Friday, February 15, 2008

Honoring Mike Sweeney

The Royals drafted Michael John Sweeney in the 10th round of the 1991 June Free Agent Draft. By 1994, he was showing signs that he was getting closer to show material. He hit 10 HR and drove in 52 runs with a .301 average in 86 games for Rockford that season. In 1995, he hit .310 in Wilmington with 18 HR and 53 RBI in 99 games and he got his first chance in Kansas City.

If you look at the Opening Day roster for the Royals in 1995, Brent Mayne was the catcher. He caught 103 games that year while Mike MacFarlane was taking a brief break with the Boston Red Sox. But even back then, people were saying that Mike Sweeney was the catcher of the future and he caught four games for the Royals that season. In 1996, Sweeney started the year in Wichita, then progressed to Omaha, and he finished the year in Kansas City, catching 26 games, while also seeing a little time at DH. In 1997, he caught 76 games (splitting time with MacFarlane, who was back with the Royals), while DH'ing just three times. By 1997, he was starting to show a little promise at the plate (7 HR and 31 RBI in 240 at bats), but nothing that would indicate that he would be punishing major league pitching just a couple of years later.

Sweeney settled into the catcher's role in 1998, catching 91 games for the Royals (Sal Fasano was the other catcher on the roster). That was the year MacFarlane was dealt to the Oakland A's. MacFarlane was aging (he was 34 at the time), and Sweeney was just 24 and showing spurts of power in addition to seeing his OBP starting to rise. But during the offseason, the Royals made a move for Chad Kreuter, who became the opening day starting catcher in 1999. Sweeney moved to first base, where he played 74 games. He was the DH in 75 games. And he caught four games. Oh yeah, and he went nuts at the plate, hitting 22 HR, driving in 102 runs, and hitting .322 with a .387 OBP. Presumably, getting away from playing catcher allowed him more time to concentrate on his offensive development.

Here's a quote from him from a 1999 article from the Topeka Capital-Journal in which he talks about his transition to first base: "It's a lot easier than catching," Sweeney said. "It's a lot shorter throw from first to second base than it is catcher to second base." This was during the Tony Muser era. Muser and Sweeney had a player/manager relationship that was probably best described by the USA Today in a May 29, 2001 article this way:
...earlier this month, when frustrated manager Tony Muser said he wished his struggling team would set aside their milk and cookies and occasionally take a shot of tequila, many thought he was directing his tirade at Sweeney. Muser later denied that, saying if he could choose any man in the world to marry his daughter, it would be Sweeney.
Sweeney was open about his Christian faith and sometimes it may have led people to believe that he might be a bit soft. I don't think any evidence could ever be found for such a claim. Instead, his faith seemed to help him keep things in perspective. I'll talk more about that later.

Sweeney continued to massacre American League pitching in 2000. In fact, he had the best year of his career, hitting 29 HR, driving in a club record 144 runs. He hit .333 at the plate, had a .407 OBP, and for the first time, he became an All-Star--something he became accustomed to over the next several seasons. He went on to become a five-time All-Star while wearing Royal blue.

The Royals began to build a strong nucleolus of good young talent. Johnny Damon was already established with the Royals by this point. Jermaine Dye blasted 33 HR and drove in 118 runs that season. Carlos Beltran was suffering through a difficult sophomore year, but nobody seemed to doubt that he had a tremendous amount of raw talent. The Royals finished 77-85 that season and while that is hardly anything to cheer about, it was more wins than they'd had since 1993--the last time they'd finished over .500.

Small market realities started to set in though and the writing seemed to be on the wall regarding the Royals ability to keep their young talent. In January of 2001, Damon was dealt with Mark Ellis to the A's. The A's sent Ben Grieve to the Devil Rays and Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch to the Royals. The Devil Rays sent Cory Lidle to the A's and Roberto Hernandez to the Royals. We won't get into the disaster that this trade turned out to be for the Royals. Later that year, Jermaine Dye was traded to the Colorado Rockies for Neifi Perez--another complete disaster for the Royals. And a few years later, after the Royals realized they couldn't sign Beltran, they traded him to the Astros in a another complicated three team deal that brought Mark Teahen, Mike Wood, and John Buck to the Royals.

As the Royals went through one phase after another of rebuilding for the future followed quickly by the signing of and trading for aging veterans with the believe that they could "win now," very little remained a constant--with two exceptions; number one, the Royals lost a lot of games, and number two, Mike Sweeney became the face of the franchise. And rightly so. He wanted desperately to bring a winner to Kansas City and he wanted to play his entire career there too. He also became active in the community.

