Monday, February 11, 2008

Mike Sweeney leaving KC for Oakland... No thanks for the memories... Sort of...

After spending the better part of two centuries as a member of the Kansas City Royals, my local MLB franchise and regular source of warm weather heartburn, former All-Star Mike Sweeney is hooking up with a new ball club.

The once-feared hitter (now better known as an income source for medical professionals specializing in back injuries) has signed a minor league deal with the Oakland A's. The Royals apparently had less-than-zero interest in bringing back the dude who wore the captain's "C" on his jersey for several seasons.

I'm a baseball fan and I'm a Royals fan. My continued support of the franchise probably has more to do with a childhood in western Kansas and the voice of Denny Matthews than it does with on-field performance. It certainly wasn't linked to Mike Sweeney.

Sweeney was, for awhile, damn good. He was one of the game's top right-handed hitters. There were many days when you knew the only way the Royals stood a chance was if Sweeney pulled a "do it yourselfer" win. After the departure of up-and-comers like Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon and before the arrival of a fully-prepared Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney was a man among boys in the Royals lineup.

He's also, according to all reports, a nice guy. A really nice guy. He's one of those smiling, gracious, aw-shucks Christian athletes who give "glory to God" during post-game interviews and who never say a mean thing about anyone.

Nonetheless, I never liked Mike Sweeney here in KC. Oh, I respected him. And I appreciated his bat. I just didn't like him all that much. I felt that way before The Massive Contract and the feeling intensified as his injured years piled up.

I grew up with the old Royals. The good Royals. I grew up knowing that George Brett and Jamie Quirk were out terrorizing bimbos and guzzling pitchers on the Plaza after double-headers. I grew up knowing that big John Mayberry's off-field antics might have cost the Royals a World Series bid in what was probably their strongest season.

Hal McRae barrelled into second base to break up double plays with cleats of anger. The pitchers were mean like Dennis Leonard, smart like Larry Gura and crazy like Al Hrabosky. Even mild-mannered Dan Quisenberry (the Mad Hungarian's successor) was something of an oddball. UL Washington was dumb enough to patrol the infield with a toothpick in his mouth and there the Horrible Year of Cocaine, in which we learned a significant percentage of the roster didn't care to say "no".

The Royals weren't the baseball equivalent of the Raiders. Frank White has little in common with Jack Tatum. Guys like Frank White, Fred Patek, Cookie Rojas, Paul Splittorff, and John Wathan always seemed like classy, take care of business, solid professionals. I suppose that if you erased the coke controversy and some other rumors not worth repeating, the Royals probably qualified as damn-near squeaky clean.

However, they had a certain edge about them. They had a personality that was reflected in their play. It was tenacious and aggressive. It was a triple ricocheting in the right field corner of a double skipping across the concretized artificial turf. It was Willie Wilson, the fastest man in the world, stealing bases after beating out infield singles and a kid with a "I swear I'm 18" mustache winning games, awards and championships. Royals baseball was gritty and fast. It was the White Rat running them hard and Charlie Lau getting them to hit down on the ball.

Things change.

The Royals changed. George Brett got a haircut and settled into the backside of his career, still raking while be transitioned from the hot corner to 1B/DH duties. Sometimes I think I fell asleep with a thin, sick Dick Howser talking to George in spring training about the coming season and woke up with Tony Muser yelling at Neifi Perez. Ewing Kauffman is a statue now and Clint Hurdle's World Series came 30 years too late as a Rockies manager.

It's been an ugly stretch, brought to you by Wal-Mart, a changing baseball economy and poor decision making at multiple levels.

I know Mike Sweeney wasn't responsible for the slide of the Royals from dreaded to dreadful, but he remains, in my mind, a symbol of those many sick years of shrinking attendance and dwindling win totals.

It probably would've been even worse, if that's possible, without Mike Sweeney. He turned some bad days into good ones. He gave opposing hurlers something to consider and fans something to watch.

Alas, he was the centerpiece of a table stocked with disappointment and inedible trash. No matter how good he played, he was there for the ugly and, in my mind, it rubbed off on him. I don't connect Sweeney with Brett and McRae. Mike doesn't share a vibe with Willie Wilson. Sweeney is Joe Vitiello, Dos Carlos, Brent Mayne, Chad Durbin, and Fat 'Elvys getting shelled. Mike Sweeney is more Darrell May than Darrell Porter.

It's unfair when you look at what Sweeney accomplished, but he became a symbol of a baseball factory that churned out an endless stream of defective products. The Royals were bad, but they weren't bad in that "loveable loser" kind of way. Ernie Banks' failure to play for a championship makes us love him even more. Mike Sweeney's experience, however, doesn't fill us me with any sweet melancholy. It just pisses me off.

The Sweeney story's conclusion was ugly insult. He was the "good guy" and the one Royal who didn't ditch the ballclub for the greener pastures of free agency. He was willing to tough it out and to help bring a winner back to KC. The notorious tight front office pried open the team wallet and gave Mike a generous contract to reward both his quality performance and his rare loyalty.

