NATCHITOCHES, La. (LSWA) Ben Sheets needed that light bulb moment to show him his full potential.
As early as his freshman season at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, coach Smoke Laval told the young pitcher that he possessed first-round talent.
“His freshman year he was acting like a freshman,” Laval said. “He didn’t know if he belonged or maybe didn’t think he was that good.”
Sheets didn’t realize how talented he was and how special he could be until the summer before his junior season when he was invited to Team USA tryouts in Tucson, Ariz. There he saw that his skills matched up with anyone there.
“I watched everybody pitch and I watched all their stuff,” Sheets said. “There was one guy that really had better stuff than I did. That’s when I realized that I had a pretty special arm. These are the guys in Baseball America, which was a big deal at the time. These are the All-Americans. That’s when I realized that this is a big opportunity. ”
Said Laval: “He plays with and against guys you read about and they say, ‘Man, he’s really good.’ The light went off and he realized that he was as good if not better.”
The light bulb turned into a spotlight quickly for the St. Amant High School product.
Sheets returned to Monroe to earn All-American honors as a junior at ULM (then known as Northeast Louisiana University) and became a first-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers. Pitching for Team USA in the Olympics a year later, Sheets won the Gold Medal game by beating Cuba and was eventually a four-time Major League Baseball All-Star.
“All it took was that one tool,” said Sheets, a 10-year Major Leaguer with the Brewers, Oakland A’s and Atlanta Braves. “A good arm. And I did it with two pitches. You don’t see that much. You don’t see two-pitch pitchers starting and going 200 innings.”
That powerful arm opened a lot of doors for Sheets, including the one leading into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Sheets is part of the Class of 2016 being inducted Saturday, June 25 in Natchitoches.
“He was a tremendous athlete with a will to win,” Laval said. “He wanted to win the games. You can’t recruit that.”
Sheets once said he almost quit baseball after his sophomore season at St. Amant because the game wasn’t fun to him at that time. He liked basketball and could hold his own on the court.
“I truly believe he liked basketball more,” his former prep basketball coach Kenny Gautreaux once said. “If he could have chosen to be great in either, he would have picked basketball.”
But then-NLU assistant coach Gregg Patterson, a former LSU pitcher, scouted Sheets during American Legion summer action and identified his potential. He strongly recommended signing the right-hander to Laval.
“When he comes back, he says we’ve got to get this guy,” Laval said. “He didn’t like a whole lot of people, but when he liked ‘em, you knew the guy could play.”
Mike Toups coached Sheets in American Legion baseball and became a lifelong friend.
“Ben threw a heavy ball and he threw 90 miles per hour when not a lot of guys threw 90 miles per hour,” Toups said. “He had a great breaking ball back in those days. The biggest thing is that he was a competitor. He was just as much into his high school basketball team as any baseball team he ever played on.”
ULM signed Sheets early, speculating on him before his senior season. At that time, he wasn’t a widely known commodity and had few other options.
“The offer from ULM made me realize that, ‘Dang you’re not too bad,’” Sheet said. “But I still didn’t think I was great. A half scholarship to a smaller school? It’s not LSU or Mississippi State.”
Basketball involvement usually gave Sheets a late start to baseball in high school. Sheets never took the mound before his junior season and had a bout of shoulder tendinitis as a senior. His career high school stats were a 4-1 record, an 0.91 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 46 innings.
“I can’t say we ever went to work when I was younger,” he said. “Most of my stuff came from the yard. But as I matured and developed into my high school career, things started speeding up.”
Once in college, Sheets earned freshman All-America honorable mention honors from Baseball America in 1997 at 6-4 with 51 strikeouts and two saves. Appearing in 20 games, he pitched 53.1 innings, had 29 earned runs, walked 17, fanned 41, and had an ERA of 3.43. As a sophomore, Sheets finished 6-7 with 74 strikeouts and a 4.50 ERA.
After his eye-opening experience at the Team USA tryouts, Sheets made a key decision that increased his exposure. Unsure how much he’d pitch if he made Team USA, Sheets elected instead to leave camp in Arizona to pitch in the Cape Cod League.
The summer proved to be a huge upturn in his development as he went 4-1 with a 2.51 ERA and fanned 66 batters in the prestigious summer league. In his final game in the playoffs, Sheets fanned 16 in 11 innings, allowed three hits and didn’t walk a batter. He was named a Cape Cod All-Star and earned a spot in Baseball America’s Summer All-American team.
A former LSU assistant under Skip Bertman, Laval said he saw Ben McDonald make a similar jump during their time together in Baton Rouge.
“Ben was good but never thought he was that good,” Laval said.
Now bolstered with confidence in 1999 Sheets was spectacular in his final collegiate season when he set the program’s single-season win record of 14-1 and the single-season strikeout record of 153 strikeouts in 115 2/3 innings.
“It was a great year,” Sheets said. “The guys wouldn’t let me lose.”
In a memorable 6-2 win over Louisiana Tech, Sheets claimed another school record with 20 strikeouts, retiring the last 20 hitters he faced while allowing two hits with one walk.
“You will not find better stuff than that in college baseball,” Tech coach Whitey Richardson said after the game. “That was a lot more than I was expecting. He had everything. He didn’t lack one thing.”
Sheets was considered a great teammate and clubhouse cutup too. He enjoyed joking with the media and keeping things loose.
