Ben Sheets didn’t exactly dominate in his first appearance wearing green, but he walked away from his Oakland A’s debut wearing the same big old smile he used to sport for the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It’s been 17 months since I’ve been on a mound,” Sheets said after facing his former team at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Friday. “So I thought it went great.”
Never mind that the Brewers touched him for four hits — three of them well-struck, including back-to-back RBI singles by Ryan Braun and Jim Edmonds in the top of the first inning — before Sheets used up his allotment of pitches with two outs in the second. This was a serious step in the right direction for a guy who complained glumly of a “broke arm” the last time he walked off a Major League mound.
That was Sept. 27, 2008, when Sheets and his aching right elbow tried to make one last start for the franchise that made him a first-round Draft pick nearly a decade earlier. He lasted only 2 1/3 innings against the Cubs that night before his elbow, which had already been barking for a month, finally gave out.
Sheets was forced to watch from the sidelines while the Brewers made their first postseason appearance in a generation, and he stayed on the sidelines throughout all of 2009 while recovering from flexor tendon surgery. He signed a $10 million deal with the A’s in January to launch a comeback that began on Friday with the Brewers in the opposing dugout.
“It really didn’t seem strange,” Sheets said. “I just saw another team out there, which was weird. I knew a couple of the guys … but I guess you don’t just stare at the batter. They’ve had a lot of turnover over there, so it ain’t like it’s all the same guys.”
That Sheets is feeling great in his new green jersey is clear. Less clear is how he really feels about his departure from Milwaukee, where he pitched from 2001-2008 and racked up more strikeouts than any pitcher in franchise history.
Speaking to Milwaukee reporters Friday for the first time since he left, Sheets on one hand insisted that he felt no ill will toward the Brewers for letting him walk, while at the same time making it clear he felt plenty of ill will about the way the Brewers handled his surgery.
To Sheets, those are two very separate issues.
“When I got there we were losing 106 [games, in 2002], and when I left there we were a playoff team, so I don’t know what was disappointing,” he said. “[Pitching in the playoffs] would have been nice, but I gave what I had at the time and it cost me a whole year. …
“They couldn’t have handled me differently. We were in a playoff hunt and I wasn’t taking myself out of it. If I was capable of going, I went. I always ask myself, ‘Would I change it?’ And I wouldn’t change a thing. I would be willing to go out there and blow my arm out again.”
Asked whether he wished the Brewers would have made more of an effort to re-sign him, his voice rises.
“Y’all made a story that there was bad blood and all, and I don’t know where y’all dreamed that up. Maybe at nighttime,” Sheets said. “There was zero bad blood. [Brewers general manager] Doug Melvin was in a no-win situation. If he signed me and I got hurt, what happens? He looks like an idiot. If he didn’t sign me and I came out last year and pitched great… What did you want him to do? There were never any hard feelings. We worked together for eight years and they were eight great years.”
The Brewers declined to offer Sheets arbitration and he hit the free agent market. He had a contract in place with the Texas Rangers before a failed physical scuttled the deal, and shortly thereafter, in February 2009, a decision was made that Sheets would undergo surgery. Because Sheets was injured in the Brewers’ employ, his representation argued that the Brewers were on the hook for surgical costs.
But the Brewers wanted assurances that this was the same injury Sheets suffered back in September, so they asked him to come to Milwaukee for a check-up before undergoing surgery. The request rubbed him the wrong way.
“That was handled bad for me,” Sheets said. “To be there 10 years and, on a personal level, to do that, that bothered me. And it’s not like I hold any one guy responsible; that whole situation was not handled as good as can be.”
So he’s moved on, and so have the two young sons who all but grew up in the home clubhouse at Miller Park. Sheets was asked whether his oldest son, Seaver, found it strange to see daddy wearing green.
“As long as he saw 15 on the back, he’s fine,” Sheets said.