Sunday, March 13, 2005
Updated: April 15, 10:49 AM ET
By Buster Olney
"Would you tell me if I had a booger hanging out of my nose?"
Ben Sheets fills his face with mock anxiety and waits for a response, as if this haunting question had kept him up all night before his photo shoot. Once the photographer stops laughing, he assures Sheets that there are magical techniques for taking care of … well, nose decorations.
"Wow, can you make me look less fat, too?" Sheets says, his Louisiana drawl accelerating. "Can you take my zits off? Can you give me a face-lift? Can you get rid of my second chin? How about my second, third and fourth chins?"
Sheets leans forward, contorts his eyebrows and sticks out his lower lip to form a mean grimace. A flash pops. And then he steps back, smiling. "That one was very intimidating," the 26-year-old Brewers ace says flatly. "I don't know if that one should be used. A lot of people would be scared."
The baseball world spent a long and cold winter under the clouds of BALCO and Boras, grand jury testimony and contract negotiations, with every word spin-washed and vetted by lawyers. But here in Arizona, in the middle of the desert, there's an oasis of humanity named Ben M. Sheets, who doesn't ever seem to take himself too seriously. "Could you take a picture of Brad Pitt," he asks, "and take a picture of me, then blend them together and make a better-looking me?"
Sheets actually resembles Stifler from American Pie; spend time with him and you start to wonder if he was Stifler's inspiration. But Sheets uses self-deprecation to make those around him feel at ease. "He's smart like a fox," says Mike Maddux, his pitching coach. "If you can be your own punch line, that's confidence."
There are other reasons to like Sheets. He has a stat geek's affection for baseball and a couch potato's fascination with all sports. His fantasy football franchise is called the Swamp Dragons, and if he played fantasy baseball, he could find a lot of reasons to draft himself. He's the smart fantasy player's favorite pitcher, because he delivers big numbers at an affordable price.
Sheets went 12—14 for the 2004 Brewers, but his losing record had little to do with his performance: Milwaukee scored a total of 19 runs in his 14 defeats. Sheets ranked third in the NL in ERA (2.70) and second in strikeouts (264) and WHIP (0.98). He walked only 32, and his strikeouts-towalks ratio was 8.25, far and away the best in the majors. Randy Johnson (6.59) was the only other pitcher with a ratio higher than 6.00.
Now the long-suffering Brewers seem to be building a contender by stockpiling young talent, but they haven't had a winning season in 12 years. Even with Sheets as its ace, Milwaukee almost certainly won't win a title this year.
But you might.
BACK AT Northeast Louisiana in the fall of '96, Sheets' introductory English professor was less than impressed with his work and asked rhetorically, "What, you think you're going to play baseball for a living?"
Well, yeah, Sheets thought, that's the plan.
So far, so good. Sometime soon, his agent will resume talks with the Brewers about a long-term deal-conversations that will be closely monitored by executives in big-market cities. Sheets signed a one-year, $6 million contract for 2005 in mid-February.
But when he bumped into Brewers GM Doug Melvin a couple of days later, he didn't dwell on his plans for the future. Instead he started chatting about Marquette's fading hopes for an NCAA bid. "The guy's a sports nut," says Maddux. "He should have his own radio show."
Sheets' big off-season adventure was traveling from his St. Amant, La., home for a Wisconsin sports junket. He was on the sideline when Brett Favre made his 200th consecutive start on Nov. 29, and the next night, he was two rows from the court when the Bucks lost to the Lakers. "He just loves the competition," Melvin says.
In between, Sheets showed up at a Marquette basketball practice. During his days at Northeast Louisiana, he played one-on-one hoops against Marty Booker, who has gone on to be a Pro Bowl receiver in the NFL, just to see what it was like. "I barely touched the ball," Sheets says, describing how Booker blew by him for dunks. Sheets pulls a football out of his locker, and as he tosses it to a teammate, he notes the Sharpie autograph on the side: Peter Warrick.
Sheets and his wife, Julie, named their 2-year-old son Seaver, as in Hall of Fame pitcher Tom. Ben recites numbers from the backs of baseball cards he bought as a kid. And he knows the significance of both .406 (Ted Williams, 1941) and 27—10 (Steve Carlton's incredible record for the 59-win Phillies in 1972). "I've just always liked numbers," Sheets says. Nowadays, the ones he likes the most are his double-digit strikeout lines in box scores.
In his first three seasons in the majors, which included an All-Star appearance in 2001, Sheets never struck out 10 batters in a game, and averaged 6.5 K's per nine innings. Last year he had nine double-digit strikeout games and averaged 10 K's per nine innings.
Maddux, Greg's older brother and a former major leaguer himself, remembers watching Nolan Ryan pitch. "There was a buzz," Maddux says. "Just like when Roger Clemens pitches, there's a buzz. And when my brother pitches, there's a buzz. For a young guy like Benny to have that, that's quite an accomplishment. There's a buzz because you know something special might happen."
