SURPRISE, Ariz. — Yordano Ventura swiveled in his seat and stared into the former face of the Royals.
By ANDY McCULLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
“ Buenos dias, Señor,” Mike Sweeney said. “How’s your body feeling?”
“Good,” Ventura said after they clasped hands.
“I’m rooting for you,” Sweeney said as he continued his greeting tour through the clubhouse he once called home. He walked into a hallway where his name is painted five separate times, an affirmation of his All-Star appearances as a Royal. He showed up at 5:30 a.m. for his first official day as a special assistant to baseball operations. He compared it to the first day of school: Unsure of his surroundings, unfamiliar with all the new faces.
When Sweeney last wore this uniform, he was the team’s captain. “Now I’m just a deckhand,” he said.
Sweeney, the 40-year-old former first baseman and catcher, played 13 years for this organization. His name is inked throughout the franchise record book: Second in career homers (197), sixth in hits (1,398), sixth in runs (700) and second in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.861). His second chapter is just beginning.
He plans to spend the week in Surprise. He’ll make two similar trips in March. His itinerary for the regular season has yet to be decided. General manager Dayton Moore described Sweeney’s role as a blend of scouting and advising. He will observe the minor-league clubs, visit Kauffman Stadium and dabble in other areas.
Manager Ned Yost described Sweeney as a positive influence, and valuable to “pitch in where he needs to pitch in.” For 20 minutes on Monday, Sweeney huddled with Billy Butler. Sweeney sees Alex Gordon and James Shields as this team’s leaders. He believes Butler can join their number.
As they sat on chairs by Butler’s locker, Sweeney explained how baseball players fit into two categories. “They’re either a fountain or a drain,” Sweeney said. “They’re either sucking the life out or pouring life in. I was just challenging Billy: ‘You’re one of the best hitters on the planet. Be a fountain.’”
As this season progresses, the organization hopes Sweeney finds a more exact niche for the coming years. For now, he is a resource this team’s youthful core can draw from. Another prominent former Royal, Jason Kendall, is here as an instructor. Asked about Kendall’s formal title, one team official cracked “Sir.”
Sweeney projects a slightly less intimidating presence. His 20-minute conversation with Butler was interrupted by various greetings. Sweeney kidded Mike Moustakas for carrying a skateboard into the clubhouse. He called Luke Hochevar “my brother.” He introduced himself to reporters by saying, “Hi, I’m Mike.”
He last played for the Royals in 2007. Only three teammates from that year are still with the club: Butler, Gordon and Hochevar. Butler was 21 then. Gordon was 22. Hochevar was the eldest of the bunch. He was 23.
Sweeney marveled at how the group had grown. He praised the front office and ownership for assembling this club, which won 86 games in 2013 and intends to top that amount this coming season.
“They’ve assembled a great machine in this locker room,” Sweeney said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting them to be their best.”
During the morning’s workout, as pitchers and catchers headed toward the first official session of live batting practice, Sweeney hung back from the group. Then he jogged across a tan walkway that connects the various diamonds. He slowed as he caught up to Yost and the rest of the group.
“This team has nothing to do with an old, broken-down guy like me,” Sweeney said. “It has everything to do with them. I just want to be of service.”