On an August night in 2002, Mike Sweeney stood on third base, his neck craning toward the first-base dugout. He wanted his manager’s attention. He needed his blessing.
It was the bottom of the sixth inning at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals were tied 1-1 with the New York Yankees. It was a Wednesday night in another lost season.
Moments earlier, Sweeney had smoked a double to right-center, scoring Carlos Beltran from second and tying the score. Now there were two outs. Sweeney stood at third. And the left-handed hitting Aaron Guiel was at the plate, facing vaunted Yankees starter Andy Pettitte.
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Guiel was zero for two on the day. He’d struck out once. Sweeney knew this. And as he stood atop third base, trying to make eye contact with Royals manager Tony Peña, the same thought kept running through his head: How am I going to make it home?
As the count went 0-1, Sweeney conferred with third-base coach Rich Dauer, who offered a wry smile.
“Well,” Dauer said. “If you do that, you’ll end up on ‘SportsCenter’ tonight.”
Now the count was 0-2. Sweeney finally locked eyes with Peña. He spun his hands in a circle and pointed toward home plate. Peña mimed the signal back at him, gesturing toward the ground. Petttitte came set. Took a breath. And Sweeney broke toward home, hauling down the third-base line.
“It was like a bolt out of the blue,” says Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre, who called the play on radio that night. “But then again, that was Mike.”
Mike Sweeney is 42 years old now. Middle aged. Can you believe that? He’s happily married. Has five children under the age of 11, which means there’s noise in the background as he rode to Kauffman Stadium on an afternoon earlier this week. It’s been eight years since Sweeney last suited up for the Royals, 13 years since he batted a career-high .340 in 2002, and 15 years since he set the club record with 144 RBIs in 2000. It’s also been 12 years since he signed a five-year, $55 million contract that, in part, defined his career here in Kansas City.
On Saturday evening, he will be officially inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame, a fitting honor for one of the best players in franchise history. Sweeney, who played parts of 13 seasons in Kansas City, ranks second in franchise history in batting average (minimum 2,000 at bats), second in slugging percentage, sixth in games played, fifth in doubles and second in homers. He ranks ninth in wins above replacement, a metric that measures a player’s total value.
Sweeney, though, still says the best moment of his career came last October, when he watched the Royals advance to the World Series for the first time since 1985. Sweeney, who now works as a special assistant in the Royals’ baseball operations department, had spent much of the 2014 season roving around the club’s minor-league affiliates, mentoring young players. When the Royals clinched the pennant on a clear October afternoon, he felt part of it.
“I’d rather be a guy taking tickets at the K when we win a World Series, rather than setting records and hitting .340 and losing 95 games,” Sweeney says. “I want to be a part of a winner in Kansas City, in some capacity.”
It is the results, of course, that cloud Sweeney’s on-field legacy in Kansas City. For most of the early 2000s, Sweeney was one of the best right-handed hitters in the American League. He plugged doubles into the gap. He anchored a talented young lineup. He twice drove in 100 runs and scored 100 runs in the same season. (“He walks up to the plate,” teammate Joe Randa once said, “and you know he’s going to hit the ball hard.”) But the Royals lost, and the stars kept leaving town, first Johnny Damon, then Jermaine Dye and finally Beltran.
Sweeney was the one who stayed, signing the $55 million deal after the 2002 season. He believed in the Royals’ plan, he says. The deal was under market for someone of Sweeney’s track record, and it angered players’ union officials. But it was still the largest in franchise history.
“All those other guys: They said they wanted to stay in Kansas City,” says Lefebvre, who became close with Sweeney. “But when the money was put in front of them, they turned it down and moved on. And Mike was the guy who stayed. He wanted it to happen in Kansas City.”
It never happened, of course, which is one reason Sweeney was taken aback after his family arrived in Kansas City on late Wednesday. A rental car attendant recognized Sweeney, identified himself as a Tigers fans, then wished Sweeney luck on his induction ceremony. The next morning, a man stopped Sweeney in a downtown grocery store, telling him he was taking his son to the game on Saturday.
“I guess I didn’t understand the magnitude,” Sweeney says.
