Ben Sheets answered his cell phone, but there was no time to talk. His 7-year-old son, Seaver, named after the great Tom Seaver, had a basketball game that night. Sheets is the coach.
"Big game tonight, real big," Sheets said playfully. "We have to win tonight."
Such has been Sheets' life for the past year, a life away from baseball, a life as a father. His life soon will change again, once he proves he's healthy, signs with a major league team and perhaps becomes what he was 18 months ago: one of the best pitchers in baseball.
"Being a dad is awesome," he said. "That was my first summer off. No baseball player can even remember the last summer he had off. I did July 4th and Labor Day with the family. The time off refreshed me. It made me realize how much I love baseball. I missed the camaraderie with the guys. I feel fantastic."
He hasn't felt that way in two years. In Sheets' fourth-to-last start of the 2008 season as a member of the Brewers, he threw a 1-0 shutout against the Padres on Sept. 6, but his elbow hurt so badly that he needed a cortisone shot after the game. He pitched mostly without pain in his next start against the Phillies, but three batters into his following start, Sheets said he felt "a tug, a yank in my elbow. That's not good." He faced a few more batters, then had to leave the game. He missed his next start, then made one more start -- but it lasted only two innings because "my elbow was killing me."
The timing couldn't have been worse. Sheets was unable to pitch in the playoffs for the Brewers and was a month away from free agency, a month away from what could have meant a huge payday. Instead, he still had pain in his elbow. He said he thought he could pitch through it, as he had for several starts in 2008. He agreed in principle on a two-year deal with the Rangers early in 2009, but when a new MRI showed elbow issues that troubled the Rangers, the contract wording was changed. Sheets didn't sign. He told the Rangers that he wouldn't take their money if he couldn't pitch, and had the surgery on his own. In February, the flexor tendon in his elbow was repaired. Sheets hasn't pitched since.
"I watched a lot of baseball last summer, but it was strange not being part of a team," he said. "I've been watching my buddies; I watch a lot of the Brewers because I have a lot of buddies on the team. I followed [ex-Brewer] Russell Branyan's season for Seattle. It was frustrating not being able to play, but it made me want to play even more in the 2010 season."
Now all he needs is a team for which to pitch. A source close to the situation said that six to 10 teams have expressed interest, including the Cubs. Chances are a deal will be for one year with incentives until he can prove his elbow can hold up for a full season. On Tuesday, at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where Sheets went to college, he will throw for major league teams for the first time since beginning his comeback.
"They're going to like what they see," he said.
If Sheets is anywhere close to the pitcher he used to be, how could any team not like him? When healthy, Sheets throws in the mid-90s with one of the best curveballs in the game and great control. Sheets, 31, has an 86-83 career record and 3.72 ERA. In 1,428 innings, he has 1,206 strikeouts and 313 walks; his 3.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the fifth-best all time among pitchers with 1,000 innings. In 2008, he threw three shutouts and had an ERA below 3.00 until his final start of the season. He can be a dominant starter when he is healthy.
But Sheets has had some trouble staying healthy in his career. After making exactly 34 starts in three straight seasons (2002 to '04), he was limited to 22, 17 and 24 starts the next three years, then 31 in 2008. He has had some bizarre injuries and illnesses, including a bout with dizziness that made him feel "like I was drunk while on a boat that was rocking. It was horrible." But Sheets is, from all accounts, a tough guy who always wanted to take the ball.
"I've seen him lying on the trainer's table with an IV in his arm 30 minutes before a game," former Brewers manager Ned Yost once said, "then get up and go throw a shutout."
I believe I can pitch the way I used to. Hey, Chris Carpenter came back and was dominant. As long as I believe I can do it, that's all that matters. Watch, I'll show 'em.
”-- Free agent Ben Sheets
But this injury is different; this one involved his elbow; this one kept him out for a year. Sheets said he threw a baseball for the first time in July, and "it felt all right." He toyed with the idea of being able to pitch by the end of the 2009 season but quickly realized "that was not happening." He has spent the past few months rehabilitating the elbow and building the strength in his shoulder.
"I got back in the gym to get back in shape. I tried to get my hips in shape because hips are so important in the game," he said. "I've always worked on my upper body and my lower body, but I've always neglected my hips."
He has done long tossing and flat-ground work and says he has "let it go" off the mound four times.
"Everything feels good," he said. "I'm where I need to be. But my goal is spring training, not to be ready Jan. 15 or 16 or 17. It's not beneficial to ramp it up now."
Sheets is the pitcher with the most upside on the open market, assuming he is healthy. The Cubs have interest. But keep an eye on Seattle. Jack Zduriencik, who ran Milwaukee's scouting department (among other things) for nine years when Sheets was there, is now the GM in Seattle. How would Sheets look as the No. 3 starter behind Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez? A third starter, without the pressure of being an ace, would seem to be the perfect starting point for Sheets in his comeback. But when he's right, he's not a No. 3; he's a No. 1.
"I believe I can pitch the way I used to," Sheets said. "Hey, Chris Carpenter came back and was dominant. As long as I believe I can do it, that's all that matters. Watch, I'll show 'em."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.