A Run of Luck Last year Mike Sweeney found his batting stroke, a new position and inner peace. Now the Royals' first baseman is a big hit at the plate and with Kansas City fans

July 23, 2000

With a crumpled wad of dollar bills in her purse and a spankin'
new baseball in her left hand, 21-year-old Jessie Siegfreid
approached the main entrance of the Overland Park (Kans.)
International Trade Center at 10 a.m. a month ago with one goal
in mind: to meet Mike Sweeney. Siegfreid, a senior history major
at MidAmerica Nazarene University in nearby Olathe, Kans., isn't
an autograph collector, a groupie or a celebrity stalker. Heck,
until that morning she wouldn't have known Mike Sweeney, the
Kansas City Royals' first baseman, from Shirley Feeney, the
Milwaukee brewery diva. "My parents gave me the $7 entrance fee
and sent me here," said Siegfreid. "They said Mike's nice and
Christian and wholesome and single."

So, along with 528 others at the Tri-Star Collectors Show, the
blonde Siegfreid, who wore form-fitting blue jeans and an aqua
halter top and had an infectiously perky giggle, waited for
hours on a line that stretched around the cavernous convention
center. Finally, at 1:03 p.m., she tiptoed toward Sweeney's
table, handed him the baseball and grinned.

Sweeney: "How ya doin'?"

Siegfreid: "I hear you're a churchgoer."

Sweeney: "Yeah, that's one of my favorite pastimes."

Siegfreid: "Me too. Where do you go?"

Sweeney: "Church of the Nativity in Leawood, Kans."

Siegfreid: "Oh, O.K."

Later, after she took a deep breath and floated away on cloud
nine, Siegfreid approached a writer who was shadowing Sweeney.
"If you get a chance," she said, "could you give Mike my phone
number?"

"Uhhh...."

"Pleeeeease," said Siegfreid. "Guys like him are too hard to
find."

Sweeney, a 27-year-old from Ontario, Calif., is seemingly too
good to be true. In his first full season as Kansas City's
starting first baseman, Sweeney isn't just putting up MVP-like
numbers but is also doing so quietly, with an aw-shucks
humility. In 1908 Ty Cobb became only the second player to lead
his league in batting, hits, doubles and RBIs. Through Sunday
the righthanded-hitting Sweeney was fifth in the American League
in batting (.355), second in hits (126), tied for 12th in
doubles (24) and tied for seventh in RBIs (80). He also had 15
homers, a .549 slugging percentage and, according to Oakland A's
manager Art Howe, "no apparent weakness at the plate. He can hit
the fastball, the off-speed pitch and the slider. What do you do
with a guy like that?"

Apparently not much, seeing as Sweeney was batting .417 against
lefthanders, .342 against righthanders, .303 at home, .412 on
the road, .429 with runners in scoring position and .600 with
the bases loaded. His home runs, according to Royals manager
Tony Muser, are mostly accidental. "Not because he can't hit
'em," says Muser, "but because he never tries to knock the ball
out. Sometimes it just goes."

From 1995, when he was first called up to Kansas City, through
'97, Sweeney was a decent-hit, no-field catcher who never spent
a full season in the majors. For most of that span the Royals
were managed by Bob Boone, a former All-Star catcher who liked
his receivers thick and stumpy (like Boone), not rangy and
elastic (like the 6'3", 225-pound Sweeney). Although Sweeney is
reluctant to bash Boone, many observers blame Boone for impeding
Sweeney's development by trying to make him a more physical,
down-in-the-dirt catcher, then dismissing Sweeney's abilities
when he couldn't conform. "Mike was a pretty good catcher," says
Oakland backstop Sal Fasano, who played with Sweeney in Kansas
City from 1996 to '99, "but he didn't have that body type. I
don't think Boonie meant to hurt him, but he tried changing
Mike, and it didn't work. After playing the position his whole
life, they told Mike he couldn't catch. How would you feel?"

In the months before spring training in 1999, the usually upbeat
Sweeney was at a low point. Every day friends and relatives
would call with the latest trade rumors. Mike Sweeney to the
Chicago White Sox. Mike Sweeney to the New York Yankees. Mike
Sweeney to the Seattle Mariners. Even though Herk Robinson, the
Royals' executive vice president, says a deal was never close,
he admits having shopped Sweeney. "I'm not sure who's dumber,"
Robinson says. "Us for trying to trade Mike, or other teams for
not taking him."

Muser, who had taken over for Boone midway through '97 and was
equally disenchanted with Sweeney's skills behind the plate--he
says that while Sweeney has a strong arm and the overall
athletic abilities to be a good catcher, he was "overloaded and
confused" when it came to calling a game--made it clear that
Sweeney had no future as his starting catcher. In January '99, a
Kansas City coach told Sweeney he had a "zero percent" chance of
sticking with the big league club for the following season. On
Ash Wednesday 1999, two days before he was to leave for spring
training in Davenport, Fla., Sweeney exercised at a gym and then
drove to the Church of the Nativity, a Roman Catholic church
where he is a parishioner. He was tired and drained, wearing
baggy sweats and running shoes. A service was under way, so
Sweeney quietly found a spot in the back and dropped to his
knees. He began to weep. "I had this vivid picture in my head of
a tandem bicycle," he recalls. "I'm thinking, The bike
represents my life, and I've got everything screwed up. I'm on
the front seat, and I'm trying to pedal and steer the bicycle.
But I don't know where I'm going."