Sweeney, though, has been looking forward to Saturday for another reason. That’s where Big Mike comes in.
The diagnosis came on New Year’s Eve. It was esophageal cancer, which is a particularly rare form of cancer, especially here in the United States. It can be deadly.
Mike Sweeney Sr. has lost close to 90 pounds now, a combination of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He’s had parts of his stomach and esophagus removed. In early May, Sweeney says, his father had an operation that went awry. The doctors didn’t offer much optimism.
“You shouldn’t survive this,” they said.
In the days after that prognosis, Mike Sweeney Sr. told his son he would be at Kauffman Stadium on Aug. 15. It was personal. When Mike Sr. was a young man, he had played minor-league baseball in the California Angels’ organization. But then the children started arriving, the family expanded, and Mike Sr. swapped his baseball glove for a beer truck, his way of supporting a large Irish Catholic family.
On Saturday, Mike Sr. will indeed be there to watch his son go into the Royals Hall of Fame. The Royals, of course, are facing the Angels.
“He still has a long road to recovery,” Sweeney says. “But he’s still with us. To be honest with you, I don’t know if I could stand up on that podium if my dad wasn’t with me.”
If you lived in Kansas City in the early 2000s, everybody had a Mike Sweeney story. You saw him at church. You saw him eating brunch. You saw him staying late after games, signing autographs and offering a hand.
The stories, in that era, at least, were ubiquitous, but here are two:
On a late June day in 2004, the day Beltran played his last game for the Royals, a teenager from Sweet Springs, Mo., waited around after the game outside Kauffman Stadium. The Royals took a beating that day, but Sweeney trudged out, stopping in front of a handful of fans. Derrick Krause, the teenager, remembers Sweeney stopping. He signed baseballs for his two siblings. Then he asked a little about their lives. It was a brief moment, nothing too special, but a decade later, Krause still remembers.
The same year, a teenager from Kansas City named Bridget Walsh traveled to Chicago with a friend named Ben to see the Royals face the White Sox. Before the game, Walsh remembers, they hung out by the Royals dugout and tossed a ball to Mike Sweeney. Bridget was wearing a No. 4 Angel Berroa T-shirt. Berroa had been optioned to the minors the day before. And when Sweeney saw the shirt, he paused.
“How about a moment of silence?” Sweeney said.
A few years later, Bridget says, she married that friend Ben. They still talk about the memory.
“He treated the parking lot attendant the same way he treated Mr. Glass,” Lefebvre says. “It wasn’t phony.”
There is one other story, one that came during Sweeney’s final year in Kansas City. It was 2007, the year Zack Greinke had returned to baseball. In the previous years, Sweeney says, he and Greinke had enjoyed many long talks about baseball and life, often through tears. But this time, Greinke, in his classic fashion, had a message for Sweeney.
“Mike, you’ve had an incredible career,” Greinke said. “But I wonder how incredible a career you would have if you were selfish.”
Back to that August night in 2004. Mike Sweeney is sprinting home against Andy Pettitte and the New York Yankees. The dugout is going crazy. Fans are coming to their feet. And now a brief thought is flashing through Mike Sweeney’s mind:
You know, 90 feet seems a lot longer when you’re trying to steal home.
Sweeney remembers the slide. He remembers the tag from Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, which came a split-second too late. He remembers popping to his feet as the sound of more than 26,000 fans echoed through the stadium.
The Royals led 2-1, and Sweeney found Peña in the dugout. Peña’s eyes were big. The manager had relayed a sign to Sweeney, but his intention was much different. He wanted to tell Sweeney to be ready for a ball in the dirt.
“When I saw him coming,” Peña said then, “I said, ‘Oh my, God.’”
Thirteen years later, the moment is vintage Sweeney. But what happened next was vintage Royals. The Yankees tied the game the next inning. The Royals lost in the 14th. Sweeney finished the game with two hits, a run scored and an RBI. When the night was over, he was batting .355 for the season. The Royals lost anyway.
“It was the most exciting part of my career,” Sweeney says. “But the greatest moment of my career was last October.”