I guess the Royals just had to give yet another foolish contract to a washed-up ex-Mariner: Mike Sweeney signed a one-day contract with the Royals this past Friday so that he could retire as a member of the team that originally drafted him. A number of thoughtful Sweeney tributes were already posted before the weekend, and I'm sure there are more to come. Nothing will, of course, ever top this outstanding website preserving the memory of Sweeney’s forgotten 83-home-run campaign in 2003.
Sweeney inspires polarizing reactions, particularly among Royals fans. The pieces above cover the underlying issues — his performances, his personality, his big contract, his back injury — so I won’t rehash those issues here. In addition to the pieces linked above, I’m sure Joe Posnanski and Rany Jazayerli will be along to share their favorite Sweeney stories soon, and you can look up at his player page for the basic statistics. For my part, I’d like to take a look at some of Sweeney’s biggest hits in terms of the stat that tells a story: Win Probability Added.
3. May 15, 1997: This Tigers-Royals tilt was so long ago, Sweeney was still a couple of seasons from being moved off of catcher permanently. The game followed a pattern of the Tigers getting ahead by a few runs, then the Royals catching up. In the bottom of the ninth, with the Royals down 7-9, Johnny Damon led off the inning with a solo home run, and then Scott Cooper singled to bring Sweeney to the plate. This was Sweeney’s first plate appearance of the game, as the immortal Tim Spehr had started at catcher. Even more, um, “interesting,” is that Sweeney wasn’t even hitting for Spehr directly — Sweeney had come in as a defensive replacement after Willie Bloomq– I mean David Howard had pinch-hit for Spehr in the seventh. It all worked out (strategery!), and Sweeney hit a two-run, game winning home run off Doug Brocail to give the Royals a win, a play worth .643 WPA.
2. June 15, 2003: During their amazing 2003 run that saw them in the divisional lead for much of the season, culminating in a 83-win finish that had the added “benefit” of causing the option on Sweeney’s big contract to vest, the Royals vanquished their ancient foe, the San Francisco Giants, 5-4. There were big hits by legends like Barry Bonds (off of Jose Lima!) to Raul Ibanez, but no star shone brighter than Sweeney that day. Down 3-4 in the bottom the ninth inning, the Royals got a double from Yuniesk– Angel Berroa, eventual 2003 Rookie of the Year, who was then bunted over to third. After Desi Relaford struck out, Aaron Guiel managed a walk again Giants’ closer Tim Worrell. Sweeney then drove an 0-2 fastball into the gap, bringing both Berroa and Guiel home for the win (.768 WPA). NOSOTROS CREEMOS!
1. May 12, 2004. The 2003 season wasn’t much of a follow-up, with the Royals dropping to 56 wins. It was in some ways a typical game for this era, with Angel Berroa managing to get in an error right away in the first inning. By the ninth, the Royals were down 2-3. With two outs, and runners on first and third, Sweeney doubled to left to win the game for the Royals (.792 WPA).
Those are Sweeney’s three biggest games by WPA, but for me, perhaps one of his most memorable hits in retrospect was one the Royals ended up losing 11-12 versus Oakland, who set an American League record on September 4, 2002 with their 20th consecutive win. This passage from Moneyball recounting the reaction to Sweeney’s three-run homer (.128 WPA) in the top of the eighth (which brought the score to 10-11; the Royals began the fourth inning down 0-11) is not only entertaining, but recalls the esteem with which Sweeney was once held by opponents:
When play resumes, Jeff Tam and Mike Sweeney fight a great battle. On the tenth pitch of the at bat, after fouling off four pitches with Superman swings, Sweeney takes a slider from Tam and golfs it off the 1-800-BAR-NONE sign, just over the left field wall.
Something big crashes in the clubhouse.
On the TV over Art Howe’s desk, Art himself is again on his way to the mound, to replace Jeff Tam with a lefty named Micah Bowie, Mike Sweeney enthusiastically explains to his teammates in the Kansas City dugout how he thought his home run was a foul ball….Billy [Beane] bursts back in the room — cheeks red, teeth black. “F—ing Tam,” he says. “He thinks he’s going to fool the best hitter in the league with his slider.”
Best of luck, Mike Sweeney.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.