Opinion

Even as a minor-leaguer, Mike Sweeney was a standup guy

Mike Sweeney waved to the Kauffman Stadium crowd Saturday night as he was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame.
Mike Sweeney waved to the Kauffman Stadium crowd Saturday night as he was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

This is from early Saturday morning, close to eight hours before Mike Sweeney will be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. A man named Dave Janssen is calling. He has a Sweeney story he wants to tell — one of hundreds, maybe thousands. But he wants you to hear it. Thinks it’s a pretty good story. Thinks people might like hearing it.

This all started back in 1995, Dave begins, when his family moved from Independence, Kan., to Kinston, N.C. It was a work move. Dave took a new job. He and his wife had two young sons, and it wasn’t the easiest transition. For the first two months, his company provided accommodations at a Best Western in Kinston. Not bad. But for the first eight weeks, at least, that was home.

Well, the first week there, the family scored complimentary tickets to the Kinston Indians, a Class A affiliate in town. That night, the Indians just happened to be playing the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the Royals’ Class A affiliate. The boys liked that, Dave says. His wife grew up in Missouri, and the family had always followed the Royals from Independence.

When the family caught word that the Blue Rocks were also staying at the Best Western, the boys perked up even more. Patrick was 12. Jonathan was 9. And it was summertime, so there wasn’t much to do around the hotel. So the next morning, the boys went hunting for ballplayers. They ended up at the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, and they ended up at a table with Mike Sweeney.

For the next two months, Dave says, the Blue Rocks kept coming through Kinston for series. They kept staying at the Best Western. And Mike Sweeney kept hanging out with his sons. Each morning, Patrick and Jonathan would find Mike. They would play catch for an hour or so. They’d swim together at the pool with the rest of the team. Sweeney was usually the ring-leader.

“He was such a standup guy,” Dave says. “He was really inspirational to our kids.”

One day, Sweeney met Dave and his wife at the pool. They talked about his big family back home. Sweeney talked about his Christian faith. That was the year, Sweeney recalled on Saturday night, that he first started thinking that he could play in the big leagues. The thought came during spring training. He saw the other catchers. Saw the other players. And he realized: He was just as good as they were.

But that summer, Sweeney was still a 22-year-old minor-leaguer.

Late that summer, Dave says, the Blue Rocks came back to town for one final series. Dave remembers it being for the league championship. But then again, maybe not. Memories fade over time. After the game, the boys waited for Sweeney again. He gave them some baseballs and caught up from the family, but in a moment, Sweeney got pulled away for something. A few minutes later, he came back.

“I’d like to talk to you guys a little longer,” Dave remembers Sweeney saying. “But … my agent’s calling; I’m going to the big leagues.”

This is not actually the end of the story. Not quite. About five years later, Dave says, the family relocated back to Missouri and headed to Kauffman Stadium for a game. Sweeney was an established big-leaguer by then, just beginning a prime that would land him in the Royals Hall of Fame. The game took forever that night, but Patrick and Jonathan wanted to wait around for Sweeney after the game. It was close to midnight when Sweeney finally came toward the parking lots. There were dozens of kids waiting for autographs.

Finally, Sweeney got to the two Janssen boys. He paused for a second, then saw Patrick and Jonathan, wearing Blue Rocks jerseys.

“You’re Patrick?” Sweeney said. “Where’s your little brother?”

More than a decade later, Patrick works for a bank in Jefferson City. Jonathan works for a Christian school in Overland Park. And Dave is still happy his sons spent that summer with Mike Sweeney.

“So anyway, that’s the story,” Dave says. “You know, he even asked about our black Lab.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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