Today, on my way to class, I saw a Ben Sheets jersey shirt.
One of my favorite things to do while walking to classes is to spot team apparel, particularly hats and jerseys. Although the population at UW-Madison is mostly Wisconsinite (I believe about 88%), there’s still enough diversity that you’ll occasionally see apparel from teams all across the nation. I find it really interesting to see what kind of jerseys and what kind of hats my classmates are wearing, for some reason. Probably the same reason why I’m really into jersey designs and the kind of things they talk about over at the Uni Watch blog.
Often, it’s boring. Aaron Rodgers jerseys are extremely common, and so are Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder shirts or jerseys. The real joy comes from those unexpected, rare, and out there jerseys. On Tuesday, I saw a Carlos Delfino Bucks jersey on my way back home from the gym – he’s one of my irrational favorite players a la George Kottaras, and that made me smile. Occasionally, I see throwback jerseys that bring back nostalgic memories – Charles Barkley Suns jerseys, Michael Jordan #45 Bulls jerseys, even Vin Baker purple Bucks jerseys (I’m kind of a hoopster, apparently. I don’t particularly care if the player is very good – I just enjoy, for some reason or another, seeing jerseys like these.
Of course, there are the jerseys that I can’t stand, too, like the Brett Favre Vikings jerseys that are all over campus on Sundays and Mondays. Ryan Dempster Cubs jerseys bring a certain ire to my heart. The point is, jerseys tend to bring me some sort of reaction after the initial curiosity, whether it’s disappointment at their commonality, happiness from nostalgia or other factors, or hatred of a rival team.
However, as I managed decipher the number 15 and the name “Sheets” from around the backpack of the student walking down Charter Street today, I didn’t feel any of those emotions. Instead, I felt sadness.
My baseball fandom was always there, but my Brewers fandom didn’t really take off until about 1999, which marked the year in which cable television entered the household. Along with cable television came Fox Sports, and along with Fox Sports came daily Brewers coverage. I can’t say I remember too much about those first few seasons outside of Alex Sanchez (no clue why), Jeffrey Hammonds, and Richie Sexson. But then, in 2001, Ben Sheets made his debut.
Sheets made the All-Star game in that rookie season, but his career didn’t really take off until 2004. I was 14 and already plenty enamored with Sheets, who as a semi-decent pitcher from 2001-2003 was much better than the deadbeats that the team had shuffled in the rotation alongside Sheets. And then, in 2004 and beyond, Sheets became one of the best pitchers in the game. Sheets couldn’t win a ton of games due to the teams, but he still posted ridiculous numbers, most notably his 237 IP, 2.70 ERA, 264 K, 32 BB season in that 2004 season.
Everybody knows about the injuries that plagued Sheets’s career particularly in the later part of the decade, but there’s no denying what Sheets represented for this franchise. He was the bright light among the darkness of ten losing seasons and counting. He was the one player you could count on to provide a highlight. In the glory days of Scott Podsednik and Lyle Overbay, there was Ben Sheets to make you gasp with a 20 strikeout game or a one hit shutout. He was the promise of the kind of talent that could create a playoff team. And truly, although much of the 2008 playoff run is put on CC Sabathia’s shoulders, Ben Sheets deserves credit too, as he put together another fine season before suffering the final injury of his Brewers career in September.
It’s hard to put into words exactly why I’m so sad about Ben Sheets. I loved Richie Sexson, as I was a first baseman myself in little league at the time, but I was far from disappointed to see him go, even at age 11 (or whatever it was). I simply moved on to loving Lyle Overbay and then Prince Fielder. With Sheets, I had the perfect replacement in Yovani Gallardo, but by the time Gallardo burst onto the scene, my expectations and approach to watching the Brewers had completely changed. I was actually expecting wins. It was more than just a diversion, the Brewers had become an investment.
There was something special about watching Ben Sheets in those lost seasons in the early and mid-2000s, and maybe it was the promise of the contending year(s) to come in the later part of the decade. The excitement of the Sheets start and the knowledge that despite our futility and utter lack of talent, we still had one of the best pitchers in the league on our side. He was ours. He took the mound with the “Brewers” on his chest, and when something good happened, we actually got to cheer.
Maybe it was simply that he was the first truly great pitcher that I witnessed as a Brewer fan, and maybe it’s simply stupid nostalgia that makes me miss Ben Sheets so much. Maybe that’s why I was so sad when I saw this picture back in March.
And now I’ve become increasingly rambly about a pitcher who was a member of mostly losing teams and ended up as second fiddle on the one team that did actually win something. Still, I know that whenever I see those Sheets jerseys or pictures of Sheets with another team, it’ll bring back the great memories of his success among so much failure in the middle of the decade, and I’ll miss his talent, and even more, I’ll miss what he represented on those teams.