U.L.’s Toothpick: The Year Of The Card–Mike Sweeney, 2002

As you might expect from a franchise that has spent 44 seasons in spacious Royals/Kauffman Stadium, the Royals don’t really have a lot of eye-popping offensive single seasons. Of course, George Brett has the most famous, and probably the best, with his .390/.454/.664 numbers in 1980. Brett did it again in 1985, going .335/.436/.585 to drag an otherwise punchless Royals team to a World Series title. Those are the only two seasons in Royals history to have an OPS over 1.000. All told, only 11 players in team history have had a full-season OPS over .900 (it’s happened 21 times). Brett leads with six such seasons; second on the list, with four, is Mike Sweeney.

Michael John Sweeney was born on July 22, 1973, in Orange, California. The Royals selected him out of Ontario High School in the 10th round of the 1991 draft.  It took Sweeney a while to adjust to professional baseball, as he hit .216, .221, and .240 in his first three minor-league seasons. But that third year, his second season at Low-A Eugene, he began developing a very good eye, as evidenced by his 30 walks in 209 plate appearances and .359 on-base percentage. The following year, at Class A Rockford, he hit.301/.427/.504. He did even better at High-A Wilmington (then as now a tough hitters’ park) in 1995, hitting .310/.424/.548 in 99 games. The Royals, in an unusual move, called him up to the majors in September. This was not a case where the big-league club was simply playing out the string; the Royals entered September very much in the wild-card race. But they would go 12-18 to finish the season, and Sweeney appeared in just four games, although he did collect his first major-league hit.

Sweeney continued to hit in the minor leagues over the next couple of years, but in his major-league stints, he was developing a little more slowly. The potential was obviously there, but it can be tough for a young catcher to adjust offensively when he’s also learning how to handle a pitching staff. Sweeney was also trying to work on his defense, which definitely was not major-league caliber.

Finally, in 1999, it all came together. Sweeney was serving as the DH most of the time, and playing every day. He ended April hitting .345/.406/.500. He was still pounding the ball in late May when incumbent first baseman Jeff King surprised everyone by announcing his retirement. The Royals decided to give both Sweeney and converted outfielder Jeremy Giambi a chance to win the starting job. It was an adventure, certainly. Neither was used to first base and it definitely hurt the defense. But as Sweeney kept hitting, it became clear he would win the job. Shortly after the All-Star Break, the Royals made it official. Sweeney ended the year with at .322/.387/.520, with 22 homers, and 102 RBI.

The beat continued in 2000, as Sweeney hit .333/.407/.523 for a team that set a franchise record for runs scored with 879. The Royals were building an exciting young offense; unfortunately, they were having problems finding pitching to go with it. The 2000 team ended up 77-85. Sweeney hit .304/.374/.542 in 2001; that team went 65-97.

As spring training for the 2002 season opened, the big topic was Sweeney’s future with the Royals. Kansas City had already had to trade Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye when it became clear they and the team weren’t going to agree on extensions. Sweeney had already signed a two-year extension that was set to expire after the 2002 season. He wanted to be a Royal, but he also wanted to make sure he wouldn’t be stuck on more terrible teams. Near the end of spring training, the two sides agreed on a five-year, $55 million contract extension that made him at the time the highest-paid player in franchise history. The contract did have an interesting provision: if the Royals did not reach .500 in either 2003 and 2004, he could become a free agent.

“I didn’t have confirmation in my heart that we were going to have a bright future. And I spoke on the phone with David Glass, our owner, and for the first time I had hope that Kansas City has a very bright future. Mr. Glass is very confident that he’s going to bring a winner to Kansas City, and I want to be a part of it. I’ve been a part of this team for the tough times, and I’m going to be a part of the team through the good times.”—Sweeney, quoted by Dick Kaegel in the Kansas City Star, March 30, 2002

With that settled, Sweeney went on to have the best year of his career. He started off hot, with six hits in the first four games. He hit .326/.380/.478 for April. He then had an eight-game hitting streak in late May, collecting 17 hits in that span, and ended that month with at .342/.405/.574. Somehow, he was even better in June, going 38-95 to enter July with a .361/.431/.604 line.

