Kansas City designated hitter Mike Sweeney strode to the plate with two men on base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth on Father’s Day in 2003. Reliever Tim Worrell stood on the mound for San Francisco, on its way to a 100-win season and its third playoff appearance in four years. By contrast, Kansas City was in the midst of a surprising revival, sitting at 32-32 when the day began but without a winning season since 1994.
Angel Berroa, who had reached on a bloop double, stood at third and Aaron Guiel, after drawing a walk, edged off first. Sweeney swung at the first pitch and missed. Then he took strike two. Then, with Guiel in motion, Sweeney hammered Worrell’s 0-and-2 fastball into the right-center alley. Berroa jogged home with Guiel not far behind him, and the crowd of nearly 30,000 rejoiced in a dramatic win. As it turned out, the Royals won their next three games, and nine of the next 11, and, including the game on the other side of the All-Star break, rolled to a 19-9 record that boosted the team into playoff contention into September.
Sweeney said after that game that he knew “the team was relying on me to get the job done,”1 and that stood as a microcosm of his Kansas City career to that point. In the middle of the surprising 2003 surge, Sweeney stood as the team’s most recognizable star after the trades of Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, and then Carlos Beltran on June 24, 2004. Sweeney had signed a $55 million contract extension in May 2002, and was viewed as the player willing to stay in Kansas City and restore the organization’s once-proud history.
In the days after reveling in the excitement of that series win over San Francisco, the Royals scored 31 runs in winning the first three games of four against division rival Minnesota. Sweeney finished the first two games 4-for-8 with two walks and four runs, but he left the third game of the series in the early innings with an injury. That would be his last game action for nearly two months, and it would be a problem that came to define his final seasons with the Royals. He finished 2003 with 108 games played, and played in at least that many only once more in his career (122 in 2005).
Upon his induction into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2015, Sweeney was a five-time American League All-Star who held the team’s single-season RBI record (144, in 2000). To that point he was in the conversation as the organization’s second-best hitter of all time, after George Brett. His .340 in 2002 narrowly missed the American League lead and remains as of 2019 the second-highest average in Royals history; and his .299 batting average and 197 home runs were also second on KC’s all-time list.
Michael John Sweeney was born on July 22, 1973, in Orange, California. Of his father, Michael Peter Sweeney (“Big Mike”), Royals historian Curt Nelson said, “‘Little Mike’ is always quick to say his father ‘Big Mike’ has always been his hero — and still is to this day.”2 Big Mike played in the California Angels organization in 1971 but abandoned major-league dreams after he and his wife, Maureen, welcomed what would be the first of their eight children into the world. Big Mike took a job as a beer truck driver in Southern California. He was also later a very successful high-school baseball coach.3
“Little Mike” graduated from Ontario (California) High School.
Sweeney’s rise to stardom with the Kansas City Royals was simultaneously probable and unlikely. As a 10th-round draft choice in 1991, the odds were stacked against him. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound right-hander was drafted as a catcher, a position known historically for a high attrition rate due to its physical and mental demands. He hit just .216 in the Gulf Coast League in 1991, and the next season hit .221 for Eugene in the short-season Northwest League.
Still, Sweeney’s minor-league career indicated the possibility of greatness. Although his batting average didn’t rise above .250 until his third season, his power and patience both increased in a repeat stop in Eugene in 1993, then broke out in 1994 at Rockford (Midwest League), when he batted .301 with a .504 slugging percentage. Prospect analyst John Sickels wrote that Sweeney’s “power was clearly developing, and for the second year in a row he made major strides with his strike zone judgment, increasing his walk rate while reducing his strikeouts.”4
Sweeney’s development as a prospect mirrored the progress in the Royals organization, which had been absent from postseason play since the 1985 World Series championship team. Sweeney was part of the restocking of the Royals system. At Wilmington in the Class-A Carolina League in 1995, he was one of seven future major leaguers on the squad. Sweeney continued to impress in Wilmington’s difficult offensive environment that year, logging a .972 OPS in 99 games. Sickels rated him as “a solid A- prospect” after the season, although he remained absent from Baseball America’s top 100 prospect rankings.
The 1996 campaign began a two-season roller-coaster ride for Sweeney. He continued to bash minor-league pitching (slugging over .500 in 550 plate appearances in 1996 and 1997 in Double A and Triple A without gaining real traction in the majors. Sweeney played the entire 1998 season in the majors, seeing action in 92 games with a .259 batting average and all but one of those games at catcher. His breakout season came in 1999, when he batted .322 with a .907 OPS, in spite of minor-league coach Tom Burgmeier telling Sweeney in spring training that his chances of sticking with the team were “zero percent.” It took a lucky break to vault him into an everyday role.
In late May, regular first baseman Jeff King suddenly retired from baseball. He was hitting .236 on May 21, his last day in the majors. The next day the Royals’ lineup featured Carlos Beltran, Joe Randa, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, and Sweeney, but the team lost its second straight game, and after salvaging the finale of the three-game set with Seattle lost 12 of its next 13 games to fall to 23-32. Sweeney got regular at-bats, with Jeremy Giambi and Larry Sutton also rotating through designated hitter and first base.
