Sheets grew up in St. Amant, La., amid the petrochemical companies, livestock shows and LSU football games that are part of the culture of Ascension Parish. His father, Arnold, owns and operates a water-well drilling business. Ben was such a poor high school pitcher that he threw only 27 innings as a junior and even fewer, 13, as a senior. He got a lot stronger that summer, though, while pitching for an American Legion team, and his fastball jumped from 84 mph to 89 mph. Northeast Louisiana's coach at the time, Smoke Laval, who lived in Ascension Parish, offered him half a scholarship. Sheets accepted.
Three years later, in June 1999, the Brewers made him their first-round draft pick. A year after that he was humbling Castro's men with a three-hitter. "It wasn't a big deal to me," Sheets says. "I didn't know much about them. Sometimes being a little stupid is better. If you never heard of the New York Yankees and then went out to pitch against them, you'd be better off than if you knew all about Jeter, O'Neill and all those guys. Keep it simple. You have to go with your strengths no matter who you're facing. Just try to super-dee-dooper locate your pitches."
The kid who made only two starts as a senior for St. Amant High has blossomed into what the Brewers think is a franchise pitcher. He is armed with a 91-mph two-seam sinking fastball, a 96-mph four-seam rising fastball, a decent changeup, a hella-cious curveball and cold-blooded confidence. "When I'm on the mound," he says, "I believe I'm better than anybody who steps into that box. If you don't, why bother going out there?"
"He's got the best curveball I've seen this year," says Houston Astros outfielder Lance Berkman. "He's flat-out filthy. When you get up in the morning and see in the paper that Ben Sheets is pitching, you pray you might be able to go one for three. Maybe you get a jam shot for a hit or get hit by a pitch or walk. That would be a good day."
Sheets, 22 at the start of the season, will learn that his stuff is good enough to make him an All-Star. He will learn, too, that it is not enough to get him through the season.
Three hours before his major league debut, Sheets is tying his spikes in the visitors' dugout at Enron Field when his teammates notice something different about him. Sheets's close-cropped blond hair was cut that very afternoon. "Oooh, must be a national TV game," righthander Jimmy Haynes says.
"I want to trick 'em, look younger than I am," Sheets says.
"Yeah," third baseman Tyler Houston says, "so people will say, 'Hey, he's pretty good for 17'. You look like you're about 17."