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Mike Sweeney answers a call for help

The first baseman/designated hitter has to deal with his sons' health problems, but that doesn't stop him from organizing a fundraiser to benefit the family of Michael Ortiz, who was killed in the Covina massacre.

February 06, 2009|Lance Pugmire

As he sat for hours in his infant son's hospital room, Mike Sweeney didn't feel much like a multimillionaire, a five-time All-Star or the most popular Kansas City Royals player since George Brett.

He was scared and desperate, wrapped in fear with his frail son's life in peril.

"When I held my 3-week-old baby in my hands all I could feel was his spine and ribs," Sweeney said. "He was shriveling away, below his birth weight of eight pounds. I didn't really know what his disease was . . . . I was a terrified father."

Then, the phone rang.

A student from Sweeney's alma mater, Ontario High, was asking for help.

Michael Ortiz, one of the school's baseball players, had been among the nine killed in a Christmas Eve massacre in Covina.

Ortiz, 17, had been, like Sweeney was during his days at the school, a bright and ambitious student in addition to being a fine ballplayer. He and his mother, Alicia, a former sister-in-law of the heavily armed gunman, were left dead along with the boy's grandparents, three of his aunts and two uncles. The survivors included his two sisters, Monique and Cecily, who jumped from a second-story window to survive the attack, and his father and cousins.

"When I heard the story repeated to me; when they told me Michael valued himself as a student first and athlete second, like myself, and that he was a wonderful Catholic kid who lived his faith, it absolutely broke my heart," Sweeney said.

The caller asked, "Would you help organize a fundraiser for Michael's family?"

Sweeney, 35, barely paused. "I knew I was going through a crazy time, but someone had a heavier burden than me," he said.

Holding the hand of his own ailing son, Sweeney told the student he would help.

Not long after, on Jan. 8 at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, tiny Donovan Sweeney emerged from surgery for pyloric stenosis, a rare condition that stops food movement from the stomach to the small intestine. The baby was sent home a day later and has continued to put on weight.

But the infant's father was wearing down. Given his own family's trials and a challenging recovery from double knee surgery in 2008, Mike Sweeney was contemplating retirement after 14 major league seasons.

He was one percentage point shy of being a .300 career hitter, one home run short of 200. Even so, the first baseman and designated hitter -- the 2007 Fred Hutchinson Award winner as the player who "best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire" -- said he "didn't know what the next chapter would entail."

His plans became cloudier on Jan. 12 when his oldest child, 4-year-old Michael James Sweeney, began suffering a series of Grand Mal seizures. More emergency room visits took place until doctors diagnosed the boy with epilepsy.

Since then, medication has helped control Michael James' symptoms.

"As of now, we're out of the woods, and we're praying for no more drama," said Sweeney, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe with his wife, Shara, the two boys and 3-year-old daughter McKara.

And so Sweeney will turn his focus to a baseball camp organized to raise funds for Michael Ortiz's family. It will take place Saturday, rain or shine, at Ontario High, where Sweeney will be joined by some of his major league friends -- Geoff Blum, Eddie Guardado and Jeremy Reed among them -- plus a few current and former professional athletes from the Inland Valley.

The event has "blossomed into something that has taken on its own life," said Jen Munoz, a student advisor at the high school. "Mike Sweeney has been so active, working harder than myself and other organizers, and everyone who calls me to donate something says what a good heart he has, that they'd do anything for Mikey.' "

Sweeney says he has been deluged with baseball apparel and gear he'll distribute to campers from Nike, the Angels, Dodgers, Royals, and a sporting goods company. There will also be a silent auction, which will include an Albert Pujols-signed All-Star jersey, a commemorative 300-save ball from Trevor Hoffman, a Junior Seau-signed football and a baseball signed by Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Actor Peter Fonda and other celebrities are expected to attend.

More than $20,000 in donations has been secured, and Sweeney won a promise from an anonymous donor to double whatever the total proceeds are after Saturday.

"The kind of person Mike Sweeney is, the way he conducts himself -- that's what's made this possible," said Ontario High Vice Principal Cary Wilborn, who said he has received checks from as far as Dubai.

"I love helping out, putting a smile on someone's face," Sweeney said. "I guess the easiest thing in the world for me to do with that phone call was to put a check in the mail and say, 'God bless.' [But] sometimes, people need more than a check.

"This is about the entire community wrapping its arms around Michael's family."

When Sweeney is finished, he will turn his attention to another project -- spring training. The Seattle Mariners last week signed him to a contract, giving him a chance to crack the .300-average, 200-homer club.

Some new fans will be rooting for him.

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The clinic will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Ontario High, 901 W. Francis St. in Ontario. It is intended for boys and girls age 6 and up, with a $50 donation per child. Information: (909) 460-5814.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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