- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2001

MILWAUKEE Ben Sheets sat atop the dugout at Miller Park and high-fived every kid who walked past him on Little League Night.

"That's 2,367 high-fives," the Milwaukee Brewers rookie said.

And don't put it past him to have counted, either.

"Little Leaguers like that kind of stuff," he said. "It's not every day that you get to look at a big league ballplayer."

Especially one who acts like a kid himself.

Sheets is the one having all the fun in his first season pitching in the majors. He's also living up to the grand expectations that followed his gold-medal winning performance at the Sydney Olympics last year.

He went 10-5 over the first half of the season and became the first Brewers rookie selected to play in the All-Star Game, where he retired the only batter he faced.

After he lost his first two games, the Brewers sent the 22-year-old down to Class AAA Indianapolis because the team didn't need a fifth starter at the time and wanted him to work instead of riding the bench.

Sheets knew it wasn't so much a demotion as a solution, but he vowed never to be sent down again.

"I told myself if I didn't want to do this anymore, I had to stop pitching like a fifth starter," he said. "If you want to do better, you have to think and pitch like a No. 1 starter."

Sure enough, Sheets has been the Brewers' ace since his call-up back to the majors.

He returned with a newfound resolve and an accurate changeup, although it remains a work in progress.

"Once that gets into the category of his fastball and curveball, the ability to throw it at any given time like he can on the other pitches, it's going to make him more dangerous," manager Davey Lopes said.

As it is, Sheets is the primary reason the Brewers are hanging around .500 despite a rash of injuries and a free-swinging lineup that's on pace to break the major league strikeout record.

Not only has Sheets been the Brewers' best starter, he's been their best stopper, putting a halt to four losing streaks. Fans even started wearing sheets wrapped around them like togas on the nights he pitches.

Sheets gets sheepish when he sees what kind of star he's becoming. When he won Rookie of the Month honors in June, he said, "I guess they got tired of giving it to [St. Louis'] Albert Pujols."

Sheets realizes, though, that half a season doesn't make him great.

"I haven't really done a thing when you think about it," he said.

Pitching coach Bob Apodaca said that attitude reflects a maturity beyond Sheets' years.

"He has God-given ability that you can see out there," Apodaca said. "You can work as a coach with a young player to refine and improve on those physical things. But the mental approach to the game is God-given. You can't really coach that. You can only help a player use it."

The pressure of his debut season hasn't affected Sheets. After all, this is the man who didn't know he'd be facing the mighty Cubans when manager Tommy Lasorda told him he'd pitch the gold medal game at Sydney.

Sheets simply sees no reason to be awed by anybody.

When he was picked for the All-Star team, Sheets said he wanted to meet all the great hitters, but he didn't want to make friends with them.

"I don't think you need to be wowed by these guys," Sheets said. "I mean, I respect them, I respect what they do, they're at the top of their games. They're the best guys. But the fact is you've got to compete against them and if you give them any edge, it's going to be tougher."

Sheets hasn't gotten caught up in his sudden success. He has bigger things in mind.

"All this other stuff is nice top draft pick, All-Star, Rookie of the Month," Sheets said. "But I want team success. I dream of this team making some noise."

Maybe then he'll smile.

Lopes likes the expressionless face he sees in Sheets. It reminds him of his own no-nonsense approach when he was a player.

"That's pretty much what old school was. You didn't go around smiling and trying to put on a persona or being fan friendly and you're trying to compete in a battle," Lopes said. "That's the old school of thought, until Magic Johnson came along and then everybody wanted athletes to start smiling.

"Ben doesn't get too excited. And not very often does he get excited even after a game he wins. But that's Ben."

Sheets is lucky he's in Milwaukee and not a bigger market, like New York or Boston, where the attention can choke a young player, his manager said.

"They probably would have had him washed up after his first two outings," Lopes said. "This is a good environment for him to matriculate through.

"It's a little quieter here."

And Sheets is trying his best to change that.

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