Candles atop starched white linen tablecloths set the room aglow, giving the proper air of sophistication to an upscale steak house in downtown Milwaukee one cool evening in July. Sitting at the table, ready to order, is Ben Sheets, though for 10 months, ever since he shut out the mighty Cuban team in the gold medal game of the 2000 Summer Olympics, the world has referred to the Milwaukee Brewers pitcher as Olympic Hero Ben Sheets, as if he had legally changed his name in Sydney.
"The 15-ounce fillet," Sheets says.
"Yes," the waiter says, scribbling on his pad. He hardly pauses and doesn't bother to look up before he adds, "And will that be with ketchup?"
Sheets has been to this place before. They know him well. "Yep," he says. "We don't know any better in Louisiana. We put ketchup on everything."
Major league baseball may have disavowed its proletarian heritage and become a b�arnaise sauce kind of sport—in a defining moment, two ball clubs nearly came to blows this season over a pitcher's diamond earrings—but Sheets is a ketchup kind of guy. If a Geiger counter could be rigged to measure the sense of entitlement so many ballplayers radiate, Sheets couldn't make the needle so much as quiver.
He is a rookie who until this season had only 34 games of professional experience, all in the minor leagues. He is also, thanks to a humble high school career and a small-college background, blissfully ignorant of the pampered life of a star in the making. He is a blank slate. A true freshman.
"We're treated like royalty," Sheets declares halfway through the season. "We get to a hotel, and everything is done to get you into your room as quickly as possible: Your key's waiting, and your bags are taken care of. We stay in nice hotels. In Los Angeles I had a room on the 15th floor with a balcony overlooking the city. Man, it was something. The first time we went on the road, my wife asked me, 'So who's your roommate?' I said, 'This is the big leagues. You get your own room.' The way we're treated is something else. Candy and movies in the clubhouse."
Disillusionment is part of the lesson plan too. Sheets is a baseball junkie who watches highlight shows, reads baseball books, devours magazines and newspapers, scans the Internet for baseball news and studies stats. (He can tick off Curt Schilling's home runs allowed or Paul Lo Duca's strikeouts.) It puzzles him to find teammates who are not passionate about their vocation.
"The thing I don't understand is all the players who don't know anything about the game," he says. "I'll want to talk with guys about what's going on around baseball, like during batting practice, and they don't know what I'm talking about or don't care. I'm amazed how many guys don't care."
The first year in the big leagues for any pitcher is a year of discovery. Sheets will learn, among other things, how to survive the grind of a six-month season (one month longer than in the minors), how his stuff measures up against big league hitters, and how hard it is to find authentic jambalaya in downtown Milwaukee. He allowed SI to share in his season of discovery. It is the education of a rookie pitcher.