The plan was simple. On an early morning in 1999, Mike Sweeney, Jeremy Giambi and Jed Hansen were going bass fishing. It was a Monday in May, an off day, and the Kansas City Royals were set to board a plane for Pittsburgh that night. So the three young major-leaguers headed to Kevin Appier’s farm outside Paola, Kan.
By the end of the day, Giambi would own staples in his head, stitches near his eye and be left to concoct a ridiculous cover story about a toolbox falling on his head. Sweeney, meanwhile, would be forced into the starting lineup at first base and piece together the first extended hot streak of his sterling career.
Before this weekend, Sweeney says, he had never told this story publicly. But on Saturday evening, as he prepared to become the 26th member inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame, Sweeney divulged the gory beginnings of a career breakthrough.
“The rest is history,” Sweeney says. “I took over that job.”
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The story actually starts months earlier, before the Royals began spring training in 1999. Sweeney, 25, was coming off three straight seasons of limited playing time at catcher. That offseason, he had put a down payment on a home in Overland Park, and prepared to put down roots in the area. But in the weeks before spring training, he heard rumors that his time in Kansas City was coming to a close. His suspicions were confirmed during a preseason talk with minor-league coach Tom Burgmeier.
When Sweeney asked Burgmeier his chances of being with the Royals that season, Burgmeier responded: “Zero percent.”
Sweeney shrugged at his fate, made the big-league club, and when first baseman Jeff King suddenly walked away from baseball in late May, it opened an opportunity at first base. Days later — at least the way Sweeney remembers the timeline — he headed for a day of fishing with Hansen and Giambi, another young first baseman. When the fishing was done, Sweeney says, Giambi stumbled upon a four-wheel ATV vehicle and told Sweeney he’d raced similar four-wheelers as a kid. After two spins around the property, Giambi hit a steep bank, went air born and flipped the vehicle onto its caged top. Next came the blood.
“Next thing we know we’re at the Paola Hospital,” Sweeney says. “Jeremy is getting staples in his skull, stitches in his eye. He’s getting his knees cleaned up. As we’re flying to Pittsburgh that night — we barely made the plane — Jeremy tells (manager) Tony Muser … ‘Well, I was changing my oil at Sweeney’s house, and a toolbox fell off and hit me in the head.’”
With Giambi unable to play first base, Sweeney earned the starting nod. You probably know the rest by now. Sweeney would go on to bat .322 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs in 1999. The next year, he was even better, hitting .333, raking 29 homers and finishing with a team-record 144 RBIs. His place at first base was secure.
Sixteen years after his breakthrough, on a humid Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium, Sweeney emerged from the first-base dugout, stepped onto a blue carpet and walked out onto the field during a pregame ceremony.
“His numbers speak for themselves,” Royals owner David Glass said.
During a tearful speech that stretched for close to 20 minutes, Sweeney acknowledged his wife, Shara, his mother, Maureen, and his father, Mike Sr., who who nearly died in early May after complications from esophageal cancer. Mike Sr., a former Angels farmhand, once gave up his own baseball career to drive a beer truck and support a family of eight active kids. On Saturday, Mike Sr. sat in a white chair on the infield grass, listening to his son talk about his baseball career.
“My dream growing up was to some day be like my dad,” Sweeney said.
Moments later, Sweeney recalled the day in 1991, when he received a telephone call from Royals scout Art Stewart, who told Sweeney he had been selected in the 10th round by the Kansas City Royals. Sweeney, who grew up in Ontario, Calif., had one goal in those early days, he said. He just wanted to survive a couple years, so he could tell people he gave minor-league baseball a shot.
“I thought: I’m going to give it everything I can, maybe play a couple years of minor-league ball,” Sweeney said. “Just to say I could be like my dad.”
In Kansas City, Sweeney became much more than that. In club history, only George Brett finished with a higher batting average. Only Brett hit more homers. Only five players played more games in a Royals uniform. On Saturday, a list of Royals dignitaries showed up to pay respects. Brett sat on the infield grass. Stewart, the legendary scout, was there to listen to the young player he once helped draft. Former teammate Joe Randa sat behind Sweeney’s father. Sweeney wore his American League championship ring, a personal memento earned last season as a member of the Royals’ front office.
It was a fitting scene. Kauffman Stadium was filling up. Sweeney was at the microphone. And the Royals were set to roll over the Angels in front of a sold-out park. It was a scene, Sweeney says, that may not have happened if not for some fortuitous timing in 1999.
“Had Jeff King not retired and Jeremy Giambi not raced motorcycles as a kid,” Sweeney said, “maybe Royals fans would have never heard of me.”