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Honoring Mike Sweeney

It's weird to think about Mike Sweeney retiring, because in some ways, it feels like he's been gone for awhile. I greatly enjoyed his A's-Mariners-Phillies sojourn, yet it never really felt like it was anything more than a tacked on extra, a set of deleted scenes. Here's what I wrote a few years back when he left the Royals... - Will



With the news that Mike Sweeney has signed a minor league contract with the Oakland A's, we can finally come to terms with the fact that the first-baseman's time in Kansas City is, anti-climatically, over, considering Sweeney hasn't made more than 300 plate appearances in a season since 2005. Its hard to pinpoint just where things turned sour between Sweeney and the hearty band of lunatics known as Royals fans, but it's unmistakable that for many years the dynamic of the relationship has been askew. Importantly, this has been a one-sided phenomenon, as I can't recall any instance of Sweeney lashing out or whining or even acting defensive. As early as 2003 I can recall fans bitching about Sweeney's injuries, which is fairly remarkable given the fact that his string of problems really only began in earnest in 2002, when he missed 36 games. As the years rolled on and the games missed totals grew (54 in '03, 56 in '04, 40 in '05, 102 in '06, 88 in '07) the "Sweeney used steroids" cry grew louder and louder in the internet back-alley known as the Royals blogosphere, a suspicion that never seemed either interesting or likely to other fans. As we have seen, health and good performances can get you labeled as a user, but apparently, so can injuries and decline. Despite the fact that Sweeney's career was playing out just like those of the hundreds of slow, un-athletic, 1B/DH types that came before him, and before the so-called "Steroid Era" (who should we give the trademark rights to this gem? I'm gonna throw a dart at a printout of the ESPN staff, with Neyer's name crossed-off and see where it lands) there was a vocal segment of the population that was convinced Sweeney was our own local branch manager for BALCO.

Tellingly, this summer, when's SportsNation ran their Face of the Franchise feature, Sweeney won the plurality of votes in all but two states: Nebraska and Kansas. Which is to say, everyone but people in the heart of Royals country - if only we could get a county by county breakdown of Missouri, yes Sweeney "won" the Show Me State, but with a much smaller percentage than in more distant states - that is to say, actual Royals fans, considered Sweeney the "Face of the Franchise"; nationwide, out of the 27,003 votes cast in the feature, Sweeney pulled in an astounding 58% percent of the votes in a four-man field. I'll hazard to guess that no other team had this strange dynamic at work.

Even odder, it is possible that if it hadn't been for yours truly, Sweeney wouldn't have even been an option. Numerous teams had multiple panelists nominate the same player, and to my knowledge there was no inside info given as to if a player had been "taken". (I certainly received no such information, in fact, I was told not to worry about it, should this be the case.) So, as it turned out, Neyer nominated (this is much too formal a word, but you get the idea) Dayton Moore, Posnanski went with Billy Butler, and, umm, Eric Young, went with Alex Gordon. Until the last minute, I was actually leaning towards pegging Angel Berroa as the "Face of the Franchise", but ultimately lost my nerve because the Royals had actually, finally, given up on him. Against my natural inclination towards being sarcastic and pessimistic, I decided to be sentimental, and sent in a little blurb about Sweeney. Here's the full version of what I sent the editor, in all its sticky-sweetness:

When Mike Sweeney was drafted by Kansas City in 1991 the Royals still wore powder blue uniforms, George Brett was the defending AL Batting Champion and hotshot 2007 rookie Alex Gordon was seven years old. Sixteen years later, the Royals have hit rock bottom more than once, setting team records for losses in 2002, 2004 and 2005. Since Sweeney's debut in 1995 the Royals have cycled through numerous management and ownership teams, tweaked the uniforms annually and twice fiddled with the outfield fences at Kauffman Stadium; only the fountains and Mike Sweeney have been constants. While Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran moved on to greener pastures, Sweeney remained, playing in over 1200 games as a Royal and cementing himself as the star who stayed. A five-time All-Star, Sweeney has the second most home runs in Royal history and is in the top ten in games played, runs scored, hits, doubles and runs batted in. At the same time, Sweeney has emerged as perhaps the leading sports figure in Kansas City in terms of community and charity engagement. Even during the all-too-frequent Royal losing streaks, you can find Sweeney signing autographs before the game, night after night, year after year. Still, there is a sadness here as well, as a balky back betrayed Sweeney, limiting his career peak and robbing him of his power when the Royals needed it most, during their improbable run at the playoffs in 2003. No longer an elite player, Sweeney continues to grind away in loss-filed obscurity. A sweet man symbolizing a bitter era, Sweeney has played for exactly one winning team in his thirteen seasons with the club, although Royals fans still hope this story might have a happy ending.

