep, ballpark, that's all I do--and I do like to eat," he
says. "Look at this." Seated in front of his locker, he grabs a
hunk of his ample belly. One joke in the Brewers' media guide is
the listing of Sheets as 6'1", 195 pounds. Actually, he's a
smidgen under 6 feet and weighs 215, give or take a few
cheesesteaks.

"I enjoy being a little bit heavy," Sheets says. "I think it will
keep me strong for the second half. My legs feel good. It would
be nice to be around 220, 225. Last year when I got to August, it
felt like I was throwing a bowling ball up to the plate. Now the
season is a month longer, with no two-week break in the middle.
Yeah, it's something I think about all the time."

MAY 29
ST. LOUIS

The rookie clears another hump for Lopes. He goes nine innings,
shutting out the Cardinals on five hits only five days after the
same club had knocked him out in the fifth inning. "I was more
aggressive," says Sheets, after improving his record to 5-4 with
a 3.21 ERA. "I was getting too mechanical. I threw my curveball
too much in my last start. I had a pretty good one, but I exposed
it so much that they put the bat on the ball. Tonight, I threw my
fastball more."

Even more amazing than his first shutout was his first hit in 16
at bats, an RBI single off Alan Benes. Sheets is an awful hitter.
"I never hit in my life," he says. "I had one at bat in high
school, didn't hit in college and had about 20 at bats in the
minor leagues. It's like taking somebody out of the stands who
never played and saying, 'Go hit in the major leagues.' I'm
serious about that. I have no expectations."

The single will be his only hit in 36 at bats through Sept. 23.

JUNE 14
CLEVELAND

Sheets has won Lopes over. That is evident in the second inning
against the Indians, who brought an American League-best .297
team batting average into the game. They tag Sheets for three
runs on six hits and a walk in the second and, with slugger Juan
Gonzalez at the plate and the bases loaded, are one hit from
blowing open the game. Sheets has mediocre stuff this night, yet
Lopes has no one warming up in the bullpen. "We've got to let him
work through the rough spots," Lopes says later. "Plus, I know
what his makeup is."

Sheets leans on an old friend: his curve. He throws three in a
row to Gonzalez, the last of which Gonzalez grounds to third base
for the third out. "The amazing thing is he's always very cool,"
Geoff Jenkins says. "He never gets rattled. Our young guys should
watch him. Heck, our old guys should too."

After the game Sheets recounts the situation excitedly. It is an
indication of how much the effort meant to the normally placid
pitcher. "They've got three runs in, the bases juiced and I'm
staring down the pipe at Juan Gonzalez. Wow!" Sheets says. "It's
a great lineup. You never have time to take a breath. I had no
command of my curveball and no command of my fastball. All I'm
trying to do is find a comfort level.

"I follow great pitchers, and if you're going to get to them,
you'd better get to them early because they're going to find
their comfort level. If they don't find it in the bullpen warming
up, they'll find it in the first couple of innings, and if you
don't get to them early, you probably won't later. That's all I
was trying to do."

The Brewers came back and won the game for Sheets, 9-4. He hung
on for six innings, though he threw first-pitch strikes to only
11 of 26 batters and made the Indians swing and miss at only
three of his 96 pitches. "Of the stuff Ben has taken out to the
mound, on a scale of one to 10, that was probably a two," Lopes
says. "But the bottom line is he found a way to win. That's been
his label. I know he's only had a short career, but his
reputation speaks for itself. If you're going to be a great
pitcher, you have to find a way to win when you don't have great
stuff. He did. Every time you see him, you see something a little
different.

"Everybody had been saying good things about him to me," Lopes
adds. "[Olympic manager] Tommy Lasorda, [USA Baseball's] Rod
Dedeaux, [Olympic coach] Reggie Smith. They kept saying, 'Wait,
just you wait.' I was kind of skeptical. But I'm seeing it."

JULY 10
SEATTLE

It is 2 a.m. The telephone rings in Sheets's hotel room. "Hello,"
the caller says. "I was wondering if you could come down to the
lobby to sign an autograph."