Sheets traces his striking success to off-season workouts leading up to spring training in 2004. When he came into camp, his velocity had increased from 92-93 mph to 95-97 mph. "I felt like I could throw it through a wall," he says. So he and his pitching coach decided it was time to start featuring his four-seam fastball.
Sheets had previously relied on a two-seamera sinker-and his goal was always to pitch for contact; make opposing hitters put the ball in play. A four-seam fastball has more velocity than a two-seamer, and its particular value to Sheets is that its high, sailing trajectory toward home plate camouflages his curveball, which just might be the best breaking pitch in the game.
He has a relatively simple delivery, easily repeated with no wasted movement, and has always thrown strikes. On every pitch, hitters must start their swing quickly to prepare for his fourseamer cutting through the upper half of the strike zone at 95-97 mph and are often in midhack when they realize what's coming is Sheets' curve, a devastating pitch that breaks straight down. "It comes off the same plane as that heater," says Maddux, "and that's where the deception is."
Sheets worked with catcher Chad Moeller to finish off hitters quickly last season. After getting ahead in the count, he never nibbled at the edges. Moeller caught Curt Schilling in Arizona, and he thinks Sheets' stuff and approach are comparable: "I want to see him get them out as quickly as possible because I want to see him pitch the ninth inning. As hard as it was for us to give him runs last year, he had to hang around to maybe get a couple of runs so he wouldn't be the hard-luck loser again."
Sheets fanned 10 Astros in six scoreless innings in his second start of the season, a game in which teammates felt the righthander ascended to a new plateau: his velocity reached the high 90s as he dominated a veteran lineup with his four-seamer. "You could see it was just different," Moeller says. "You just don't abuse Biggio and Bagwell and Berkman the way he did. It was flat-out abuse. Bagwell is a guy I have incredible respect for as a hitter, and in one at-bat, he saw two fastballs and a curve, and that was it. He knew he was beaten and didn't have a chance."
A month later, Sheets whiffed 18 Braves, allowing only three hits and walking one. "The way he was pitching, he could have thrown a no-hitter," Andruw Jones said afterward. "When people pitch like that, there's nothing you can do." When Sheets returned to the clubhouse following his interviews, his teammates stood and applauded.
On June 8, Sheets one-hit the Angels over nine innings, striking out five with no walks-and got a no-decision. "He was so lights-out all year and got zero support, but he was always so positive," says Moeller. "You've gotta love him, because his personality is so fun-loving and he enjoys the game. He's just a big kid."
Moeller hopes Sheets sticks around, but the big kid is tired of losing. He won't even watch the postseason. "I'm jealous," he says. The biggest game of Sheets' career came at the 2000 Olympics in Australia, where he fired a three-hit shutout against Cuba for the gold. "It's the only game I've pitched that had any meaning," he says. "Pitching in a World Series would probably be a lot better."
Sheets worked last season with a bulging disk in his back, and teammates believe he was in excruciating pain. He had surgery after the season-Randy Johnson and David Wells easily recovered from similar procedures-and threw on schedule as training camp opened in mid-February. The Brewers probably will wait to see Sheets pitch in exhibition games before starting serious negotiations on a long-term deal that could approach the four-year, $40 million contract Johan Santana got from the Twins. Because he's so young, Sheets could still become a free agent when he's 30 or 31. If the Brewers aren't contending by then, Sheets could go to a bigmarket team like … well, you know.
But when he says he'd rather stay in Milwaukee, it's easy to believe him. "I hope we're getting better," he says. "You got the feeling last year we were starting to put something together, but there were still plenty of parts missing. Until those parts are put in place, it's really hard to envision.
"But there's a lot to be said for being part of something as it's built."
AT THE request of a reporter, Sheets watches a video of his 18-strikeout game and provides a running commentary. Suddenly, he seems uncomfortable, sheepish, as almost every at-bat plays out the same way, with Atlanta hitters being overwhelmed by his fastball early in the count and overmatched by his curve late. Sheets mostly minimizes his work, lamenting a hit he allowed on an 0-2 count, noting J.D. Drew's prior dominance against him, pointing out the lengthening shadows that must have made the Braves feel like they were hitting inside a locked closet.
"This is when I was the most scared, when Chipper was hitting," Sheets confesses. But Jones strikes out on four pitches, getting fooled completely by the nose-diving curveball. Then Dewayne Wise, the last hitter of the eighth inning, whiffs on three pitches. It's Sheets' 15th strikeout, a Brewers record.
The Miller Park crowd roars, and Sheets stands in the vortex of that response. Looking back on it, he knows that at that instant, he felt the sort of rush he craves-the big moment in front of a big crowd. "My knees got weak on my way off the mound," he says. "I nearly fell down."
On the tape, there's no sign of that; instead, he's poker-faced, and he gives a little fist pump. Watching himself, Sheets guffaws. "See right there?" he says. "That was me trying to be cool."
Ben Sheets laughs again. Baseball's long, hard winter has finally turned to spring.