Mike Sweeney Finds Stardom in K.C.
MIKE SWEENEY WAS ON THE FAST track to obscurity two years ago.
As a journeyman catcher with the losing, small-market Royals, Sweeney was exactly the kind of player who performs with little notice and is forgotten the day his career ends.
There was nothing in his record that hinted at a much brighter future. Sweeney's prospects were so uncertain prior to the 1999 season that rumors of a trade or even a demotion to the minors were in the air.
Despite the trade talk, Sweeney began the season as a backup catcher and occasional designated hitter in Kansas City. The opportunity that lifted him to stardom was just weeks away.
After battling back problems for several years, first baseman Jeff King retired on May 24. Desperate for a replacement, manager Tony Muser gave Sweeney a shot at the job even though he had no experience at the position.
While his transition to the defensive side of the job was a struggle, Sweeney blossomed at the plate. He hit .322 with 44 doubles, 22 home runs and 102 RBI.
The breakthrough season included a 13-game streak of at least one RBI per contest (June 23 to July 4), which tied an American League record held since 1941 by Taft Wright.
A .258 career hitter entering the 1999 season, Sweeney boosted that mark by nearly 30 points to .287.
Few players have raised their lifetime averages so much in one season, and getting away from behind the plate may have helped Sweeney's offensive production.
"Catching can be a tough job," he said. "It does take a toll on your body, and it takes a lot of concentration and thinking."
Although he admits to some rough moments while learning how play first base, Sweeney's glovework has become noticeably smoother since he began his on-the-job training.
"I was atrocious last year, and I'd say I'm an average major league first baseman now," he remarked.
Some of the improvement can be attributed to Sweeney's diligence, as he fielded hundreds of ground balls daily during the offseason.
While such work might sound less than exciting, it was a special experience fox Sweeney, as he toiled with the help of his father. Mike Sweeney Sr. spent two seasons as an outfielder in the Angels minor league organization.
"To be able to take 200 or 300 grounders a day from my dad and work so closely with him was really neat," Sweeney said. "My dad has had a huge influence on my career. He put a baseball in my hand and started playing with me when I was two years old."
The extra defensive sessions continued during spring training.
"Rich Dauer (Royals coach) has worked a lot with me," Sweeney said. "I've gotten some advice from Tony Muser (a slick-fielding baseman during his days with the White Sox and Orioles), but he's usually busy running the team, so Rich is the one who works the most with me."
Would 1999 prove to be a fluke year for Sweeney?
Perhaps A.L. pitchers hadn't treated him with enough respect, and he would crash back down to reality in 2000.
The right-handed hitter was around .350 at the All-Star break, and he was rewarded with a spot on the American League roster. Sweeney finished the season with a .333 average to tie with Jason Giambi for sixth in the A.L. Sweeney also had 206 hits to finish third behind Darin Erstad and teammate Johnny Damon.
More important, Sweeney was an extremely productive hitter. His 144 RBI were second only to Edgar Martinez's 145-RBI campaign.
Players who come close to the 150-RBI level usually have more than 40 home runs. Sweeney piled up his ribbies while hitting 29 homers.
"I'm not a home run hitter," Sweeney insisted. "My goal is to hit the ball hard for doubles. Homers are just icing on the cake."
That's an unusual attitude for a heart of the order hitter in today's power-heavy game, but Sweeney's hitting philosophy dates back to his high school days.
"At the end of the season, my high school coach would give out three boxes of Special K cereal to the players who had the most strikeouts," Sweeney recalls.
"The guy with the most strikeouts would get the biggest box, then the next guy would get a smaller box. The guy with the third highest number of strikeouts got the smallest box. I didn't want to get the Special K, so I focused on making contact."
In an era where anyone with less than 100 strikeouts might be labeled as a contact hitter, Sweeney is that rare power threat who consistently gets his bat on the ball.
He struck out just 48 times in 575 official at-bats in 1999. With nearly 700 plate appearances in 2000, Sweeney whiffed just 67 times and had more walks (73) than strikeouts for the second consecutive season.
By focusing on hits rather than swinging from the heels, Sweeney raised his career average to .302 by the end of the 2000 season. The 15-point gain means that Sweeney has added 44 points to his career totals in just two seasons.
When his RBI totals were mentioned, Sweeney noted that he has plenty of opportunities to fatten his statistics thanks to the Royals potent starting lineup.
Damon has become one of the game's top leadoff hitters, while slugger Jermaine Dye and third baseman Joe Randa both hit over .300 and had 100-RBI years. Despite his offensive prowess, it's hard to pitch around Sweeney when the other starters can be equally dangerous.
"Now that I'm playing first, I get to talk to a lot of opposing players," he said. "They all say the same thing. Players from other teams say, `You guys have a great everyday lineup. You'd be contenders if you got some pitching.'"
It's no secret that Kansas City's pitching (especially the bullpen) has been a glaring weakness, but Sweeney refused to badmouth his teammates.
"I will never criticize our pitchers," he declared. "They try their best and give a great effort. We have a lot of guys who have the arms to be successful at the major league level, but they haven't put it together yet."
That kind of encouragement is pure Sweeney. One Kansas City beat writer referred to him as "the nicest guy in professional sports" and compared the Royals first baseman to a hero from an old black-and-white movie.
