PHILADELPHIA -- As Ben Sheets has experienced the early stages of an improbable and inspirational comeback, Dr. Keith Meister has proudly watched from afar with a genuine understanding of just how far the veteran pitcher has come since undergoing what was assumed to be a career-ending elbow surgery.
When Sheets visited Meister in Dallas two years ago, he was simply hoping the accomplished surgeon might provide him a chance to play catch and enjoy other similar athletic activities with his two young sons. Approximately 20 months earlier, Sheets had undergone a major surgical procedure to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow.
That tendon, the ulnar collateral ligament and essentially every other element of Sheets' elbow looked like the remains of a bat destroyed by a Mariano Rivera cutter. It was unlike anything Meister had ever seen.
"I don't think anybody has, to be quite frank with you," Meister said. "It was just as bad as it gets. He had torn everything off. It was basically skin holding his elbow together on either side. It's one of things where you make an incision and you're looking inside the joint, and there's no muscle, there's no ligament and there is no tendon."
There was seemingly no chance Sheets would ever pitch again. This remained the overwhelming assumption until he signed a Minor League contract with the Braves in early July.
When a national television audience watches the Braves play the Mets on Sunday night, Sheets will be on the mound, attempting to add to the wonder of his comeback. Those same individuals who assumed they had seen the last of Sheets two years ago are now among those anxiously waiting to see whether he can spend the next two months playing a key role in Atlanta's push toward the playoffs.
"I don't even try to figure it out," Sheets said. "I'm just happy that I feel good today."
Through his first five starts for the Braves, Sheets has gone 4-1 with a 1.41 ERA. He has allowed one run or fewer in four of those starts, and has proven that he can be successful without complementing his patented curveball with the 95-mph fastball that was once in his arsenal. Not bad for a guy who spent the first three months of this season coaching his son's baseball team in Louisiana.
"We knew the odds were against anything like this for sure, but sometimes when you leave the operating room, you just have a good feeling," Meister said.
Braves general manager Frank Wren seemed to gain a similar feeling when he watched Sheets throw a five-inning simulated game at Georgia Tech on June 28. There was certainly reason to be hesitant about the capabilities of a 34-year-old pitcher who was two years removed from a reconstructive elbow surgery of this magnitude.
But as Wren, assistant general manager Bruce Manno and director of baseball administration John Coppolella watched Sheets throw with scouts from four other teams in attendance, the reconstructed pitcher started turning doubts into promise.
"I sat there watching him, and I could see that delivery ... striking out 18 Braves that day [in 2004]," Wren said. "The curveball and combination of stuff was not the same velocity. But it all kind of looked the same. He held his velocity during that 80-pitch simulated game. It told me that he had been throwing a lot and that he was in great shape."
After impressing the front office on the mound, Sheets attended the Braves-Diamondbacks game that night with his son's baseball team, which was competing in a tournament in suburban Atlanta. He and his agent, Casey Close, visited Wren's suite during the game, and grew more confident that the Braves might be willing to put him in their starting rotation as soon as possible.
"It came kind of quick. When I started throwing and my arm started gaining strength, I thought maybe. But my arm hurt for three years. I was out there throwing and thinking, 'When is it going to blow up?' It kept getting stronger."
-- Ben Sheets
Sheets signed a Minor League contract with the Braves the following week, and then made two starts approximately 100 miles from his Monroe, La., home for Double-A Mississippi. He showed enough during those outings for the Braves to put him in their starting rotation in the third game coming out of the All-Star break.
Sheets made his Major League start six days shy of the two-year anniversary of what was could have been the last of his career, and limited the Mets to two hits over six scoreless innings. After the game, his 10-year-old son, Seaver, and 5-year-old son, Miller, entered the Braves' clubhouse to share the special moment that they had helped create.
"I read an article like a day or two later that talked about how his kids rushed into the clubhouse after the game," Meister said. "After I read that, I kind of got choked up. I think that's probably the biggest and best part about it."
Once Meister completed the major reconstructive surgery in 2010, Sheets returned to his family's home with no regrets. He had been an Olympic hero while pitching the United States to a gold medal in 2000. Sheets had shown his dominance in games such as the 18-strikeout masterpiece against the Braves on May 16, 2004. Plus, while playing for the Brewers, he had earned four All-Star selections, including the opportunity to start the 2008 Midsummer Classic at old Yankee Stadium.
"I was fine with me being done," Sheets said. "I mean, my arm hurt every day. That ain't fun."
When it came time to help coach his son's team last year, Sheets did not try to protect his arm. When it came time to throw high popups to the young children, he exerted his elbow to the fullest extent without any concern about destroying the chance for a potential comeback. In his mind, there was no potential for a comeback.
"The next day ... I was so sore," Sheets said. "But I would go out there again because it did not matter, and I'd do it again the next day. So what that my elbow hurt? What did it matter?"
As this past winter progressed, Sheets' young kids continued to ask him if he would ever pitch again. Seaver had some memories of the successful days in Oakland. Miller's memories were primarily focused on the painful, injury-shortened 2010 season his father had spent with the A's.
After Sheets' elbow became a problem late in the 2008 season, the Brewers were forced to reluctantly end their long relationship with him. The Rangers were ready to take a chance on the pitcher until Meister, the team physician, viewed results of a physical and advised against it. A short time after that deal fell through, Sheets underwent surgery to repair the torn flexor tendon in his elbow.
Earlier this year, Sheets sent Meister a text that showed a radar gun reading of 92 mph. Suddenly there was some reason to believe he might pitch in the Majors again.
"It came kind of quick," Sheets said. "When I started throwing and my arm started gaining strength, I thought maybe. But my arm hurt for three years. I was out there throwing and thinking, 'When is it going to blow up?' It kept getting stronger."
If Sheets reaches each of his very attainable bonus levels this year, the Braves will end up paying him $2.4 million. That will be a bargain if he continues to pitch like he has over the past month.
As Sheets prepares for the remainder of this season, he is excited about the possibility of pitching in a playoff game for the first time. But after spending the past two years under the assumption that he would never pitch again, he is certainly not taking anything for granted.
"I've looked forward before, and sometimes you disappoint yourself because you can't make it there," Sheets said.