Sheets is in town because he's an All-Star, the Brewers' only
representative. He is on some roll. One of the first things he
did when he arrived home after winning the gold medal was to play
golf. A TV crew showed up to get footage of the local hero. With
cameras rolling, Sheets knocked in a hole in one. "I've got to be
the luckiest person in the world," he says. "Look at the last
year--the Olympics, the All-Star Game.... I don't know. Just
lucky."

Sheets earned a trip to Seattle with a 10-5 record and 3.59 ERA.
As he groggily returns the phone to its cradle, however, it is
clear that he has committed another rookie mistake. He did not
use an alias when he checked into the hotel. "Nah, I'm not going
to big league anybody," he says.

Fans armed with pens, cameras and camcorders fill the hotel lobby
at all hours. Radio stations carpet-bomb Sheets's room with
interview requests. Major League Baseball has dozens of baseballs
for him to sign. There is a press conference in which the
All-Stars sit at tables in a ballroom. "What are you looking to
take in at your first All-Star Game?" one reporter asks Sheets.

"Food," he deadpans.

Another reporter asks him, "Who are you looking forward to seeing
here?"

"My mom and dad. I haven't seen them since February." He is not
kidding this time.

A few weeks after the All-Star Game, in which the only batter he
faced, Mike Sweeney, popped up an adrenaline-boosted 97-mph
heater, Sheets says, "Don't get me wrong. It was an honor to be
picked, but it's so hectic. I can see why guys who have been
there a few times would rather stay home and take the days off."
No, Sheets did not tramp down to the lobby at 2 a.m. to sign the
autograph.

JULY 18
LOS ANGELES

There is trouble on Sheets's 23rd birthday. While throwing in the
bullpen between starts, he feels soreness and a grabbing
sensation in his right shoulder. He experienced a similar
feeling, though not this pronounced, in his last start before the
All-Star break, a 7-2 loss to St. Louis. He had a similar
sensation in June last year and pitched through it with the help
of anti-inflammatory medicine. His elbow is sore too. He tells a
team trainer. He asks for and receives anti-inflammatory pills,
which are nearly as common as aspirin among pitchers. No one else
is informed of Sheets's discomfort--not Lopes, not Apodaca, not
the front office.

JULY 20
SAN DIEGO

Two days after the ominous bullpen session in Los Angeles, Sheets
is pounded by the Padres. They batter him for nine runs on nine
hits and two walks in fewer than four innings. Sheets actually
cracks a small smile when Lopes comes to the mound to ask for the
baseball. "Here," Sheets says. "The good thing is I don't think
there are any more hits left in it."

Later, he explains, "There wasn't a drop-off in my velocity. It
was location. I couldn't put the ball where I wanted it. That's
what happens when your shoulder grabs you as you reach back and
it grabs you again as you try to extend to throw the ball. I
couldn't finish my pitches. When you can't do that, you can't
locate. You might get away with that in the minors. But the
hitters are too good up here."

JULY 23
MILWAUKEE

Selig-Prieb invites Sheets to the club's news conference to
unveil its logo for the 2002 All-Star Game, to be played in
Miller Park. Sheets became the team's ace in the first half of
the season, but as his year deteriorates, so does the Brewers'.
Milwaukee, which was 23-17 on May 16, has lost nine in a row to
fall to 43-54.

As the event concludes, Sheets tells the media, "I hope somebody
out there finds a four-leaf clover for us so that we can win one
more game before the year is over."

Afterward Sheets asks Selig-Prieb, "How'd I do?"

She responds, "Ben, you're a natural."

JULY 25
MILWAUKEE

The Brewers have lost 11 in a row. Sheets is scheduled to pitch
today against the Dodgers. He is sick to his stomach. It is not
the losing streak; it's the anti-inflammatory pills, which make
him queasy--even after he's switched to a second, milder
medication. Sheets's shoulder and elbow are so tender that he
discreetly told Apodaca he would skip his usual bullpen session
before this start. Also, though he would like to work on his
hitting, the trainers told him not to take extra batting practice
because of concern about his shoulder and elbow.

