Sunday, August 30, 2009

Following Mike Sweeney’s example

Game Date: August 29, 2009
Kansas City @ Seattle
Mariners 8, Royals 4 / Box Score
WP: Snell (3-1), LP: Meche (6-10)
KC Home Runs: Buck (6), Teahen (11), Maier (3)
Royals Record: 49-80 / Record in August 9-20

Watching Mike Sweeney take it to the Royals this weekend reminds me of the fact that the 2009 version of the Royals lacks a hitter like Sweeney, who, for a couple of games, can pick up a team—emotionally speaking—and hoist it on his back. I’m not downing the Royals for failing to resign Sweeney. It’s a business and Dayton Moore believed that Billy Butler was ready to step into Sweeney’s shoes. To some degree, his decision has turned out to be correct. But as good as Billy Butler has been the last couple of months, he’s not at the level where he’s been able to do what Sweeney has done this weekend for the Mariners.

It’s not fair to expect that of Butler at this stage of his career. But the problem is, the Royals don’t have anybody else to fill the emotional void that Sweeney left behind. Sweeney played on some terrible baseball teams in Kansas City and with the exception of the 2003 season, their records looked pretty much like the 2009 Royals. So, in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t look like it matters all that much. But the teams Sweeney played on lacked a more mature Zack Greinke, a steadying force in the rotation like Gil Meche, a solid closer, and a hitter like Billy Butler who is coming into his own. His emotional uplift had little long-term effect on the team because, for the most part, the team was so bad.

After the game on Friday night, Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu said this about Sweeney’s head first slide at home and his emotional outburst afterward: “I don’t know if in my lifetime I’ll ever see Sweeney do that again, but that’s what makes him special,” Wakamatsu said. During the television broadcast last night Ryan Lefebvre said that the play made quite an impact on the Mariner’s clubhouse. They see a guy who went through two knees surgeries during the offseason, who really has nothing left to prove at this point in his career, laying it all on the line for his team and it infused them with a spark of inspiration.

Seattle fans are noticing the difference too. In a comment left on the Mariners website after the game last night, one Mariners’ fan said this: “All credits go to Wak, his staff and his field commanders (Griffey and Sweeney). The Mariners are playing without their best players and still winning games. Yes, this homestand was against Triple-A teams, but in the long perspective, the M's were supposed to have a KC or Baltimore-like standings performance. Don is building a solid professional team playing hard and with heart.”

Yes, I know a team can play with heart and still be bad. But can a team become good without any heart? I can’t think of many examples. And that begs the question, who will step into Sweeney’s shoes in Kansas City and become the spark and ultimately the leader of this team in the future? Who will want to be at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with runners in scoring position and the Royals down by a run? Who will lay his body on the line by charging down the third baseline with a willingness to do whatever it takes to score? Who will earn the respect of his teammates, and opponents alike, like Mike Sweeney has?

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