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BASEBALL PLUS

Secret Slugger

Orange Native Begins Emergence From Obscurity With Royals

May 21, 2000|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Sweeney, one of the best baseball players you've never heard about, was having a day at the beach.

He stretched out on the sand at Newport Beach. Played catch with his dad. Lounged with his seven brothers and sisters. A picture-perfect day.

Then it was back to Ontario, where Sweeney grew up, to watch his 14-year-old brother play in a youth league baseball game. It was a Norman Rockwell kind of day.

How quickly things changed.

Sweeney, who thrives on his anonymity, stopped being a face in the crowd and was again the Kansas City Royals' first baseman.

"About 10 to 15 kids and eight to 10 parents crowded around me," said the 26-year-old Sweeney, who was born in Orange and played at Ontario High. "I was signing bats and balls. It was nice to point out to the field and say, 'I started right there,' and show kids that if you work hard you can accomplish something. I liked being that role model. It was really cool."

These moments will likely become more frequent. Sweeney may crave the background, where he feels comfortable, but he has hit his way into a leading role.

He was the team's third catcher when the 1999 season started, then was moved to first base in late May, after Jeff King's sudden retirement. With fewer responsibilities and more at-bats, Sweeney blossomed.

All he did was hit .322 to lead the Royals. Sure, he played first base like the Tin Man, and at times still does. But when you hit 22 home runs and drive in 102 runs, you're allowed on-the-job training.

Sweeney may have been a well-kept secret, but word is getting around, spread by his own bat. He is among the league leaders in batting (.354), home runs (11) and runs batted in (42) this season. He is hitting .465 and has driven in 14 runs on the Royals' 13-game road trip, which wraps up against the Angels today.

People have noticed.

"He's not underrated in our clubhouse," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said. "This guy is an offensive force. They've got a good young club and Sweeney seems to be the cornerstone of it."

High praise indeed, considering the depth the Royals' talent pool is beginning to reach.

There were better stories around the clubhouse last season.

Much was made about the Royals' Dos Carlos, rookie second baseman Carlos Febles and outfielder Carlos Beltran, the American League rookie of the year.

Jermaine Dye was also having his own breakthrough season. Sweeney, ever-unassuming, remained quiet, content to have the others get the attention.

"I have never been a flashy guy or a talker," Sweeney said. "I'm not cocky or arrogant, and I hope I never have that image. Being unknown is better for me."

A luxury that can't last.

Baseball America named Sweeney, a 10th-round draft pick in 1991, the best player taken after the first round in the 1990s.

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Sweeney doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't curse. He is so deeply religious that Manager Tony Muser calls him "Reverend," a good-natured joke between the two.

"The first day of spring training, we were stretching out, all 67 of us, and Tony yells out really loud, 'Mike, do you still walk with the Lord?' " Sweeney said. "Then he yelled, 'It's OK to walk with the bases loaded, too.' "

Muser was the one who had faith in Sweeney.

When King surprised everyone by retiring on May 23 last year, Muser didn't have to think twice about who would fill the void.

Sweeney had been grinding it out as a catcher in the organization, a position he had played since he was 14. He had been with the Royals for all or part of four seasons.

His defensive abilities held him back, but his hitting could not be overlooked.

"Mike is one of those guys who always wants to do more," Muser said. "Sometimes it's best to do less. There is so much responsibility with being a catcher. I think moving to first base helped him relax. I wanted him to swing the bat and have some fun."

First base, though, was anything but a blast. Even Muser remarked late in the season that he feared for the safety of photographers in the first-base photo well.

Sweeney had his dad, Mike Sweeney Sr., hitting him ground balls at the Ontario Mountainview Little League field during the off-season. He then worked with former major leaguer Todd Benzinger during spring training.

He is better . . . somewhat.

"We just said, 'Go play first base in a major league stadium in front of thousands of people,' " Muser said. "Most people think you just stick a big galoot at first base, but it is a difficult position. You don't learn it overnight. We basically started from scratch with Mike, just knock the ball down and have your foot on the bag.

"He has improved. He turns some double plays. He is involved on bunt plays. He sometimes knows where to go on relays."

And he hits.

Last season, Sweeney hit in 16 consecutive games from June 22 through July 7. Two weeks later, he began a 25-game hitting streak, the third-longest in Royal history.

"Tony had the confidence in me and I got to play every day," Sweeney said. "But that was last season. I can't live off that. This is a new season."

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