Slugger had shaky beginning as catcher, but new position changed career course
By Dick Kaegel
Special to MLB.com |
Spring Training of 1999 was just ahead, and Mike Sweeney was worried. Manager Tony Muser had told Sweeney that he wouldn't be catching for the Royals anymore.
"And that crushed him," Muser said.
Sweeney's entire future with the club after three years as a part-time catcher looked bleak. He'd just bought a house in a Kansas City suburb, but now there were trade rumors. So he drove to the home of pitching coach Tom Burgmeier and asked him what he thought.
"He looked me in the eye and said, 'You want the truth, kid? Well, you've got a zero percent chance of being a Kansas City Royal this year,'" Sweeney said. "I said, 'Zero?' And he said, 'I was just at a meeting earlier today and they like you as a person, but they said you'll never catch another day as a Royal.'"
If Sweeney lacked catching skills, though, Muser liked his potential as a hitter. Finally, as Spring Training went along at Baseball City, Fla., he assured the 25-year-old he would not be traded. "Get a first baseman's glove," he was told, and Sweeney's world changed.
Relieved of catching and its burdensome demands, Sweeney could focus on learning first base and concentrating on his hitting -- something he could do quite well.
"As a catcher, you're worried about not only your game, you're worried about the whole pitching staff," said outfielder Jermaine Dye. "Once he was able to go out and play first base, he was able to relax and settle down and really concentrate on hitting and honing his craft. You could tell he was a happier person. That's where his game took off."
Sweeney began 1999 as the primary DH, and he was thriving, hitting .331 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 34 games when regular first baseman Jeff King decided to retire in late May.
King's replacement was ready. Before Sweeney was through, he'd made such an impact on Kansas City baseball that he will become the 26th member of the Royals Hall of Fame on Saturday night. He's just the 18th player selected.
"I never knew that when Tony Muser took the catching gear from me, it would be a blessing," Sweeney said. "I thought my career was going down the tubes, but really it was just beginning."
Sweeney's 13-year Royals career boasted five .300 seasons, including .340 in 2002; a team-record 144 RBIs in 2000; 197 home runs and 297 doubles; seven years as team captain; and countless episodes of pure kindness, rock-hard competitiveness and enduring Christian faith.
Sweeney could hit. Mike Macfarlane, the longtime Royals catcher who ended his career with the A's, saw that from both sides.
"When I was behind the plate for Oakland, I really got to appreciate how good a hitter he was -- just his ability to barrel the ball up," said Macfarlane. "I'd put him up there with Edgar Martinez when it comes to the best pure right-handed hitters that I played with or against. He was that good."
From 1999-2002, Sweeney averaged .324 at the plate, 180 hits, 96 runs scored, 108 RBIs and 26 homers. And he made contact -- he averaged 62 walks in that period against just 56 strikeouts.
There were five more KC seasons ahead for Sweeney, riddled by injuries -- primarily a cranky back. Not even counting a month lost during his productive 2002, he spent a total of 279 days on the disabled list from 2003-07.
Imagine how much more damage Sweeney would have done to pitchers if he'd been healthy just some of that time.
"I think about it a lot," he said. "My wife could tell you the countless nights that I woke her up screaming in pain from a ruptured disk in my back. She can tell you the many nights I cried myself to sleep, because I couldn't be on the field that night with my teammates."
Jeff Montgomery, one of those teammates, is glad he never had to endure a pitching test by fire against a healthy Sweeney.
"There were a lot of guys that swing hard and have that power," Montgomery said. "I loved facing those guys, because they normally had a big hole. But Sweeney never had that hole. If you pitched him away, he would go the other way with it well. If you'd leave one in the middle of the plate, he was going to crush it."
Some of his feats stick out to Sweeney.
"The 144 RBIs was one team mark that people say may not be broken," he said. "There were RBIs in 13 consecutive games and five home runs in five days -- I can't remember exactly the numbers -- and those are great accomplishments. Playing in the All-Star Game is great. The steal of home against the New York Yankees at Kauffman Stadium [on Aug. 14, 2002]. Hitting a walk-off double against the Giants on Father's Day with my dad in the stands was a great thing."
That was just a sample of Sweeney's intensely competitive nature, much of which stems from his father, known as Big Mike. A former Minor League player, Big Mike's latest winning battle came against cancer after extensive surgery and serious complications last May.
"I always said I want to grow up to marry a woman just like my mother and I want to grow up to be a man just like my father," Sweeney, the oldest of eight in his Irish Catholic family, said. "My father is my hero. They gave me the foundation, the grit, the determination and the perseverance to never give up, never quit. I had a passion and a blazing fire inside my heart to be the best."
The most visible fiery incident was his charge to the mound to body-slam Detroit pitcher Jeff Weaver, who had challenged Sweeney's manhood with a profane taunt. The 2001 ruckus earned Sweeney a 10-game suspension.
Nor would he back down from a teammate. During Sweeney's catching days, pitcher Jose Rosado loudly questioned his selection on a homer pitch between innings in the dugout at Cleveland. "The next thing you know, I was throwing punches at Rosie, who was my roommate."
Yet it was Sweeney's clubhouse charisma and leadership that was his hallmark, as outfielder David DeJesus discovered as a rookie.
"Mike came over to me with a big hug and said, 'You belong here. You deserve all this,'" said DeJesus in 2003. "That was one of those moments. He didn't have to do that. I was the youngest guy on the team, the newest guy. That's the one thing that I held in my heart and that's the one thing that I try to do today. Treat everyone the same -- it doesn't matter if they're a rookie or an older veteran."
For the fans, Sweeney shook hands and signed autographs endlessly. He never passed a baby he didn't want to hold. He never saw a camera he wouldn't smile for. But the demeanor switched at game time.
"The last thing Mike Sweeney ever was, was soft," Macfarlane said.
Sweeney and wife Shara are raising five children -- sons Michael, 11, and Donovan, 6; daughters McKara, 9, Fiona, 3, and Quinn, 1 -- in the San Diego area. He's on the Royals' front-office staff as special assistant in baseball operations. Part of Sweeney's job is helping Minor Leaguers with their hitting and keeping their outlook positive.
Sweeney has also kept busy in church and with charities, as he was in his playing days.
Pitcher Jeff Suppan marveled at the way Sweeney has lived his faith.
"When you go into a Hall of Fame, it's what you did as a player," Suppan said, "but I think he's in God's Hall of Fame, too."
Dick Kaegel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.