The Brewers give Sheets a 2-0 lead, but it evaporates on home
runs by Shawn Green and Gary Sheffield in the fourth inning.
Sheffield's homer nearly hits the water-park-style slide of
Bernie Brewer, the team mascot, high in the leftfield seats. A
third home run, by Eric Karros in the seventh, gives Los Angeles
a 3-2 lead.

"Sheffield doesn't have to wonder anymore how far he can hit a
ball," Sheets says after the game. "I threw it right there, and
he hit it real good. I made sure I watched that one. I wanted to
see how far it would go. He's so quick with his bat. When he hit
it, I could hardly see his swing. Then when Karros hit it out, I
could see everything. I could see how he brought his bat around
into the ball."

Sheffield gave his home run a long look of admiration, a show of
hubris that might have annoyed another pitcher. "That macho stuff
is overrated," Sheets says. "When a guy hits one like that, I
don't care if he does cartwheels around the bases--unless it's
like 10-1 or something. He did his job. He should enjoy it. I'm
supposed to hit somebody just because somebody hit a home run?
I'm sorry. This isn't life and death. This is a game. I'm not
going to hurt anybody because somebody else did his job and I
didn't. I never understood that.

"It's like a game I had against the Cardinals," Sheets continues.
"Fernando Vina hits a home run to put them ahead big, and Jim
Edmonds comes up and tries to bunt. He told one of our guys,
'Tell [Lopes] I screwed up. I shouldn't have done that.' Didn't
bother me. I don't care if he wants to bunt."

Milwaukee tied the game in the bottom of the seventh, when Lopes
removed Sheets for a pinch hitter. The losing streak ended with a
game-winning single by Mark Loretta in the ninth. Sheets threw 96
pitches.

"He pitched a helluva game," Lopes says. "The kid seems to rise
to the occasion. You can't ask more from a rookie than to do the
things he's done. He's been a godsend."

Lopes still has no clue how much Sheets is hurting. Sheets still
cannot fully extend his arm on his delivery. "That makes it tough
to throw a good curveball," he says. "I threw only 32 today. It
was mostly all fastballs. In college I felt great every time I
pitched. I had no idea what it was like to go out there hurting.
But up here, you just do it. It's what you have to do."

AUGUST 5
MILWAUKEE

Rock bottom. Five days after the Florida Marlins touched him for
five runs in 6 1/3 innings, the Braves rip into Sheets as if it's
batting practice. He is so off his game that Apodaca wonders
about the pitcher's health. "Are you O.K.?" he asks.

"Sure, fine," Sheets lies.

Lopes leaves him in long enough to absorb a 10-run pounding in
which he gives up 11 hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings. Sheets
throws 90 pitches. Apodaca tries again after the game.

"You sure you're O.K.?" he asks.

"Well," Sheets says, "my shoulder's a little stiff...."

By now the Brewers' season is long gone. They were a winning
club, 39-38, when Sheets won his 10th game on June 29. Since then
they are 8-24. Sheets is 0-5 with an 8.58 ERA during that free
fall.

AUGUST 8
NEW YORK

Sheets is out of the rotation for what Lopes hopes will be only
one start. "I thought I could pitch through it like I did last
year, but all of a sudden I hit the wall. Wham!" Sheets says in
the visitors' clubhouse of Shea Stadium.

"First your location goes, and then your velocity goes," he
continues. "What's left? But I'm stubborn. I'll keep throwing
until my arm falls off if I feel I have a chance to get people
out."

Says Apodaca, "He disguised it pretty good. So many young
pitchers think they have to keep going out there. They don't want
to say anything out of fear for their job. He's learning some
tough lessons."

Within a week, Sheets will learn that he has tendinitis in his
rotator cuff.

AUGUST 31
MILWAUKEE

The Brewers are playing out the string, though doing so
comfortably in their well-appointed Miller Park clubhouse. They
lounge on leather chairs before tonight's game, eating ice cream
bars, watching Jerry Springer and The People's Court on two of
the six television sets, and prepping for their NFL Rotisserie
League season. Nobody seems much interested in baseball anymore.

