The Royals will induct the 26th member of their Hall of Fame tonight when they honor five-time All-Star Mike Sweeney. Sweeney spent thirteen of his sixteen Major League seasons in a Royals uniform, representing the club in the All-Star Game from 2000-2003 and in 2005. In 1,298 career games with the Royals, he had 1,398 hits and 197 home runs, the second-most in club history. He is fourth in franchise history in batting average, fifth in RBI, second in slugging percentage, and eighth in WAR among position players.
Mike was originally a tenth round pick in 1991 out of Ontario High School in southern California. He began his professional career as a 17-year old catcher playing Rookie Ball in Florida struggling with a .216 batting average and no power. The Royals were patient with him, and by the time he was 20, he had filled out his frame and was hitting the ball with authority with a line of .301/.427/.504 in the Midwest League in Low A ball. The next year he won the Carolina League batting title, posting a .972 OPS in Wilmington, earning him a cup of coffee with the Royals.
Sweeney hit .279/.358/.412 in 50 games in 1996 as a 22-year old rookie, but was a liability defensively. The Royals had veteran Mike MacFarlane around to teach Sweeney the ropes.
``He'll be a very, very good hitter up her...I haven't seen bat speed like that in a kid for a long, long time...I see him as a doubles, gap-hitter type but he'll probably hit 15 to 20 homers, I'll betcha,"
Sweeney slumped in 1997 and found himself back in the minor leagues. The following year they trusted him enough to take off the training wheels and trade MacFarlane to Oakland, tabbing Sweeney as the starting catcher. Sweeney continued to struggle, hitting just .259/.320/.408 with 8 HR 35 RBI in 92 games.
``(I was) disappointed because my performance was not up to par for myself. I knew I wasn't playing up to my potential. I gave the management an opportunity to remove me from my job. If I had come out and played the type of baseball I'm capable of in the beginning of the year ... I don't think I would have had my job taken away."
In 1999, the Royals admitted Sweeney would not improve defensively and moved him out from behind the plate to play him primarily at first base and designated hitter. His bat finally responded with a huge season. He hit .322/.387/.507 with 22 HR 102 RBI. He even appeared in the bright lights of national television with a cameo on "Saturday Night Live" along with three dozen ballplayers. Sweeney would go against his choir boy image by carrying a keg of beer in the sketch and proclaiming "let's party!"
Sweeney would be one of the most feared hitters in the league over the next few seasons. He would be named an All-Star in four of the next five seasons. He would set a franchise record in 2000 with 144 RBI and finish eleventh in MVP voting. From 1999-2003, Sweeney would have the 24th most Runs Created in baseball. Sweeney was an incredibly clutch player, hitting .287/.409/.523 with runners in scoring position and two outs, the 26th best line in baseball history.
Despite his offensive prowess, Sweeney could be a lightning rod for criticism. He had trouble staying on the field due to injury, he was a defensive liability at first base, and his devotion to Christianity caused some to question whether he could be tough. His own manager, Tony Muser, seemed to call him out after a losing streak in 2001.
"Chewing on cookies and drinking milk and praying is not going to get it done...It's going to take a lot of hard work and it's a mindset. I'd like to them go out and pound tequila (rather) than have cookies and milk because nobody is going to get us out of this but us."
Sweeney helped shed the image of him being "soft" later that season when he charged the mound in an altercation with Tigers pitcher Jeff Weaver. The fracas began after Sweeney asked Weaver to move the rosin bag, prompting Weaver to respond with an expletive. Sweeney did not turn the other cheek.
In the spring of 2002, a year before Sweeney could file for free agency, Sweeney committed to Kansas City, signing a club record five year, $55 million contract. Sweeney had concerns about the direction of the club, so he had a unique clause that allowed him to opt out after 2004 if the team did not have a winning season by then. Sweeney expressed those concerns again the next winter after the club continued to cut payroll.
When I signed my contract less than a year ago, I talked to Mr. Glass on the phone and told him, 'Mr. Glass, all I'm looking for is a bright future here,' and he told me he was going to give us that. His tone was that once we got the new collective-bargaining agreement into place and the Royals would get revenue sharing and all the money coming in, he was going to take that money and put it into our team and, hopefully, have the payroll at a higher rate than it was....
Not putting these other guys down, but we haven't had one person signed yet that's going to make a huge impact on our team.
Sweeney's doubts were quickly washed away when the 2003 Royals got off to an amazing 9-0 start, then found themselves in first place for most of the summer. Sweeney would miss six weeks in the middle of the season with a back injury, about the same time the Royals would see their division lead evaporate. But the team would finish with an 83-79 record, ensuring Sweeney would stay in Kansas City through 2007.
Unfortunately, what seemed like an under-market value at the time would turn out to be an albatross contract on the team payroll. Sweeney would average just 94 games per season from 2003-2007, and he would hit .287/.353/.476 over those years. There were rumors of Sweeney possibly returning to his native southern California in a deal with the Angels for promising young first baseman Casey Kotchman, but a deal was never done. After the 2007 season, the Royals parted ways with the 33 year old slugger.
Mike Sweeney bounced around the next few seasons from Oakland to Seattle to Philadelphia. He finally reached the post-season in 2010, with the final at-bat of his career coming in the National League Division Series with the Phillies, a pinch-hit single. After 16 seasons in the big leagues, Sweeney finally hung up his cleats with a career line of .297/.366/.486, 215 home runs, 909 RBI and 1,540 career hits.
In many ways, Mike Sweeney was everything fans want in a player - a high average, fearsome power hitter who was nails with the game on the line, willing to commit to the team long-term, and an exemplary citizen off the field. But even that couldn't make him immune to criticism. Sweeney's legacy will probably forever be paired with the worst stretch of Royals baseball in franchise history, but he was one of the few shining lights during that period that made watching games bearable. Mike Sweeney is one of the greatest hitters to ever don a Royals uniform and one of the most gracious and charitable residents this city has had the fortune of hosting.