Mike Sweeney is one of the biggest men of faith baseball has seen in recent memory. As a player, he would sign autographs and append a bible verse to his signature.
Of the verses that he signed, which was also stitched onto his cleats at one point in his career, was Matthew 5:16: “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
Whether you’re religious or not, Sweeney was the physical embodiment of that verse among ballplayers. In the midst of perhaps the darkest times in Kansas City Royals history, it was Sweeney’s light that shined brightest.
This story isn’t about how good of a guy Sweeney is. If you were around Kauffman Stadium during the weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels, where Sweeney was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame, that’s all you heard about.
No. This story is about the legacy Sweeney left, and is is still leaving as a member of the Royals’ front office. It’s about the lessons some of the most integral members of the club have reaped from the former All-Star first baseman.
And maybe, it’s about a player who helped keep a fan base faithful to a team that, despite a fluke 2003 campaign, did virtually nothing else to deserve it.
Lesson No. 1: You can be great
Sweeney grew up wanting to emulate his father — so often the dreams of many sons. He wanted to play professional baseball, even if it only meant a few seasons in the minor leagues.
“I thought growing up, I just want to be like my dad,” Sweeney said. “I want to go out and play a little pro ball like my dad did, probably fall on my face after the first couple of years, and I can go home and hang my hat on the wall and say ‘You know what, I was like my dad.’”
He was drafted in 1991 by the Royals’ organization, where he would stay until the 2008 season. Four years later, he was invited to his first big league spring training camp.
“That’s when the lights clicked for me,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney says he looked around at guys like catcher Brent Mayne, first baseman Wallly Joyner and center fielder Tom Goodwin.
“I’m thinking ‘I had these guys’ baseball cards, and I get to share a locker room with them.’ I’ll never forget it,” Sweeney said. “Before that first day of spring training, I had these guys as superheroes wearing a cape and tight suit.”
After the initial feelings of being starstruck wore off, he realized he wasn’t among guys that belonged in Marvel comics. He was among peers.
“After that first day in camp, I thought ‘Man, I’m just as strong as these guys are.’ We hit batting practice, and I could hit just as good or better than those guys. I went down to that minor league season that year with the mental edge saying ‘I can be a big leaguer,’” Sweeney said.
He debuted with the Royals that season as a September call-up in 1995.
Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, who was a teammate of Sweeney’s in 2007, credits the now team hall of famer with helping him adjust to the majors in his debut campaign.
Sweeney even ensured that Gordon, who at the time played third base, had a locker adjacent to his.
“For me, he was outstanding,” Gordon said. “Being a young kid that got called up at a young age, I was just getting ready to play and not really knowing what to expect. First thing he did was get my locker by his and he took me under his wing. Everything we did on the road, he showed me how to do it and taught me the way. He was a big influence on my career.”
Lesson No. 2: There’s no such thing as a ‘zero percent’ chance
Sweeney’s first four years in Kansas City as a catcher — including the 1995 season which saw him appear in just four games as a call-up — were far from memorable. He never hit over .279, never had more than 35 RBI and only once played in more than 90 games.
So before spring training in 1999, rumors surrounding the inevitable departure of Sweeney from the Royals were swirling. So he went to the house of one of his coaches, who told him that he had a “zero percent” chance of being a Royal that year and to pack his bags lightly.
“I never used a dresser that spring training,” Sweeney said. “I kept my suitcase in the corner of the room.”
After that conversation, Sweeney visited the Church of the Nativity, a Catholic parish in Overland Park.
“My life turned around that night at that church,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney torched the ball in spring training for an average that, according to him, hovered at or near .500. It earned him a spot on the roster, and he started as the team’s primary designated hitter. Just a few months into the ’99 season, first baseman Jeff King retired and Sweeney was forced to takeover at first base.
“The rest is history, I took over that job,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney’s overcoming the quoted “zero percent” change of making the club resonated over a decade later with the story of Johnny Giavotella, the former Royals second baseman who has since landed with the Los Angeles Angels.
During a television broadcast of a game, Sweeney told the story of a conversation he had with Giavotella before the 2014 season, shortly after the Royals signed Omar Infante to a four-year deal — essentially a death sentence to Giavotella’s future with the club.
