SI Vault
Smoking cubans
Michael Farber
October 09, 2000
Righty Ben Sheets, 22, breezed through Cuba's veteran lineup with the greatest of cheese and then was hailed in his future home, Milwaukee
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 09, 2000

Smoking Cubans

Righty Ben Sheets, 22, breezed through Cuba's veteran lineup with the greatest of cheese and then was hailed in his future home, Milwaukee

View CoverRead All Articles

Ben Sheets brought his gold medal to the Milwaukee Brewers' farewell game at County Stadium against the Cincinnati Reds last Thursday, the reward for having dispatched the international Reds 35� hours earlier and 16 time zones away. Next season Sheets will simply bring the cheese to new Miller Park in Milwaukee. Considering the extraordinary nature of Sheets's cheese—a four-seam fastball that explodes at 96 mph and had scouts drooling and Cubans flailing—that will hardly be bringing coals to Newcastle. The roar that poured down on Sheets during his fifth-inning introduction to Brewers fans was not only a hearty thank-you for his three-hit, 4-0 shutout of Cuba in the Olympic final but also a down payment for next April, when he's expected to join Milwaukee's rotation in the new Miller Park.

Sheets belongs to the U.S. now, but next spring he'll again be chattel of the Brewers, who on Sept. 1 released Sheets, the 10th pick in the 1999 draft, to the Olympic team with trepidation. As David Wilder, who's probably as patriotic as the next major league vice president of player personnel, says, "Our biggest worry was that he stay healthy, because while what he did at the Games was important, it's more important what he does in the future with the Brewers."

The righthanded Sheets will bring ice as well as heat to the majors. Manager Tommy Lasorda had Sheets start against Japan in the Americans' tournament opener with the long view of pitching him again in the final, inevitably against Cuba, because he sensed Sheets would shrug at the prospect of facing a team that was 25-1 in Olympic play. His managerial intuition was correct. Lasorda reported, "He asked me before the [gold medal] game, 'Hey, Skip, who are we playing?' "

Of course Sheets knew about the Cubans even before they pasted the U.S. 6-1 in a round-robin game. Though the Cuban team gets broad display just once a quadrennium, powerful third baseman Omar Linares, 32, mercurial shortstop German Mesa, 33, and slugging first baseman Orestes Kindei�n, 36, are more familiar to U.S. fans than most of the September call-ups littering late-season box scores. While Cuba was winning gold in 1996, Sheets was pitching at Northeast Louisiana. While Linares, Mesa and Kindei�n were playing their combined 750th game for their country shortly before the Sydney Games, Sheets (3-5,2.87 ERA, 59 strikeouts in 81� innings) was shutting down Triple A hitters for the Indianapolis Indians.

These were hardened men from whom the 22-year-old Sheets was asked to wrest the gold medal. He did it with astonishing ease, delivering overhand curves and a jitterbug change with a motion so sweet that he looked like a young Tom Seaver. Sheets worked quickly, and the Cubans hacked with equal dispatch, chasing first pitches with more resignation than resolve. The game contracted. The only moments that mattered were the ones when Sheets stood on the mound. "I've never wanted to make outs in my life," U.S. first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said, "but I was happy [fouling out in the eighth] just to keep the game moving."

A power pitcher, Sheets imposed a power rhythm on the game. The Cubans could not sacrifice or steal or run the bases like banshees because the righthander offered no options. He gave up only three singles and had 16 ground ball outs. He struck out five and walked none. But his grandest achievement came in the eighth inning. While Sheets was safely tucked in the dugout, catcher Pat Borders stood at first after a two-out single, gabbing with a smiling Kindel�n. Suddenly chirpy, sneering Cuba had become just another overmatched team playing out the string against an un-hittable pitcher on a lazy, late-September day. Sheets had pulled off an amazing trick: He had turned the A on the Cuba uniforms into an S.