He paid $100,000 for a dirt field that was formerly used to buy and sell drugs in downtown Kansas City and transformed it into a baseball field. He did work in support of Children's Mercy Hospital, the Boys and Girls Club of Kansas City, and the Kansas City FCA. He teamed up with Garth Brooks in the Teammates for Kids Foundation. He co-hosts an annual charity golf tournament in Kansas City each year with Tony Richardson. On and on it went.

He became known as one of the nicest guys in baseball. Then, in 2001, he was involved in a brawl with former Tiger pitcher Jeff Weaver. Weaver said something that Sweeney didn't like and Sweeney charged the mound and pummeled him. A couple of seasons ago, while working on assignment for a newspaper, I asked Sweeney about that incident and here's what he told me:
It's not something I'm real proud of being a part of, but it's something that happened. For years I've tried to rationalize it and justify it and now my desire is that soon, some day, I would be able to reconcile with Jeff. We wouldn't have to go out to dinner together, but just reconcile things. Not that we'd be best friends, but just to be able to put it behind us. Forgiveness is a good thing and admitting when you’ve messed up is too.
Here's a link to the article I wrote about Sweeney and his Christian faith if you'd like to read it.

Sweeney continued to put up big numbers for the Royals. In 2001, he hit .304 with 29 HR and 99 RBI. In 2002, he hit .340 with 24 HR and 86 RBI, but two other things happened that year that were career-changing for Sweeney. He was placed on the DL for the first time in his career with a lower back and hip strain. And he signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension with the Royals through 2007. In 2003, he was injured again, playing in just 108 games. In 2004, he played in just 106 games. In 2005, he played in just 122 games. And by 2006, Royals fans began to boo Sweeney. Some believed that he ought to be producing at a higher level since he made so much money. Some seemed to question his level of commitment. And on some Internet bulletin boards, people began to whisper about the possibility of Sweeney doing steroids.

In spite of it all, when he realized that he probably would not be returning to the Royals in 2008, he took out a full page ad in the Kansas City Star thanking fans for "for all the love you've shown me through the years." Then, after signing with the Oakland A's last week, he made these comments, "I became a Royal at age 17 and at age 34, I'm turning the reins over to the next crop of young players. I had the best years of my life in Kansas City...It'll seem strange seeing the guys with me wearing a different uniform. But it's John Buck, David DeJesus, Mark Teahen, Gil Meche and Alex Gordon now--it's their team now. And I'll be rooting for them to win a championship."

That tells you a lot about who Mike Sweeney is. I interviewed him several times over the past couple of years for various different publications that I write for and I can tell you that he acts the same way in the clubhouse that he does when he's out in public. He makes time for people. He remembers events in people's lives. He speaks about making a difference in the lives of people (and then he actually does it). And other players, even on opposing teams, talk about him favorably. When I interviewed Chad Durbin last season, he went on and on about how much he thinks of Sweeney.

In my opinion, Sweeney was everything you could ask for in a baseball player. Unfortunately, his body broke down on him, and it soured his final couple of years in Kansas City. But I suspect that when people think about him, they won't remember his injuries, or his contract, or the rumors, as much as they will remember the good times. The game-winning hits. The joyous interviews afterward. The time he gave to fans. The contributions he made to the Kansas City area. And the desperate, almost ridiculously optimistic outlook regarding the Royals future.

Mike Sweeney is wearing an Oakland A's uniform now, but he'll forever be a Kansas City Royal.

Here's where Sweeney ranks in the all-time Royals record book:



Royals Ranking

Games Played 1,282 7
At Bats 4,669 6
Runs Scored 700 6
Hits 1,398 6
Doubles 297 5
HR 197 2
RBI 837 5
AVG .299 3
Walks 484 5
HBP 66 3
Total Bases 2,296 6
Extra Base Hits 499 5
SLG .492 2
OBP .369 T7
OPS .861 2
Intentional Walks 59 4


RickMcKc said...

Very nice story. Sweeney was a great example of living out your faith in the real world.

I am still amazed at the number of people who bash him for that, but more and more I see the truth of what Jesus meant when he said "if the world hates me, it will hate you, too."

On a baseball note, I have this fear that now that we've let him go, Sweeney will get 400ABs, hit .335 with 30 hrs for the As, while Guillen plays in only half of the games, bats .265 and hits 14hrs.

What's funny is that I'm not sure if I hope I'm right or I hope I'm wrong on this one.

Will said...

very nice

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