Sweeney is known for courteously signing autographs, maintaining a heavy load of personal appearances for the Royals and being a genuinely decent person.
The turmoil that surrounded his career prior to the 1999 season caused Sweeney to have a spiritual reawakening. Ask Sweeney about his upbeat personality, and he will point to his renewed faith as the reason.
"Obviously, baseball is very important to me, but my relationship with God is first," he said. Sweeney isn't pushy about his beliefs, but the media has made that part of his personality a bigger story than his on-the-field exploits.
In some instances, reporters asked Sweeney about which Bible verses he had read the day before. Although he has handled the attention tactfully, Sweeney clearly thinks his beliefs are a normal part of life rather than being something freakish.
Being part of a solid everyday lineup may have something to do with it, but the California native says he is happy to be in Kansas City.
"This is a really nice town," Sweeney said. "Kansas City is a place that most people don't know about, and it's kind of like a hidden little gem. I think Kauffman Stadium is one of the best stadiums for playing baseball."
From part-time catcher to star almost sounds like a sappy story from an old movie. In Mike Sweeney's case, it really happened.
SOME OTHER CATCHERS WHO CHANGED POSITIONS
SINCE FINDING A CATCHER OF EVEN AVERAGE SKILL CAN BE DIFFICULT, VERY FEW RECEIVERS HAVE BEEN moved to other positions. These All-Star caliber players prospered when they were shifted to a less demanding defensive role.
JIMMIE FOXX: One of the greatest sluggers of all time, Foxx caught in the minors and during the first months of his big league career. Moving to first base saved the Hall of Famer from countless foul tips off the hands and body.
The right-handed hitter was the second player after Babe Ruth to reach the 500-home run mark. Foxx ended his career with 534 HRs.
His other statistics were equally impressive. Foxx finished with 2,646 hits, a .325 lifetime batting average and 1,922 RBI. He had 13 consecutive 100-RBI seasons (1929-41) along with 12 consecutive seasons of 30 to 58 HRs (1930-41),
The Red Sox were desperate for a catcher in 1940, so Foxx assumed the job for 42 games. He later said the physical strain of his stint behind the plate was a factor in his rapid decline after that season.
GIL HODGES: After spending most of 1947 and 1948 as a backup catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Hodges was moved to first base. It turned out to be one of the wisest decisions in the team's history.
In addition to having seven consecutive 100-RBI seasons (1949-55), Hodges quickly developed into one of the top defensive players at his position. He won the first three Gold Gloves (1957-59) awarded to N.L. first basemen.
The manager of the 1969 world champion "Miracle Mets", Hodges died of a heart attack at age 47 just before the start of the 1972 season.
DALE MURPHY: He had the arm strength to be a catcher, but throwing accuracy and the other aspects of being behind the plate were a problem.
After spending 1978 and 1979 at first base, Murphy became a two-time N.L. Most Valuable Player (1982-83)and five-time Gold Glover in center field. His career statistics include 398 HRs, 1,266 RBI, 2,111 hits and 161 stolen bases. Murphy appeared in seven All-Star games.
CRAIG BIGGIO: No other catcher has even made such a radical position change. During his first four seasons with the Astros (1988-91), Biggio was a starting catcher who also saw action in the outfield.
In an effort to preserve his above-average speed, the Astros moved Biggio to second base. He went from being an ordinary defensive catcher to a four-time Gold Glover as a middle infielder.
Biggio's 2000 season was shortened by injuries, but he should get his 2,000th hit next year. The seven-time All-Star stole 50 bases in 1998 and has 358 career SBs.
RELATED ARTICLE: BASEBALL CROSSWORD PUZZLE
By LARRY HUMBER
1 He made a strong comeback in 2000 and is nicknamed the "Big Cat"
6 Nickname of manager Baker of division champion Giants in 2000
9 in meetings before the opening of a series of games, pitchers will often -- (study) an opponent's batting order in preparation for their starting assignments
10 Send the ball plateward
11 Home plate is sometimes called the --
12 A recent Baseball Digest cover subject, he excelled for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000
14 Didn't swing, -- -- a pitch (2 wds.)
15 Full first name of Oakland A's skipper Howe
18 Yankee legend Mantle
20 The three, four and five batters are known as "-- -- of the order" (2 wds.)
23 To gradually overcome a disadvantage in runs is to -- -- -- the lead (3 wds.)
24 All foul lines are in -- territory
26 Alternate players as starters
27 In his heyday as a player, Ken (Hawk) Harreslon was known for his sartorial splendor, and was known as an -- dresser
28 Baseball bird dog
29 A -- d hitter does nothing but bat
1 Home run with a teammate on every sack
2 A walk to a leadoff batter often -- -- (results in) a run (2 wds.)
3 St. Petersburg, Florida is home of the Devil --
4 The -- League known as the "junior circuit"
5 First name of 1 Across
6 He was named National League Most Valuable Player in 1982 and in 1983
7 -- -inning stretch
8 Camden -- is in Baltimore
13 He was Pirate skipper in 2000
16 End the opponent's turn at bat, -- -- side
17 Pitchers who doctor the ball
19 The National League team in this city hasn't won a pennant in 55 years
21 Native state of 500-home run sluggers Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey
22 Struck out
23 Gets by
25 Moe --, an old-time catcher who spoke many languages
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