As he prayed, the image changed. He saw Jesus on the front seat,
holding the handlebars. Says Sweeney, "I was on the back,
pedaling my heart out, realizing the Lord will steer me if I
agree to follow."

Sweeney recalls that he silently prayed, Lord, there are six
weeks until Opening Day. I don't know where I'm going, I don't
know what city I'll end up in, but I know that you control my
life, that as long as I'm in the backseat pedaling, everything
will work out. No matter where I am, I will get on my knees and
praise you.

The next day Sweeney received more phone calls about trade
rumors. This time, however, he was at peace. He reported to camp
with a clear mind, batted .361 and made the Royals as the
third-string catcher, behind Chad Kreuter and Tim Spehr. "I
still didn't have a plan for Mike," says Muser.

That changed on May 24 when first baseman Jeff King, plagued by
a sore back and declining production, retired. Muser held a team
meeting and asked if anybody had experience playing first base.
Sweeney, who had started two games at first in Little League,
raised his hand. He wound up playing 150 games for the
Royals--74 at first, 71 as the DH, four as the catcher, plus
five pinch-hitting appearances--and batted .322 with 22 homers
and 102 RBIs. "He wasn't good [at first base]," says Muser, who
cringed as Sweeney committed 12 errors and semiregularly botched
balls, "but we threw him in because of his competitiveness and
his work ethic. He's not all the way there, but I've seen
improvement."

Sweeney's father, who is known as Big Mike, an operations
manager for a beer distributor, was an outfielder for two years
with the California Angels' farm team in the Pioneer League in
the early 1970s. Somehow he and his wife, Maureen, knew that the
second of their eight children would be a baseball player. Mike
was born on July 22, 1973, six weeks premature. (Dad placed a
tiny plastic bat in his son's incubator.) After a week his
parents brought him to the family's Ontario home, but later that
day he stopped breathing and turned blue. They rushed him back
to the UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, where Mike was
revived. He remained in the hospital for a month.

Last winter, after spending 10 days in Germany conducting
clinics on baseball and the Bible, Mike returned to his parents'
house. Every day for about 10 days he and his dad would drive to
Westwind Park, where Mike starred as a Little Leaguer. For
hours, father hit grounder after grounder to his son at first
base. "Must've hit 4,000 of 'em that week," says Big Mike. "I
believe Mikey will win a Gold Glove one day. Anything he's ever
wanted to do, he's done. He wants to be a great first baseman."

More important, Mike wants to be a great person. Muser, who has
nicknamed him Reverend, calls Sweeney "a peach." Robinson calls
him "one of the best humans you'll meet." There are many stories
about his baseball exploits, but even more about the good things
he does off the field:

--Bob Beck, Sweeney's coach for three years at Ontario High,
recalls young Mike's kindness toward handicapped children. "He
would carry them around on his back, just be so good to them,"
Beck says. "You don't see that from people, not to mention high
schoolers."

--Jim Lachimia, the Royals' senior director of communications,
recalls the night last December when his father suffered a
stroke. "The next morning I checked my voice mail, and there was
a call from Mike," says Lachimia. "He left me the most touching
message: 'Jim, I heard about your father. I want you to know
last night I got on my knees and prayed for you and your dad.'
It's not a front; Mike cares about people."

--Jeremy Giambi, an A's outfielder who played with Kansas City
last year, received a call from Sweeney hours after being
brought up from Omaha in early June 1999. "He said, 'Hey, why
don't you live at my house for the rest of the season?'" says
Giambi. "So I did. There are people with big hearts, and then
there's Mike. His heart is the biggest."

--Colleen Raffa, a 27-year-old bank teller from Kansas City,
waited for two hours to meet Sweeney at the Tri-Star Collectors
Show, though she had never watched a Royals game. "I fell in
love with him when I saw him interviewed on TV after [Chiefs
linebacker] Derrick Thomas died because of the car accident,"
says Raffa. "He was crying, devastated. He's real."

--His dad remembers Mike helping disabled people cross the
street, sending Royals T-shirts and gloves and shoes to Beck and
the Ontario High baseball team and never turning down the
opportunity to speak to youth groups. "My son is my role model,"
says Big Mike. "I know I sound like a bragging parent, but it's
true. He doesn't need baseball so much as baseball needs him. He
makes me extremely proud."

In other words, Mike's prayers have been answered. His bike is
headed in the right direction.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON RUN SUPPORT At week's end Sweeney was ranked among the top five in the American League in batting and hits. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE SLAP HAPPY Known for his community work, Sweeney gave a youngster lots to smile about last month on Family Day.

Sweet Swinging Sweeney

Mike Sweeney's .355 average through Sunday was fifth best in the
American League. A career .258 hitter before last season,
Sweeney hit .322 in 1999, raising his career average 29 points.
Sweeney's .334 mark since the beginning of last year was the
sixth best among American League players who qualified for the
'99 batting crown. Here are the players ahead of Sweeney.
--David Sabino
combined
1999 2000 1999-2000
average average average

Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox .357 .393 .369
Edgar Martinez, Mariners .337 .355 .343
Derek Jeter, Yankees .349 .322 .340
Ivan Rodriguez, Rangers .332 .354 .340
Bernie Williams, Yankees .342 .333 .339

*Averages through Sunday

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)