“I don’t think I ever got too big for my britches,” Sheets said. “I know when to get serious and when to joke around. You don’t see me clowning around between the lines.”
When his turn in the rotation came around, Sheets’ personality changed.
“When it was his day to pitch, don’t even look at him,” Laval said. “Don’t even smile at him because he was so focused and in tune. The next day when you were pitching, he’d joke around. He didn’t really worry about things too much. What made him good was his competitiveness, but he could let go of a bad pitch or a bad game. He wouldn’t dwell on it.”
Sheets was selected as first team all-Southland Conference, SLC Pitcher of the week twice, and first team All-America. His team won the 1999 SLC regular-season championship and he was also was named SLC and Louisiana Pitcher of the Year.
“He had a power curveball and he kept getting better and better,” Laval said. “It separated him. I keep telling people to this day. On Friday night in the Southland Conference when Ben Sheets was pitching. I was the best coach in the country. Jokingly I say that. I was pretty smart. Here Ben, go win me a game. ”
After helping his college team reach an NCAA regional at LSU, Sheets was a first-round pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1999. The Brewers took him 10th overall.
An Olympic roster spot gave Sheets the national spotlight when he tossed a shutout win over Cuba to earn the United States its last baseball gold medal in 2000. Team USA coach Tommy Lasorda became so enamored with the Louisiana native during their time together, he even flew into Monroe later on to attend Sheets’ wedding.
“I think when you’re in the moment, it doesn’t seem as big,” Sheets said. “At the time, it’s what I did. It was like going to work and logging in. But the further I get away from it, the more I appreciate what we did as a team and how special it was.”
Playing in Australia, Sheets beat Cuba 4-0 with a three-hit, complete-game shutout. He fanned five without issuing a walk.
"It was beautiful to watch him pitch," Cuban manager Servio Borges remarked when it was over.
It didn’t take Sheets long to reach in the big leagues in 2001 and he earned his first All-Star roster spot as a rookie. The franchise desperately needed him to succeed.
“Milwaukee’s draft picks weren’t working out if you look back at their history,” Sheets said. “They needed some of their top picks to pan out, so when I got up there it was a big deal.”
Sheets was a solid starter in his first three seasons, winning 33 games, earning another All-Star bid in 2003 and topping 200 innings twice.
But he really broke out in 2004 when he posted a 2.70 ERA in 34 starts, with 264 strikeouts in 237 innings.
“I was healthy, I was strong and I felt good,” said Sheet, who made the All-Star team for the third time that year. “It’s hard to fathom that I could put up a better year than I did in college but it was all the way around.”
His 12-14 record that season was more a reflection of the team’s woes, despite his excellence. In one outing reminiscent of that Louisiana Tech game back in college, Sheets struck out 18 against the Atlanta Braves. Sheets reached double digits in strikeouts nine times in 2004.
“You put up those numbers in the big leagues, you don’t think you’ll be sub-.500 pitcher but that’s kind of where we were in Milwaukee at the time,” Sheets said. “I think about that record and we were just a bad team. I was part of it, but we were just a bad team. That kind of tarnished the year I had. I had a couple of good ones but nothing close to that.”
Injuries and ailments started to take their toll over the next couple of years. A spell with an inner ear problem limited him to 22 starts in 2005, then he hurt his shoulder and made just 17 starts in 2006.
“Injuries can derail you” he said. “Quickly.”
Still, Sheets was a poster boy for a woeful Brewers franchise through most of the 2000s and eventually helped Milwaukee reach the postseason in 2008. He enjoyed an amazing first half that saw him go 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA, with the nod as the National League starting pitcher in the final All-Star game at Yankee Stadium.
“That was a great opportunity,” Sheets said. “Clint Hurdle announced me as the starter and that was quite an experience -- getting announced, getting to meet some of the modern day greats.”
Unfortunately, he was injured during the second half of 2008 and unable to pitch in the playoffs. Sheets did help provide the final push though on Sept. 6 of that season. With his team up four games in the Wild Card race, he beat the Padres 1-0 with a five-hit shutout for his final win with the Brewers.
“You’re only building for eight years,” he said. “I had a great year. But it did stink. I tried to pitch while I was hurt and couldn’t.”
With Sheets unable to go in the playoffs, the Phillies beat the Brewers in the NL Division Series and went on to win the World Series.
Now a free agent, 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 needed Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2011 and the first part of 2012.
The Braves signed Sheets in July of 2012, and he gave Atlanta nine starts with a 3.49 ERA. Sheets closed out his career that season with a perfect first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He departed after striking out two of the last three batters he faced, including Andrew McCutchen to end the first.
Sheets wrapped his big league career 94-96 with a 3.78 ERA and 1,325 strikeouts in 1,596 2/3 innings. Leading up to induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the Brewers have recognized him on the team’s Wall of Honor and he’s a member of the ULM L Club Hall of Fame.
“When he toed the rubber, he was a warrior,” Toups said. “He gave you everything he had.”
Retiring back to the Monroe area, Sheets has enjoyed the chance to spend quality time his wife Julie and sons Seaver and Miller. He’s active in the community as a youth coach for basketball and baseball.
“I could still be playing,” he said. “I’ve got buddies that are still playing. But you think about the last four years and how much you’d have missed out on.”