Sweeney said during the game that he had a conversation with a distraught Giavotella, who felt his chances of becoming a bona fide big league second baseman were through.
“He basically told me that I have to reach from within and keep working hard,” Giavotella said. “I can’t get down on myself, I’ve got to keep inflating myself with the fact that I’m a big league player. It was great hearing that from him.”
Giavotella was a non-roster invitee to the Angels’ spring training earlier this year, and he won the starting job with the defending American League West champions.
So often, those who are faced with insurmountable odds recede into comfort, even if it means sacrificing a dream. The fear of failure relegates so many back to what they know, even if what they know is pain and suffering.
Sweeney bucked that. In the throngs of all the losing and coaches telling him he wouldn’t suit up, he defied. That takes the type of courage few have.
Lesson No. 3: Have faith
Faith has become subjective in this world. For many, it’s faith in a certain God. For others, it’s faith in themselves or each other — are any of those truly unrelated?
Sweeney made no secret that his Catholic faith was at the forefront.
“The greatest gift of my life is my Catholic Christian faith,” were the first words Sweeney uttered at a press conference for his Hall of Fame induction.
For the better part of two decades, faith in the Royals was few and far between. Sweeney himself took part in just one winning season with the club in 2003. But it was his faith that endured him to fans, particularly in the Midwest.
It was that faith that drove Sweeney to take an almost cliched approach to the game. Work harder than everyone else.
“In my lifetime…I was never the best player on my team. I was never the fastest, never the strongest, never the best,” Sweeney said. “But then I started to believe, and hard work kept me going.
“I was never the best. Jermaine Dye could hit the ball further than me. Carlos Beltran could run faster than me. Mike McFarland was a better leader than I was. I never considered myself better than those guys.”
When Mark Teahen was traded to Kansas City as part of the deal that sent Carlos Beltran to the Houston Astros, the Royals were experiencing what had become the norm at the time, a hapless summer.
After one game in particular that saw Sweeney get beat up on the base paths, Teahen went over to the veteran and asked how he was able to motor through such a hopeless campaign.
“I told him, ‘Mark, the way you play the game should never be dictated by what place you’re in, what your batting average is, or how hot it is outside or how many fans are in that stands. You should play the game hard every single day because you don’t know when that jersey is going to be taken off your back.’ That’s how I played the game,” Sweeney said.
Strong faith, though, doesn’t immunize you from examinations of how solid your foundation is.
Sweeney had his faith tested earlier this year when his father, who was diagnosed with cancer, went in for surgery. After the doctor initially came out and told Sweeney and his family that the surgery was a success, she returned just minutes later and her story had flipped.
“Everything went wrong,” Sweeney said. “He had a heart attack, a collapsed lung, punctured lung, his kidneys were failing, he had pneumonia, his blood pressure was almost down to nothing, and they had to cut him down his right side to open up his ribs to stop the bleeding.”
The doctor made one thing clear.
“She said ‘If you are a man of faith Mike, you better cling to it because that’s all you got right now,’” Sweeney said.
His father survived, and was able to keep the promise he made to his son of being present at Kauffman Stadium for his son’s induction into the team’s Hall of Fame.
“To this day, doctors say it’s a miracle my father is here,” Sweeney said. “But I’ll never forget, I sat with my dad on his operating table right before they took him away, and he said, ‘Mike, I promise you I’ll be there at Kauffman Stadium on August 15.’ And he kept his promise.”
The Royals have returned Sweeney’s faith in them with their own trust. Last year, the year of course that bucked a 29-season playoff drought, the club hired him to their front office. Now he’s constantly around the minor leagues and spring training, making an impact on the young players.
“Sweeney is a tremendously positive guy. We see him a lot in the season in and out, but most of the time we see him at the majority of spring training,” manager Ned Yost said. “He communicates with a lot of guys, talks with a lot of guys and continues to be a big part of our organization.”
More importantly, at least to Sweeney, he got to live the dream his father once had.
“When I was 17 years old when I signed to be a Royal, I never dreamt that this day would happen,” Sweeney said shortly before his induction. “I thought I’m going to give it everything I can, play a couple of years of minor league ball, just to say I can be like my dad.”