Mike Sweeney could catch, and Mike Sweeney could hit. He just couldn't seem to do both at the same time, which is why he's not heading for the Hall of Fame someday. And today he's announced his retirement, which makes this a good time to appreciate an unlikely career that might have been so much more.
In three early trials with the Royals as a catcher, Sweeney ... well, Sweeney hit like a catcher. And truth be told, he wasn't much of a catcher. So in 1999 management turned him into a DH/1B type, and we saw one of the more amazing transformations we're ever likely to see, as Sweeney immediately transmogrified into one of the better right-handed hitters in the American League. That first season in the new role, he batted .322 and knocked in 122 runs.
And the second season? Sweeney drove in 144 runs, smashing the franchise record.
It wasn't enough for the Royals to win, though. And later, in just another example of his ineptitude, manager Tony Muser essentially blamed his team's struggles on Sweeney -- arguably his best player -- who supposedly was drinking too much milk and not enough whiskey (or something). The real problem was that the Royals didn't have any pitching, which was hardly Sweeney's fault.
Meanwhile, Sweeney did have problems of his own: He just couldn't stay healthy. After averaging 152 games per season from 1999 through 2001, a wide variety of maladies would keep Sweeney from ever playing more than 126 games in another season. And the Royals were stuck with him, because he's signed a unique contract that guaranteed him big money through 2007 if the club finished with a winning record in 2003 or '4 ... which, miraculously enough, actually happened.
The deal wasn't Sweeney's fault, and he seemed to genuinely appreciate Kansas City while never (that I can remember) complaining about the organization and its losing ways. But the contract was an albatross -- he spent a large percentage of his last four seasons with the Royals on the DL -- and just another great example of the mismanagement that led to so many losing seasons.
Sweeney did finally leave the Royals after his contract expired, and kept hitting line drives when he was healthy. Which wasn't often. He can probably roll out of bed and hit line drives still ... when he's healthy enough to roll out of bed. And I'm guessing he just got tired of fighting those battles with his body every morning.
With the exception of Tony Muser, I've never known anyone to say a negative word about Mike Sweeney. It's a shame he couldn't have been the player his talents suggested he might be. But for a few years, he was the best reason to be a Royals fan. And he'll not be forgotten.