Sweeney healthy

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Associated Press

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Mike Sweeney keeps a Bible verse taped to his locker.

It's from Paul's letter to the Romans:

''Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.''

Sweeney should know about pain. Back problems have put a dent in Sweeney's batting average in recent years -- although it's still a healthy .305 for his career -- and caused the four-time All-Star to miss 146 games during the past three seasons.

And his perseverance -- his belief that working through pain is a sign of character, if you will -- was part of the problem.

''There was a time in Minnesota last year. I didn't have a good game, my back was killing me, I felt like I couldn't get loose,'' Sweeney said after a spring training game earlier this month. ''So I said, ''Screw it,' and while the bus drove away, I went down to the cage and took probably 400 swings until my back got loose.

''And then, it started hurting again.''

Now, with his back healthy for the first time in years, Sweeney's hope is that an intensive offseason workout program, coupled with a more realistic work ethic, will lead to a ''less is more'' season: less pain, more production.

''I'm not 25 years old any more. I'm 31, and the last few years I've been plagued with back injuries,'' said Sweeney, who reported at a muscular 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. ''I want to be the best. I want to do anything I can. But at the same time, I want to be smart.''

That meant altering, if not undoing, years of conditioning.

''The reason why he made the big leagues, the reason why he became the player he became was 'More is better,''' general manager Allard Baird said. ''He genuinely believes 'If I'm not hitting, I need to go in the cage for three hours and hit,' when maybe if he's not hitting, what he needs to do is take a day off.''

Sweeney's work ethic came from his father, an operations manager for Anheuser-Busch.

''He always told me, 'God gave you the talent, but if you want to achieve that goal, then you have to work harder than everyone else,''' Sweeney said. ''As a boy, I was always taught that if you hit a ground ball, you'd better run it out. You're expected to do arm exercises when you're 12 years old to strengthen your shoulder. If your doctor or your trainer tells you to do them three times a week, you do them three times a week.''

And now, if the trainer says ''Sit,'' Sweeney sits.

Sweeney, whose 2004 season ended in August with a disk injury, has had his new approach tested already this year.

When he developed tightness in an oblique muscle -- unrelated to his previous back problems, trainer Nick Swartz said -- he sat out for a week.

When he came back, it was with a solid stroke at the plate.

''He's swinging the bat really good right now,'' manager Tony Pena said. ''It's going to be really important to have him around all year.''

But with the Royals cutting payroll and launching another youth movement, Sweeney could become prime trade bait if he returns to the form that saw him hit .340 -- the second-highest average in club history -- in 2002.

When Sweeney signed a $55 million. five-year contract extension in April 2002, he insisted on an escape clause: If the Royals didn't produce a .500 season by 2004, he could void the deal and become a free agent.

The Royals went 83-79 in 2003, locking Sweeney in through 2007 -- then tumbled to a franchise-worst 104 losses last year.

''We came off a 104-loss season last year, and there are teams I know of that would like to have me on their team,'' Sweeney said. ''But I don't worry about that. I put my future in God's hands and I come out here every day and play hard and try to be the best leader and teammate I can for these guys.''

Sweeney's clubhouse leadership is evident in the attention the younger players give him. Also more noticeable this year is the increasing ease with which Sweeney shows confidence in himself.

After one spring training game, he was recounting a successful at-bat when Baird walked in.

''Finally, you see how good you are,'' the general manager said. ''You wouldn't have done that in the past.''

It wasn't false modesty, Sweeney said.

''I know I've been blessed with some talent, but I'm 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration,'' he said. ''I feel like I've gotten to where I am today because of my work ethic. It's not something where I can just wake up the day before spring training and say, I'm going to go out and play baseball and be great at it.''

Sweeney started his career as a catcher, but moved to first base in 2000. And while his range is not a strong suit -- due in part to his right-handedness, which puts his glove hand away from the field of play -- his .989 fielding average is certainly respectable.

''I have had to work very hard to do well at first base,'' he said. ''I'm a blue collar guy. I'm not fancy. I'm not going to showboat out there. I'm just going to put in the work.''

Now, though, the challenge is to draw the line between work and overwork -- and not to cross it.

''Rather than taking 100 ground balls, I'll take 40 or 50 and say, 'OK, that's enough,''' he said. ''Rather than going out if I don't get a hit in one game and hitting 250 balls in the field, extra hitting and waking up the next morning with a bad back, I'll say, 'You know what? I'm going to watch some video, and I'm going to go home. I'm going to believe in myself that tomorrow I'm going to get 'em.'''

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