The pitching staff is in shambles. No member of the original
starting rotation has avoided the disabled list. (Even the
Brewers' top prospect, Nick Neugebauer, who will make two starts
in Sheets's absence, will tear his rotator cuff and need
surgery.) The Brewers are also on pace to strike out more times
than any other team in history. Sheets, for the first time since
Aug. 5, throws off a mound for 10 minutes. Taylor, the G.M., says
he expects Sheets to make one or two starts before the season is
finished.

"It's the second year in a row he's had a shoulder injury, and we
have to face that reality," Taylor says. Asked if the team has
any regrets about how late the injury was detected, he replies,
"No. He didn't want us to know he was tender. Fortunately, we
caught it in time. We still think he has a chance to be a quality
top-of-the-rotation starter."

The Brewers lose again, 3-2 to Houston. Wright was one out from
winning the game of his life--a six-hitter with 12 strikeouts--when
he hung a curve to Vinny Castilla, who ripped a two-run homer.
After the game the clubhouse TVs are off. Sheets's drawl is about
the only voice in the dead room.

"Hey, look at this," he says, patting his bare, trim stomach.
"I'm down to 210. Nothing to do on the DL except jump on the bike
or the treadmill." He will, he promises, add exercises to his
regimen to ward off another breakdown next season. "I've always
done my arm exercises," he says, "but I never added anything
because I didn't need to."

SEPTEMBER 21
MILWAUKEE

Pitching again for the first time in 46 days, the leaner Sheets
works five efficient innings against the Cincinnati Reds. He
needs only 43 pitches (all but 11 of them strikes) and allows two
runs, one of them unearned. He walks no one.

"He's a lot stronger now," Lopes says. "He feels he had to
address certain areas of his body to help reduce the chance of
getting hurt. It's an ongoing process."

"It's been an interesting year," Sheets says. "The biggest thing
I've learned is, I can compete at this level. And I know if I
don't go out there with my [good] stuff, I'll get hit. I've seen
both ends of the spectrum. Hopefully, it all makes you stronger."

He hasn't won a game in the second half of the season, though it
has not been all bad. In August his father and his mother, Betty,
drove up from Louisiana to visit Ben and Julie in Milwaukee. They
brought Bruiser, Ben's beloved bulldog, who will stay with Ben
and Julie for the rest of the season. Julie leaves the television
on for Bruiser--he likes to watch baseball--whenever she goes to
Miller Park.

Soon Ben will be back in St. Amant, among kinfolk, friends and
all the jambalaya Ascension Parish has to offer. He will not take
home a gold medal this time. He will take with him only the tales
and wisdom of a first season in the big leagues.

"The good thing about going home," he says, "is they'd rather
hear about the 10 wins than the nine losses. During the season
you always hear negative things, but as soon as you get home,
you're around people who really care. They'll ask me about facing
McGwire and Griffey. They'll ask me what it was like at the
All-Star Game, what some of those guys were like. I'll tell them
about my one hit. That shouldn't take too long. It'll be fun.
That's what I'll do when I get home. I'll tell them stories."

COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD C. MODRA Buc stopper On May 13 Sheets stymied Pirates batters for his fourth consecutive win after a two-week demotion to Triple A.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Mr. Cool Sheets exuded confidence before his debut on April 5 (opposite) and outdueled Wood on May 8 before Lopes (30) lifted him.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Comeback kid Less than three months after he was sent to the minors (above), Sheets was an All-Star, taping the festivities in Seattle.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Partial disclosure Sheets (kneeling) conferred with Apodaca about everything related to pitching except his aches and pains.COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Two-timer Sheets's second shoulder injury in two years has the Brewers concerned.COLOR PHOTO: JAMES SCHNEPF Grounded Julie and Bruiser bring Ben down to earth.
"On the mound I believe I'm better than anybody who steps into
that box. If you don't, why bother going out there?"
"He's got the best curveball I've seen this year," says the
Astros' Lance Berkman. "He's flat-out filthy."
"In college I had no idea what it was like to go out there
hurting. But up here, you just do it. It's what you have to do."
Soon he will be home among kinfolk, friends and all the
jambalaya Ascension Parish offers.