That's when the injuries started coming fast and furious. He missed game after game, week after week. He could hit when he was healthy, but those moments of wellness seemed few and far between. If this was just another injured ballplayer, it might not have stung. But this was Sweeney, the multi-million dollar man. We were finally playing big league money to a big league superstar and all we got in return was another player on the disabled list.

The Royals made Sophie's choice when they kept Sweeney. They didn't feel they had the money to ink both Mike and an improving young outfielder named Carlos Beltran. Eventually, Beltran drifted away to Houston and then to New York. He's been a game-changer and an All-Star. Mike Sweeney congratulated teammates, win or lose, while he sat on the bench nursing his bad back. Unfair.

The injuries turned Royals fans against Sweeney. They couldn't believe all of that money was being funneled into the pockets of a 1B/DH who couldn't play for more than a week at a time. They saw the drop off in production from Sweeney while Beltran's star ascended with better teams. Sweeney was a bottomless money pit. A poor investment. Another proof that the Royals just couldn't get it right.

Sweeney had been a bright spot in an otherwise dim sky. He became a black hole in the eyes of many.

It isn't fair or honest to hate Sweeney for his deal or his play after the injuries started. There's no reason to believe he didn't want to play and every reason to think he wanted nothing more than to take the field 162 times every season. Mike Sweeney never looked like a slacker to me. Unfair or not, though, the disappointment and frustration soon gave way to a great deal of animosity.

I never begrudged the injuries. I never questioned the paycheck. Sweeney, when healthy, was worth the money. He just couldn't get healthy and that's the way it goes. Those of us who watched the Royals in their heyday remember Steve Busby. Busby may have become a true superstar if he arm hadn't exploded into a billion little pieces. Unfortunately, it did. We don't hate Buzz for it. We feel for him.

We should probably feel for Sweeney, too.

I however, can't bring myself to pity the man. It's not because of anything he did. It's not because of anything he failed to do, either. It's just because he was there.

That's unfair, but it's how I feel.

Mike Sweeney was there. He was in the middle of it all. He was the "good guy" on a bad team. He may become a saint for whatever Christian church he attends. His stats may long pepper the list of great Royals achievements. He may be the last loyal Royal we see. There's a lot of good stuff to say about Mike Sweeney and there are many great fans out there saying it right now as he packs his bags en route to a shot at making the Oakland A's.

Me? I'm glad to see him get the fuck out of town. Newness for the sake of newness might not be a great strategy for success in all cases, but right now it seems like a good idea to purge reminders of ugly seasons. There's undeniable catharsis in eliminating ties with those sad years.

Adios, Mike. Don't let the clubhouse door hit you on your screwed up back on your way out.

(And good luck. Make the A's, hit a ton, and it won't break my heart if your success results in Emil Brown losing a roster spot.)


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  1. Yeah, losing Mike Sweeney isn't, in the least the end of the world for the Royals.

    I think this sums it up, at some level, John:

    "No matter how good he played, he was there for the ugly and, in my mind, it rubbed off on him."

    I don't follow the Royals definitively to know that is the case. But I do people enough and follow the Royals enough to believe that the problem for the Royals, including the management and the owners, is that they've just gotten too used to being losers. My work in that area has convinced me that people start to settle in to that role, even when it clearly does not serve their interests, because they just get too discouraged and too used to the comfort of losing and still getting a paycheck.

    Losing Mike Sweeney isn't going to turn that around. But it's not going to hurt, either, necessarily. I'm not a big fan of firing people out of the gates, but the Royals either need to find some leadership that will inspire them out of the doldrums or they need to take a deep, hard look at what it will take to win a championship - which won't happen immediately, necessarily and likely, but they need to be building for that purpose - and be willing to shake things up and fire and hire folks who have a realistic shot of getting the job done.

    I don't follow enough or know enough about the team to know what exactly needs to happen there. I just know that if they seem to comfortable with this long, long losing streak and need someone with some vision and some balls to make some calls in terms of players they will need and, subsequently, players they will need to let go to put together a championship season. Of course everyone would like that to happen next year, but it probably would not happen for a few years, at least. But someone needs to be doing that work now and letting it be known that the Royals are taking serious aim at World Series rings ASAP.

    This isn't college speech and debate. It's fuckin' professional baseball. You figure out who'll you need and figure out how you're going to get the money to put that team together, and you get the fuckin' money and you put it together. And as long as you're not the asshole who owned the Marlins who put that team together just to break them up, you might have a decent winning and, with some luck and a lot of hard fuckin' work and smarts and vision, a championship team.

    There is nowhere but down for the Royals, at this point, is my humble call by a non-following fan. They need someone to take a championship seriously and figure out who they need to hire to make that happen. If that needs to start at the level, then that is where you start. But you're not going to have a winning team, and thus a more profitable team, long term, as long as you are just hanging on all the time. You need to decide you're going to win and then figure out what it takes to get there.

    You think that's fuckin' hard with a professional baseball team? Think that's easier said than done? Try that with a school full of special ed kids. Buck up little soldiers. Put it together. Make it happen. And stop coming home empty handed.

  2. "But I do people enough and follow the Royals enough to believe that the problem for the Royals, including the management and the owners, is that they've just gotten too used to being losers."

    I do KNOW people enough.

    I do not DO people nearly enough.