Well, basically, it didn't have a happy ending. Sweeney spent all of July and August (save a day) on the DL, and played his last game (likely) as a Royal in the season finale against the Tribe, going 0-3 and popping out to the catcher in his final at bat. In the bottom of the 7th, Bell gave him a nice ovation, pulling him from first base with one out in the inning. In his final post-DL stint with the Royals, Sweeney hit .311/.344/.393 and .260/.315/.404 on the season. Unfortunately, his low batting average dropped his career line below .300, to a torturous .299. We all know how limited batting average is as a stat, nevertheless, if I was in his shoes, I sure as hell wouldn't want to retire as a .29 hitter. Sweeney's final home run with the squad was a two-run shot off Freddy Garcia in a June 8th game at the K.

Now that we know he's gone, lets take a moment to remember the good times.

While Sweeney actually debuted with the Royals as a September call-up in 1995(!), he didn't truly become a regular player until 1999, playing in only a total of 226 games from '96-'98. These were the years when Sweeney was a catcher, and it's not commonly remarked how much backstop he actually played in the Major Leagues, as people tend to act as if he only caught in the low-minors, while actually he caught 201 games as a Royal. Then again, Sweeney's breakout came in 1999, when the Royals moved him to first base - although fantasy players will note that he still had a sweet "C" designation in most leagues that year, making him one of the more valuable roto players in the AL - when Mike hit .322/.387/.520. Sweeney was an absolute beast that season, posting monthly OPS splits of: .906, .920, .868, 1.116, .714 and .922. In '99 and '00 the Royals actually had very good lineups, scoring 921 and 930 runs respectively, totals which we can only dream of today, and Sweeney was a major part of that surge. Now an established Major League player - but unfortunately not a catcher in fantasy baseball anymore - in 2000 Sweeney continued his success, improving on his breakout season by .333 /.407/.523 while blasting a career-high 29 home runs. Sweeney was named to his first All-Star team that season, and finished 11th in the AL MVP voting, just behind the ever clutch Derek Jeter.

In 2001, Sweeney just continued mashing, hitting .304/.374/.542 and firmly cementing himself as one of the elite hitters in the game. For the second straight year he hit 29 homers, and, if you care about these things, he knocked in 144 RBIs, a single-season franchise record. Actually, it could have been an even better season had not Sweeney slumped over the second-half. Sweeney was again named to the All-Star team, and at the break he had already belted 21 homers and was hitting an insane .333/.391/1.011. He was even eight for nine in stolen base attempts! At the end of the season, Sweeney again garnered some down-ballot support in the MVP voting, finishing tied for 21st with Garrett Anderson and Toriiiiiii Hunter. Of course, Kaz Sasaki finished 19th and Dougie Mientkiewicz finished 14th, so... yea. Meanwhile, after peaking at 77 wins in 2000, the Royals were in a severe downturn, winning only 65 games in 2001.

Sweeney's 2002 season was the hinge moment in his career; he once again raked, but missed significant time due to injury for the first time in his career. Sweeney was an everyday player through July 3rd that season (game 81) but began missing games on that date, ultimately missing a full month from July 13th through August 13th. Sweeney's season line on July 3rd? Another Pujolsian line of .362/.435/.611. Sweeney was not quite 29 years old, and had been a dominant hitter for four years. From this point on, it was all downhill.

Sweeney's line over the rest of 2002 was solid, but not quite as otherwordly as it had been before he went down with injury, hitting .303/.386/.483 over his final 207 plate appearances. For the season, Sweeney ended up with a still absurd .340/.417/.563 line, finishing second in the AL in BA, fourth in OBP and fifth in OPS. For the third straight season Sweeney would claim MVP votes (he finished 20th in '02) while also watching a second-half decline keep Steve Balboni's franchise record for home runs safe. When the season ended Sweeney had played in 812 career games, had 899 career hits, 123 career HRs and was a lifetime .309/.382/.501 hitter in the big leagues.

And yet, 2003, began like the last four seasons, with Sweeney hitting .311/.431/.518 on June 1st, a line which actually represented something of a disappointment, considering most fans didn't notice the gaudy OBP Sweeney was racking up. Poignantly, in the last fully healthy stretch of his career, Sweeney went on one final tear, hitting .364/.470/.600 in June, driving in 20 runs in 15 games played that month. Why only 15 games in June? Because after a June 18th game against the Twins, Sweeney went back to the bench, not returning to the lineup until August 8th, a full 46 games later. When Sweeney left, the Royals were 36-32, standing in second place (they'd already blown their initial huge lead), when he returned they were 60-53, barely holding on to huge lead #2 by a half game. Surely Sweeney had returned just in time to revive the Royals' miraculous playoff hopes.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen on either count. The Royals went 23-26 the rest of the way, falling all the way to third place, seven games behind the Twins. Sweeney, didn't help matters, hitting .260/.325/.379 upon his return. This isn't to say he cost the Royals the pennant, only that his individual misfortune coincided with the team's. Remember, they'd already blown the infamous 7.5 game nest egg by the time he returned. Sweeney was named to the All-Star team again in 2003, but once the season ended, his composite line was noticeably down, falling to .293/.391/.467.