June 10 dawned with the Royals 25-32 and enjoying an offday before an evening flight to Pittsburgh. Sweeney, Giambi, and Jed Hansen headed to Kevin Appier’s farm outside of Paola, Kansas, for fishing and recreation. Near the day’s end, Giambi jumped on a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle, similar to those he’d raced years before, and after a spin around the property hit an embankment and ended up with a gash in his head. With staples in his head and stitches in his eye, he told manager Tony Muser a story about a toolbox falling on his head in Sweeney’s garage, rendering him unable to play and vaulting Sweeney into a full-time role.5 Hitting .309 as the team’s primary designated hitter when he unwittingly became Kansas City’s permanent first baseman, Sweeney got hits in six of his next 11 at-bats and finished the season hitting .322 with a .907 OPS.
The 1999 campaign was Sweeney’s first unencumbered by catcher’s gear. Baseball analyst Rob Neyer wrote that “Mike Sweeney could catch, and Mike Sweeney could hit. He just couldn’t seem to do both at the same time,” and added that while playing catcher, Sweeney “hit like a catcher.”6 In his 25-year-old season of 1999 (he turned 26 on July 22), Sweeney began a four-year run of batting over .300. He hit .322 with a .907 OPS and anchored a lineup that featured rising stars Damon, Beltran, Dye, and solid contributors including Randa and Rey Sanchez. Kansas City finished third in the American League with 1,584 hits that season, and the team’s 856 runs scored was seventh. But while the team’s lineup was following an upward trajectory, its pitching staff scrambled. The Royals’ 5.72 runs allowed per game were worst in the league, and the team ranked in the bottom five in all meaningful pitching statistics.
That 1999 season foreshadowed Kansas City’s next half-decade. The promising young core flowered, but by 2002 the important members were traded away. The team finished fifth in the American League in runs per game in 2000, and slipped to 10th in 2001 and 11th in 2002 before rebounding to fourth in 2003. With Sweeney serving as the only truly consistently productive hitter (David DeJesus was establishing himself as a fine, if underrated, player during these years), Kansas City finished 12th of 15 in the AL in average runs in 2004 and 2005. During that stretch, Royals pitching finished 11th in runs allowed per game in 2001, below that in every other season.
The team’s record followed that trend, as well. After winning 64 games in 1999 Kansas City improved to 77 wins the next year. That 2000 campaign and the 83-win effort in 2003, when the Royals were in playoff contention into September, proved to be mirages. Between the resolution of the 1994 strike and the team’s 86 wins in 2013, the 2000 and 2003 seasons were the organization’s two best in terms of wins.
Through the Royals’ lean years, Sweeney was one of the bright spots. Through his peak years, 1999 to 2005, he was either first or second on the team in adjusted OPS each season. He accumulated 21.8 WAR during that time, and finished in the top 10 in the AL batting race in 2000 (.333, seventh) and 2002 (.340, second). He was fifth in the league in OPS in 2002, and was in the top 10 in slugging twice.
Sweeney’s primary shortcoming as a player was durability. His first stint on the disabled list came in July 2002, when he missed 30 games with a hip strain. He missed at least that many games in each of the next three seasons, and after 2005 never again played in more than 74 games or logged 289 plate appearances in a season.
After partial seasons in 2006 and 2007 (541 plate appearances combined), Sweeney signed a deal in 2008 to join the Oakland Athletics. He had just 136 plate appearances (hitting .286 with a .728 OPS), then played for Seattle in 2009 and the Phillies in 2010 before finishing the 2010 season with the Mariners. He retired at the end of that campaign.
