Mike Sweeney never hit 30 homeruns in a season. For this and many other reasons, he was the kind of ballplayer children with big league dreams but a strong sense of their own limitations could aspire to be. If you told your parents you wanted to be the next Barry Bonds, they’d laugh. If you told them you wanted to be the next Mike Sweeney they might shrug their shoulders and say, “well why not?”
This is especially true for those of us who aren’t from Kansas City. I can’t speak to what Sweeney meant in that city, to those fans. As the brightest and longest-burning light the franchise has seen over the last twenty years, I imagine it’s quite a lot. For seven seasons, Sweeney played all-star caliber first base in jovial obscurity. (Be grateful it was not eight seasons, because if it was, I would surely have written a long essay comparing the light of Sweeney in Kansas City to the Jewish miracle of Hanukkah in which a night’s worth of oil burned for eight nights.)
He never did hit 30 home runs. But he did hit .340 once, and .333 once. He also played a few seasons at catcher, which I had totally forgotten about because Sweeney is one of those archetypal first basemen. He’s the kind of guy Ted and I discussed on the podcast last week – the kind of guy who you can’t imagine at any other position. At first base that often reflects obesity or hulking inability to play anywhere else. But not for Sweeney. Sweeney was an archetypical first baseman because you got the sense he genuinely enjoyed it. As he devolved into a designated hitter, you got the sense that he genuinely missed those short chats with opposing first base coaches and base runners.
There’s more, of course. He’s a famously nice guy. He’s a practical joker. He’s a “clubhouse guy.” Sweeney has also been one of baseball’s most notable Christians* for the last decade (makes the Hanukkah metaphor all the more tempting). The Mike and Shara Sweeney foundation’s website features this sentence on its home page:
“We believe that God’s love is so great.”
It’s a perfect sentence for Mike Sweeney The simplicity. The banality. The unpretentious jovial appreciation for everything. It’s as if Sweeney knows that if he played in New York or Chicago or almost anywhere else, his legacy would not be as special: he wouldn’t be the beacon of light in a Midwest town where baseball hope is dead. He’d just be another pretty good first baseman in an era chock full of them.
*He’s a Catholic, to be precise.
Image via flickr user BarryGeo