The next two seasons ('04 and '05) showed that Sweeney could still hit, but that he couldn't stay healthy. Sweeney would start hot in 2004 (.917 OPS in April) but struggled badly in May and June, before rebounding with a vintage Sweeney stretch, hitting .331/.389/.603 from July 1st on. Sadly, that only meant until August 21, as Sweeney only lasted until the team's 120th game. His season line was again solid, .287/.347/.504. In 2005, Sweeney would stay much the same, hitting .300/.347/.517, earning his fifth All-Star selection, while missing large chunks of playing time during the middle of the season. If 2003 was the hinge, 2005 was the end of the door. After 2005, that door effectively closed.

Sweeney barely played from August 2005 to August 2006, as he grabbed only 83 PAs in '06 before heading to the DL again on May 1st, the owner of a .176/.313/.309 line. Nobody really noticed, but when he came back on August 8th, he actually was a productive hitter, going .295/.367/.497 in his final 40 games that season. However, that last bit of bat speed seemed gone by 2007, as Sweeney had transformed into a completely different hitter. The man who had been seemingly the only patient Royal for a decade was now seeing as little pitches per PA as any hitter on the team, often trying to cheat on fastballs early in the count to be productive. Sweeney played in 57 of the team's first 70 games in '07, hitting a bleak .245/.307/.407 in the process, before succumbing to injury again. On June the 16th, Sweeney went 1-5 against the Marlins, and fell to .299 on his career for the first time since he'd initially topped .300, and two days later he'd be replaced in the lineup. He returned on August the 31st, and played regularly in September, providing veteran leadership on how to steal time from Justin Huber. With any hope, Ross Gload learned well. Sweeney hit a somewhat robust .311/.344/.393 in his final post-DL return to the lineup, but evidently it was not enough to impress Dayton Moore. Nor was it enough to get his batting average back to .300.

With all this said, now that we stand at the end of this journey, its important to step back from the year-to-year narrative which so clearly shows a slow but dramatic rise and fall. Simply put, Mike Sweeney is one of the best players in franchise history and a player who approached a Hall of Fame peak from 1999-2003. Even if we adjust for the offensive levels of the era, Sweeney's presence across the team leader-boards is noteworthy. His .340 batting average in 2002 is the second best in team history, topped only by Brett's .390 in 1980 (duh) and his .333 in 2000 is not far off the pace, coming in as the 4th best. Yes, the offensive numbers of the last two decades have been higher. Then again, the K, along with many other locales, has also gone to natural grass, a fact we should keep in mind when comparing pure batting average numbers. Hal McRae and Willie Wilson couldn't hit .330 without a concrete infield. Across the offensive spectrum, in everything except triples and steals, Sweeney recorded seasons in the franchise's top 10, in many cases, more than once.

Despite being a slow player, Sweeney was a doubles machine, hitting 46 in 2001 (2nd most in team history) and 44 in 1999 (7th) and ranks fifth overall in that category, just about where he ranks in every major category. While our collective memory, and indeed the general thrust of this post, suggests that Sweeney has been a shell of himself the last few seasons, we shouldn't go so far as to forget that, even in recent years, Sweeney has been a frequently productive hitter. No longer great, certainly not, but until 2007 he wasn't far removed from the now-beloved levels of Ross Gload.

Mike Sweeney's All-Time Royal Ranks

Games Played- 6th
Hits- 6th
Home Runs- 2nd
Runs- 6th
Doubles- 5th
Total Bases- 6th
Extra Base Hits- 5th
RsBI- 5th
Walks- 5th

Even with the slow start and the slow fade, Sweeney's lifetime OPS is .861, good for second-best in team history. His adjusted OPS is 7th, behind one legitimately superior hitter (Brett) and mostly guys that didn't play near as much with the Royals (Tartabull, Aikens, Porter).

As suggested above, its useful to break Sweeney's career into three sections.

The Three Ages of Mike Sweeney

1995-98: .258/.324/.392 (750 PAs)
1999-03: .324/.396/.535 (2473 PAs)
2004-07: .282/.341/.478 (1474 PAs)

Sweeney's 1999-2003 peak stands as one of the greatest runs in team history, and aside from the incomparable Brett, it is difficult to find a better stretch from a purely offensive standpoint. Over those five seasons, Sweeney hit .324/.396/.535, a full half-decade of significant production. Considering how much Royals fans have invested in either fleeting performances, like Bo Jackson, or one's that weren't actually that good, like Frank White, it would be a shame if Sweeney's decline dimmed our memories of how good he actually was. Even when we factor in his lack of defense and base-running, neither of which was always a total loss, Mike Sweeney is without question one of the top five position players in team history and the closest thing the Royals have had to Brett since 1993. For a player whose career spanned the darkest era in team history, Mike Sweeney is a player who should be remembered.