Sweeney’s career ended with him in the top 10 in every Royals offensive category (including second in slugging and OPS and third in batting average), and was capped with induction into the team’s hall of fame. But at the very beginning, his aspirations were modest. “My dream growing up was to some day be like my dad,” Sweeney told the Kansas City Star before his hall of fame induction. Mike Sweeney Sr. was nearly lost to esophageal cancer in the months leading to the induction, but vowed to his son that he would be at Kauffman Stadium on August 15, 2015, for the ceremony.7
He was. Mike said during his induction speech that his goal in baseball when the Royals drafted him in 1991 was to accomplish what his father had. “I thought: I’m going to give it everything I can, maybe play a couple years of minor-league ball. Just to say I could be like my dad.”8 Throughout his baseball journey Sweeney was known as a person “who treated the parking lot attendant the same way he treated (Royals owner David) Glass,” Kansas City broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre said.9 Stories surfaced during and after his time with the Royals of Sweeney’s regular and sincere interactions with fans. That began early. During his time with Class-A Wilmington Sweeney’s conversation at a motel swimming pool with a family from Kansas City was interrupted by a phone call. “I’d like to talk to you guys a little longer, but … my agent’s calling; I’m going to the big leagues.” When approached by that same family at Kauffman Stadium years later, Sweeney remembered them by name.10
Sweeney’s Kansas City career was punctuated by memorable moments. The most unlikely came on August 10, 2001, when Sweeney charged Detroit pitcher Jeff Weaver after the hurler had lobbed obscenities toward Sweeney in the batter’s box. Sweeney was ejected for the only time in his career, but not before returning to the batter’s box and receiving an attempted punch from Tigers catcher Robert Fick.11 On August 14, 2002, in the sixth inning, Sweeney drilled a double to right-center field to drive in Carlos Beltran and tied the game at 1-1. Moments later he took his lead off third base, and knowing that the batter, Guiel, had struck out against Andy Pettitte in his previous at-bat, Sweeney broke for the plate and narrowly beat Jorge Posada’s tag to complete the steal of home. The Royals ended up losing the game in 14 innings.12
The bedrock of Sweeney’s life has remained his faith as a Catholic. He was raised by “praying parents and grandparents” who promoted faith-related causes while calling love “the foundation necessary to make an impact on someone’s life.”13 That impact showed up in small ways as well as large. While in Florida during his first season in professional baseball, Sweeney learned Spanish from a Mexican roommate, and made an acquaintance with a Catholic priest originally from Cuba, Rev. Domingo Gonzalez, who helped teach him the language through Spanish Catholic Masses and whom Sweeney continues to call his “spiritual father.”14 He has remained active in the Kansas City community in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City and many other charity and nonprofit organizations.15
The ability to speak Spanish aided Sweeney throughout his Royals playing career, as well as in his role as an assistant in baseball operations with Kansas City. He rejoined the organization in February 2014, calling himself a “deckhand” in contrast to the captain’s “C” he wore during his later years there as a player. The player who purchased a full-page ad in the Kansas City Star after the 2007 season thanking fans for their support as his five-year contract ended,16 and who has called the Royals’ back-to-back pennant and 2015 World Series victories his favorite moments in baseball,17 continued to make positive contributions. He won the 2007 Hutch Award, presented to the player annually who most reflects the “fighting spirit of the legendary leader Fred Hutchinson,” a major-league player and manager who died of cancer shortly after the 1964 season.18 During the 2018 season rookie Ryan O’Hearn attributed positive affirmations from Sweeney as a factor in his breakout campaign.19
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied upon Baseball-Reference.com for statistical information.
1 “Bonds Hits HR No. 632 Against Recalled Lima,” ESPN.com, June 15, 2003.
2 Email from Curt Nelson on January 22, 2019.
4 John Sickels, “Career Profile: Mike Sweeney,” Minorleagueball.com, March 27, 2011.
5 Rustin Dodd, “Mike Sweeney Sheds Some Tears and Tells Story of His Big Break as He’s Inducted into Royals’ Hall of Fame,” Kansas City Star, August 15, 2015.
6 Rob Neyer, “Remembering Mike Sweeney,” SBNation.com, March 25, 2011. sbnation.com/mlb/2011/3/25/2072242/remembering-mike-sweeney.
7 Rustin Dodd, “Mike Sweeney’s Royals Career: Losses, Yes, but Also Lots of Love,” Kansas City Star, August 14, 2015.
8 Dodd, “Mike Sweeney Sheds Some Tears and Tells His Story of His Big Break as He’s Inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame.”
9 Dodd, “Mike Sweeney’s Royals Career: Losses, Yes, but Also Lots of Love.”
10 Rustin Dodd, “Even as a Minor Leaguer, Mike Sweeney Was a Standup Guy,” Kansas City Star, August 16, 2015.
11 Matt Galloway, “Mike Sweeney, Whose 2001 Brawl Lives in Perpetuity, Relates to Fighting Royals,” Topeka Capital-Journal On-line, April 25, 2015.
12 Dodd, “Mike Sweeney’s Royals Career: Losses, Yes, but Also Lots of Love.”
13 Trent Beatie, “Mass-Going Mariner Suits Up,” National Catholic Register, March 22, 2010.
14 Elizabeth Merrill, “Speaking Spanish Helps K.C.’s Sweeney Relate to Teammates,” ESPN.com, September 20, 2007. espn.com/espn/hispanicheritage2007/news/story?id=3025837.
15 Mike Sweeney player biography, royals.com. web.archive.org/web/20070507105448/http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/team/player_career.jsp?player_id=123041.
16 “Sweeney Purchases Full-Page Ad to Thank Fans, Organization,” ESPN.com, September 30, 2007.
17 Louis Brewster, “World Series Title Wraps a Very Eventful Year for Ontario’s Mike Sweeney,” Daily Bulletin (Ontario, California), November 2, 2015.
19 Pete Grathoff, “How Mike Sweeney’s Quiet Support has Been a Boon to Royals’ Rookie Ryan O’Hearn,” Kansas City Star, August 27, 2018.