MILWAUKEE -- Ben Sheets returned to Miller Park on Monday and responded to those who questioned his toughness when an elbow injury forced an unceremonious end to his eight years with the Brewers. "I don't think about it, but I'll get asked about it, and that makes me think," Sheets said on Monday, when he returned as a member of the Braves. "Really, I wasn't bitter or mad or anything. It's just -- that was what the arm said I had. The arm was done. Regardless of what I wanted or the team wanted, there was nothing else in there. There was nothing left to give. The elbow was pretty shot. "If you didn't believe it at the time, look at my career since then, since '08. There hasn't been much of one."
There was surgery for a torn flexor tendon, the injury that sidelined Sheets for his final days with the Brewers, including their first postseason series, in 2008. There was Tommy John surgery. There was a 2009 season spent rehabbing, and a 2010 season with the A's in which he retore the flexor tendon. He signed with the Braves in July and won his first three starts and four of his first five. Then he lost three consecutive poor starts and was placed on the disabled list with inflammation in his shoulder. So Sheets returned to Miller Park with his right shoulder aching but functional, his sense of humor intact. He threw a simulated game in an effort to convince the Braves to reinstate him from the disabled list, whether to start, to work long relief or even an inning at a time.
Asked how that session went, Sheets didn't miss a beat."I had to get three outs, so somewhere between 70 to 100 pitches," he quipped. Sheets readily admits that he is not the same pitcher he was in 1999, when the Brewers made him a first-round Draft pick; or 2000, when he pitched the U.S. to a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics; or 2001, when he was a National League All-Star as a rookie; or 2004, when he might have contended for the Cy Young Award if he pitched for a winning team; or 2008, when he started the All-Star Game. He ranks among the Brewers' all-time top 10 in every statistical category, including No. 1 in strikeouts, with 1,206, but fell just short of being beloved because of a string of ill-timed injuries. The most serious was in 2008, when he went 13-7 with a 2.82 ERA through his first 28 starts, his elbow just beginning to give him trouble. He was a pending free agent with two young sons, one just born the year before, and had he shut down then, he would have received a mega-contract in the offseason. But the Brewers were chasing their first postseason berth in 26 years and Sheets wanted to be part of it, so he kept pitching. He struggled through a Sept. 11 game in Philadelphia, then lasted only two innings in Chicago six days later and felt a tear in the elbow. Ten days after that, made it to the third inning against the Pirates and was done. Four trying years later, he insists he has no regrets. "I wouldn't change a thing," he said. "I had a great time here." These days he is working with a shoulder that "hates baseball" but a heart that remains in the game. He would not commit to pitching again in 2013, but he wants badly to get back on the mound as the Braves try to pin down the NL's top Wild Card spot. His return to Miller Park was a bit strange. He'd only been in the visitors' clubhouse once in eight years with the Brewers, for a fan event. "I definitely remember the last four years as opposed to the first four years," he said. "In '01 we had a lot of fans because it was the opener [of Miller Park], but '02, '03, '04, it was kind of slim. At the end we put a better product on the field, and they started to come out in support. The group [of prospects] they brought up around '05, '06, that was a pretty special group. ... "I had a great time. They were terrible when I got here, and then when I left, we were a pretty good team. You saw it kind of build early."