Sweeney hungry for Royal resurgence
Captain hopes 2007 means healthy season, wins for team
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Time is running out on Mike Sweeney's career-long goal of participating in a postseason game, and based on what has happened the past three seasons, the chances of him playing beyond the regular season any time soon would seem remote.After all, the Royals have lost at least 100 games each of those seasons. But when Sweeney walked out of the Royals clubhouse Thursday morning and onto the practice field for the team's first full-squad workout of Spring Training, the captain was feeling mighty good about the future -- his and the team's. Don't jump to the conclusion that Sweeney believes the Royals can replace the Cardinals as World Series champions this season. What he's saying is that the dark cloud that has hovered over this franchise since 2003, when it stayed in the American League Central Division race until the final month of the season, has started to dissipate. Blue skies and Royals blue could be a match again. "This is a new year and I'm excited," Sweeney said. "There's a new atmosphere in the clubhouse, and hopefully we'll have better results." By most measuring sticks, the 33-year-old designated hitter has had a successful big-league career. His batting average is .302. He has hit 190 home runs and driven in 799 runs. He also has been selected to five All-Star teams during his 12-year MLB stint. But when every regular season ends, Sweeney always packs up and goes home while others keep playing. He has played 1,208 Major League games, and zero postseason games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jeff Cirillo (1,539), Damion Easley (1,517) and Todd Helton (1,424) are the only players currently on 40-man rosters that have played in more regular-season games and never participated in a postseason game. "The only void in my career is getting to the playoffs," Sweeney said, "and I am still hoping to achieve that. My heart says I can play three or four more years. I'll see what my back says." The back has caused him to miss many games the past three years and forced him to stop playing golf. The pain was so severe and lasted so long last season that he missed a career-high 102 games. "It was, by far, the worst year of my career, both statistically and emotionally," he said. "It didn't even seem like I was part of the team." The Royals basically were a team without its captain. Looking ahead to this season, Sweeney said, "I would like to have a healthy year and give back to the team. I feel indebted to the team because of the injuries I've had the past few years. I want to give back to the organization and to the fans."
If there was a "Good Guy Award" in the Major Leagues (in fact, he has earned Marvin Miller Man of the Year honors and the Roberto Clemente Award in past seasons), Sweeney would be a leading candidate every year. He's so darn accommodating, although he showed up about half an hour late for an interview for this story -- and apologized for the tardiness."I'm really sorry," he said. Being late is unusual for him. Sweeney was here last week when camp opened for pitchers, catchers and players, like him, coming back from injury. But he would have been here early, regardless of his health. "I take a lot of pride being captain of this team and showing up with the pitchers and catchers is something a leader should do," he said. "From Day 1, I want to get this team together as one unit. We have a special group of guys here and I want to be part of it. I want to be part of leading this team to something special." It was not out of character, then, for him to notice rookie Billy Butler -- sitting at a table by himself on Saturday, eating lunch and having a Daytona 500 conversation with some reporters -- and invite him to sit at a table with Sweeney and several other players. "I know what it takes to bring a team together," he said. "It might be calling Billy over to sit with the veterans, or like last night taking Alex Gordon to dinner and making him feel comfortable. It's the little things than can mean a lot and I want to do my part." Sweeney and Gordon, the hot-shot rookie and former first overall draft choice, dined on salmon and Sweeney picked up the tab." "That was a big surprise," Gordon said. "I never expected it. But that's the way he is. I saw it the first day last spring. "I was the new guy in camp and didn't know anybody. He walked up to me, put his arm around me and asked if I needed anything." Sweeney knows the feeling. "When I was the rookie, Jeff Montgomery, Mike McFarlane and Tim Belcher took care of me," he said. "They paid for my dinners and cabs and always told me, 'Mike, when you are a veteran, you do the same thing we're doing.' "I'm just passing the torch." In the end, however, a healthy captain is more important to the Royals than a big-hearted one. "Our lineup is vastly different with Mike Sweeney in the middle of it," general manager Dayton Moore said. "Not only his presence from a production standpoint, but presence from a leadership standpoint. He's a great encourager and has a strong passion for winning. "I know Mike has worked awfully hard this winter and made the commitment to be a special player again." His offseason workout regimen included Egoscue, a combination of core strengthening, Pilates and yoga. "I always thought yoga was for women and it never applied to us macho men," he laughed. "But going on the DL with spine problems two of the last three years caused me to break down, and it has been amazing. I can touch my toes, easily, and even touch my palms. I was doing things over the winter that I never dreamt I could do. "I've never felt more flexible or stronger in my career."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.