Sweeney was battling Ichiro Suzuki for the best batting average in baseball when his back started acting up. In early July, one of two things happened: he either injured his lower back riding in the back seat of a truck while visiting his parents, or he injured it trying to avoid getting hit by a pitch in a July 3 game. Either way, he would miss a month of the season until it got better.

But he picked up where he left off, with two different six-game hitting streaks in August. He topped that with an 11-game streak in mid-September. And when that ended, he promptly started another six-gamer the next day. Meanwhile, Ichiro had cooled off significantly. But Manny Ramirez had been red-hot most of the second half. The American League batting title would come down to the two of them. But Sweeney went 0-4 against Detroit, snapping that six-game hitting streak. That same day, Ramirez went 2-4 to take the lead. Sweeney only picked up two hits over the next two games, then suffered through a 0-4 day in game 161 to end his quest. Even worse, in his last at-bat of the game, Sweeney fouled a ball off his shin, forcing him to sit out the last game of the year. The Royals lost that game, hitting the 100-loss mark for the first time in franchise history. Sweeney ended the year with a remarkable .340/.417/.563 line. It was the perfect summation of Sweeney’s career: an excellent performance on a miserable team.

That combination was flipped the next year, as the Royals roared out of the gate to a 16-3 start, then battled for the AL Central title most of the season before faltering in September. Sweeney’s average wasn’t as high as expected, but he was driving in runs and hitting for power. Eventually, his average began catching up. But in mid-June, he hurt his back, the upper back this time. That cost him almost two months, and began an unfortunate pattern. Although he was still a very good hitter, batting a combined .282/.341/.478 in 2004-2007, he would play in just 362 games over those four years. In addition to back problems, he had a knee injury and a sprained elbow in that time. As the injuries mounted, fan frustration rose. Probably unfairly, he was blamed for the team’s struggles by some, despite plenty of evidence that even if he played 159 games and hit .340, the team around him could still be awful. And while it wasn’t ideal to have so much of the payroll on the disabled list, it’s hard to argue the mid-2000 Royals would have spent that money any better.

At any rate, Sweeney reached free agency after that 2007 season and signed with Oakland. Then he played in Seattle in 2009 and 2010. The Mariners sold him to Philadelphia for the stretch run of the 2010 season, and he finally got a postseason appearance out of it. He singled as a pinch-hitter in Game 2 of the NLDS. That was his final major-league at-bat.

As the years have passed, Royals fans seem to have gotten over any angst about the oft-injured star. He received loud standing ovations during his last game as a Royal in 2007. The team named a special award after him, to be presented to the player who best represents the organization on and off the field, a fitting descriptor given Sweeney’s many charitable contributions. Then the team hired him to a front office position before the 2014 season. The timing was fortuitous; it meant Sweeney was part of the organization when the Royals finally returned to the World Series that fall. Finally, Sweeney was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in August 2015. It was a well-deserved honor for the man who could certainly be in the argument for second-best hitter in team history.

Mike Sweeney’s best games of 2002:
5/15 vs. MIN: Went 4-5 with two doubles and homer in 8-6 loss.
6/28 vs. SD: Doubled, homered, scored twice, and drove in five in 14-10 win.
5/9 vs. CLE: Cracked two home runs in 5-3 win.
6/25 vs. DET: Hit two doubles and a home run, scored three runs in 8-6 win.
9/11 vs. CHW: Belted a three-run home run, walked twice, and scored twice in 9-6 win.

About the card:
Time to rant: I don’t actually own this card, so I had to search online for it. I knew the amount of sets and subsets and special cards had really increased since I pretty much stopped collecting in the mid-1990s, but I had no idea it was this bad. How the heck are kids supposed to collect cards these days? There’s about five million different types of cards out there now, it seems like. I’m not saying it should go back to three or four sets like the old days, but good grief. For that matter, how would someone like me get back into it? I suppose you just have to pick a set and go for it, but that seems difficult. Anyway, this seems like a fairly attractive card. I had to laugh at the line on the back about “as Mike goes, so go the Royals.” If only he could have pitched, too.

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