Two years ago, Ben Sheets had a simple goal.
“I just wanted them to fix me so I could play catch with my boy,” he said.
He did more than that Sunday. He played catch with Brian McCann. He threw 88 major league pitches, exactly 88 more than he would’ve expected when his elbow mutated into some ugly blog of disconnected tendons and ligaments in 2010. He struck out the first batter of the game. He retired the last 10 he faced. He allowed only two hits in six shutout innings, defeated the New York Mets 6-1 and in the process likely clinched the next magazine cover – not of Sports Illustrated, but the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Sheets didn’t play catch with his boys, Seaver and Miller. But when it was over, he did hug his two young boys when they ran into the Braves’ clubhouse after the game, a scene he never could’ve envisioned after pitching his final game for Oakland in 2010.
“Honestly, in my mind two years ago, I was done,” he said.
Sheets was once among the best pitchers in baseball. He played in four All-Star Games in eight seasons with Milwaukee. He sent the Braves to therapy in 2004, striking out 18 of them in one game. But he missed a season after elbow surgery late in 2008, came back with Oakland, but his arm blew up worse than before.
Understand, this isn’t a simple comeback. Before surgery in 2010, Sheets’ right elbow looked like the after-shot of Kabul. The guy is relatively bionic. In 2010, doctors knew surgery was needed to fix a torn flexor tendon for the second time in two years. But when Dr. Keith Meister opened up the right arm, two other problems were confirmed: 1) a torn ulnar collateral ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery; 2) damage to his pronator tendon.
You don’t need to have a Ph.D or even excel in the “Operation” game to know that if a 32-year-old pitcher is having a ligament and two tendons in his throwing elbow stitched, tied and duct-taped, his next career decision likely would involve either starting a tractor or coaching youth baseball (he opted for the latter).
Sheets said when he woke up in the hospital, he looked and felt like he had been run over.
“I had an IV in my foot,” he said. “Doctors tried to get a tendon out of this [left] arm and it was no good so he wrapped it. Then he tried to get one out of my leg and it was too little. So he got one out my hamstring. I woke up, and I was wrapped here [left leg] and here [left arm] and my foot had the IV. Meister told somebody, ‘Ben’s not going to be very happy with me.’”
Actually, if Sheets was the winner Sunday, Meister got the save. He not only turned Sheets into the bionic pitcher, he convinced him to try this comeback, which led to him working out for the Braves five weeks ago.
“He was the guy who got me into this mode again,” he said. “I’m sure being the doctor who did it, he wanted to see some good results. But he was the one in early March who called me and was like, ‘Hey man, why don’t you get going again?’ He lit the fire.”
If Sheets has lost a mile or two off his fastball, it didn’t matter Sunday. He struck out Ruben Tejada on a 79-mile per hour curve ball to open the game. He didn’t allow a hit until the third, but got out of a second-and-third jam with two outs by retiring David Wright on a fly ball. That started a string of 10 straight outs.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez sent up a pinch hitter for him in the bottom of the sixth, which Sheets said “was the smart play.” He was coming off only an 11-pitch sixth, but this wasn’t the time to push a medical miracle to its limits.
Sheets wasn’t taking any chances Sunday. He even changed his locker from the seemingly cursed one in the Braves’ clubhouse — used by Kenshin Kawakami, Julio Lugo and a blur of short-timers — to one in a bank generally reserved for minor-league call-ups. Publicly, of course, he wouldn’t acknowledge the legend.
“No, it ain’t cursed, I just wasn’t comfortable there,” he said, smiling. “You couldn’t see the TV from there. I’m also closer to the [food] spread here.”
He’ll have the locker for a while. More games of catch will be forthcoming.
By Jeff Schultz