Opinion

Mike Sweeney makes Royals Hall of Fame, pays tribute to ailing father

Mike Sweeney during a game in 2006.
Mike Sweeney during a game in 2006. The Kansas City Star

Mike Sweeney’s first two calls to share the news of his election to the Royals Hall of Fame went to his wife, Shara, and father, Mike, or “Big Mike,” as Sweeney said he’s known.

The news was received with the type of joy expected on such an occasion. Sweeney, who ranks in the top 10 of nearly every major offensive category for the Royals, is the first player elected to the club’s hall since 2011 and only the second in the last nine years.

But for Big Mike the words came with tears.

“My dad is my hero, and he’s having a tough time right now,” Mike Sweeney said Wednesday. “The last two months have been the hardest of my life.”

Big Mike was diagnosed with esophageal cancer on New Year’s Eve and is receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic just a few miles from the Royals’ spring-training complex.

“He just said, ‘Son, I’m proud of you,’” Sweeney said. “But the truth is, I am so proud of him.”

Sweeney’s voice trembled when he spoke of Big Mike, recalling how the former minor-league player in the Angels organization quit baseball and started driving a beer truck. Can’t raise a family — Mike is the second of eight Sweeney children — on a minor-league salary.

Mike wanted to be his dad, the former ballplayer who played catch with his kids and the one who gave up his baseball dream for family security and never complained.

His father was the first person 17-year-old Mike wanted to tell after he was sitting in fourth-period California history at Ontario High School and received a pink slip informing him to report to the office. There was a call from Royals scout Art Stewart, informing Mike that he had been selected in the 10th round of the 1991 draft.

It was his father who so closely followed the career of the Royals’ most consistently productive player in an otherwise forgettable era.

Sweeney wasn’t sure he’d ever make the majors, and recalled overhearing at one point during his minor-league career that his chances were zero. At the low levels, others were promoted faster.

But Sweeney could hit, and by 1995 he made his major-league debut as a September call-up. He was chosen the organization’s minor-league player of the year in 1996 and soon was with the parent club for good as a catcher.

By 1999, Sweeney was being used as a first baseman and designated hitter and was becoming one of the top right-handed bats in the American League. He drove in 102 runs that season, hitting 44 doubles with a .322 batting average.

The next season Sweeney authored one of the greatest offensive seasons in Royals’ history. He batted .333 and set a club record with 144 RBIs, mostly plating Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye.

The Royals established franchise season-bests in team average (.288), runs and hits, and Sweeney made the first of his five All-Star teams.

Sweeney, now a Royals special assistant for baseball operations, spent 13 of his 16 major-league seasons in Kansas City. He ranks second on the team’s all-time lists for home runs with 197, batting average at .299 and slugging percentage at .492.

His All-Star frequency is surpassed in club history by only Brett. Three times Sweeney was voted the Royals’ Les Milgram player of the year, and he served as the team captain during 2003-07.

He owes it all to his father, who not only taught him the game but respect for it.

“I remember when I was 9 years old, I was upset because I hit a grounder and I knew I was going to be thrown out, so I didn’t run hard,” Sweeney said. “My dad just grabbed me and said, ‘If you’re going to dog it like that, you’re not going to play baseball anymore.’”

Sweeney persevered, and now his wish is for his father to do the same and accompany him in August for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BlairKerkhoff.

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