MILWAUKEE — If baseball, or life for that matter, were fair, Ben Sheets would have been rewarded with at least one postseason start for the Milwaukee Brewers.
From the minute a 22-year-old Sheets was introduced with an Olympic gold medal around his neck during the final game at Milwaukee County Stadium in 2000, the right-hander became a symbol of hope for a struggling franchise.
Sheets went from one of the lone bright spots on bad teams to one of the reasons the Brewers were in contention for their first playoff spot in 26 years in 2008. But then, when Milwaukee finally broke through and made the postseason, Sheets had nothing left to give the franchise he helped resurrect.
Back in town for the unveiling of the club’s Wall of Honor at Miller Park, Sheets joked about not deserving to be one of the honorees when he actually is the reason such a wall should exist in the first place.
"From the beginning when we were so bad and losing 100 games to the end when I leave and we make the playoffs. That’s pretty good," Sheets said. "I felt like we accomplished something throughout those years.
"I’ve never really looked back and thought about it to tell you the truth. I had a great time. I gave it what I had, good, bad and different. It wasn’t what I threw out there in Oakland. That was some doo-doo."
Milwaukee’s first-round pick out of Louisiana-Monroe in 1999, Sheets was in the big leagues and an All-Star less than a year after pitching a shutout over Cuba to earn the United States what was its last baseball Olympic gold medal.
Sheets posted an ERA of 4.00 or higher in his first three season but really broke out in 2004. Only winning 12 games because of how bad the Brewers were, Sheets had a 2.70 ERA in 34 starts, striking out 264 batters in 237 innings.
The Brewers then signed Sheets to a four-year, $38.5 million contract extension prior to the 2005 season, but injuries continued to plague the right-hander. A bout with inner-ear infections and dizziness limited Sheets to just 22 starts in 2005, while he started just 17 games in 2006 due to a shoulder injury.
While most will remember what C.C. Sabathia did to lift the Brewers to the postseason in 2008, Sheets was as good as any pitcher in baseball during the first half of that season. He went 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA in his first 18 starts of 2008, earning himself the start for the National League in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.
His second half to the 2008 season wasn’t bad, either, but it quickly became clear something just wasn’t right late in the year. As it turns out, Sheets tried to pitch through an elbow injury.
Sheets gave the Brewers all he had until he proclaimed to reporters following his Sept. 27 start against the Chicago Cubs, "That’s all I have. I’ve got a broke arm." That was the last time Sheets would take the ball wearing a Milwaukee uniform, as he was simply unable to pitch in the playoffs.
"Some people ask me if I regret (pitching through the elbow injury), because if you look at the year I was having, you could say I was three weeks away from another nice pay day," Sheets said. "That’s never why I played. They say, ‘Do you regret it? You could have just sat out and ended healthy.’
"But I don’t regret what I did. I’d rather be out there trying to get it done. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, but I’m fine with the decision each and every day."
Although Sheets could give the Brewers nothing in his final two starts, he did put together a memorable and meaningful outing on Sept. 6. With Milwaukee leading the Wild Card race by four games at the time, Sheets squared off with San Diego ace Jake Peavy and tossed a five-hit shutout to win 1-0. It was his final win with the Brewers.
"That was a good one," Sheets said. "My arm wasn’t feeling good either on that day. That’s why you never know, man. That’s why you go out and give it a try. Some days you stink and they hit it right at people and you find a way to do your job."
Nobody will ever know if a healthy Sheets makes a difference in Milwaukee’s loss to Philadelphia in the National League Division Series, as the Phillies were the hottest team in baseball and went on to win the World Series in 2008.
Sheets eventually had surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his elbow and sat out the 2009 season before signing with Oakland in January of 2010. He went 4-9 with a 4.53 ERA in 20 starts for the Athletics, as his year was cut short by another elbow injury. Sheets went on to have Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2011 and the first part of 2012.
The Braves took a chance on Sheets in July of 2012, and he gave Atlanta nine starts with a 3.49 ERA. But yet again, Sheets didn’t get a chance to pitch in the playoffs as the Braves left him off the postseason roster.
He retired following the 2012 season and accepted a role as a volunteer assistant coach at his alma mater, Louisiana-Monroe, in 2013. Although his name is listed on the team’s official website as an assistant coach, Sheets is not with the team on a daily basis.
"I don’t do much," Sheets said. "I only got out there five times. I went out there in the fall a little bit, but I mostly do this youth stuff. I got some parents that tell me how to play baseball, so I’m learning more about baseball every day from the doctors and welders and people like that."
At 35 years old, Sheets is just a couple of months older than current Brewers starter Kyle Lohse. There are plenty of pitchers still active who are his age or older, but Sheets simply has nothing left.
"I can’t give anybody a pitch, you are talking about an inning?" Sheets said with a grin when asked if he had an inning left in him.
It can’t be proven how pitching with the elbow injury in 2008 may have shortened his career, but the fact Sheets left it all on the line for the Brewers to get to the playoffs is why he belongs on the Wall of Honor.
"It’s a good honor," Sheets said. "It’s a pretty cool little thing they got in there. I (was) just excited to be back and see some of the former teammates."