A Bat, a Bible and a Purpose in Life

Mike Sweeney was a 4-pound “preemie” at birth. He went on to be a four-time all-star first baseman with the Kansas City Royals.

Although a strained back has sidelined him lately, he's the happy father of a firstborn son, Michael John, born in March.

Sweeney spoke to Register correspondent Bob Horning about ways in which the Catholic faith has been instrumental in his career and in his life.

Tell us about life growing up in your family.

I was born two months prematurely and spent my first six weeks in the hospital. I had pneumonia and turned blue. When the doctors determined that I needed a blood transfusion, my dad called the priest to have me baptized, since the operation could be fatal. He baptized me right in the incubator. The next morning when they came to do the transfusion, I didn't need it. I was healed. I believe God had his hand on me.

The Church was obviously important to your family.

Yes. The seed of going to church and reading the Bible was planted in me as a boy. We never missed Mass on Sunday and always had dinner together afterward before heading out for our athletic events. I was the oldest of eight children and grew up in Ontario, Calif., just east of Los Angeles.

My dad played minor-league ball for two years but retired when he realized he couldn't support a family on $550 per month. He began driving a beer truck and later became a branch manager. My mom stayed at home and also baby-sat other kids to earn extra money.

When I was 16, I went on a confirmation retreat. Up until then, I had a head knowledge of what Jesus had done for me on the cross, but that weekend I embraced it as my own. It was the most joyful time of my life.

Did you dream of being a baseball player when you were growing up?

Yes. I wanted to be like my dad. I remember a friend of my dad's, Brian Downing, who played with the California Angels, coming to talk to our Little League team when I was 6 years old. He was my boyhood hero, so that really fed my dream.

You were drafted out of high school in 1991 at age 17. What was that like?

I packed up and headed for the rookie league in Florida with only my travel bag and Bible. The first Sunday I had to pay $5, which was a lot of money for me, to get to Mass. I waited around afterward trying to get a ride back but wasn't able to until Father Domingo Gonzales offered.

First, though, he had to say the Spanish Mass. From then on, every week he would pick me up for Mass, and Spanish Mass, then we would go to lunch and he would take me home. He was a good influence on a 17-year-old, and we still keep in touch. Plus, I learned Spanish pretty well, which comes in handy with all the Latino players now.

For the baseball fans reading this, what is the toughest thing about hitting?

Physically, you have to be a warrior; mentally, you have to believe in yourself. I would say the toughest pitch to hit is a split-finger fastball. It looks just like a fastball coming to the plate, then it suddenly drops, like off of a table.

How do you deal with life on the road, since between April and October you are traveling half of the time?

Years ago, if you were a Christian ballplayer, you took a lot of criticism. Now it's more accepted. Still, it comes down to choosing the world or choosing Christ. I have been fortunate to have good Christian friends around me. Often after a game, seven or eight of us will meet for Bible study or we will talk shop. That's more honoring to God and to our wives than going to a bar. On Sunday, I go to Mass, and at the stadium we have baseball chapel for the players. Seventeen or 18 guys come for that.

In addition, Jeremy Affeldt, one of our pitchers, and I meet regularly to hold one another accountable, helping each other to stay pure in mind and body.

But traveling is tough, probably one of the toughest things about being a professional athlete. I have missed a lot of my siblings' events — graduations, weddings, confirmations, first Communions. I have been married two years now to Shara and have a son who was born in March, so I see them when we are playing at home. In the meantime, I call her every day, and she sends me pictures on my picture phone.

You recently became the new national spokesman for the youth movement Life Teen. What does that entail?

I basically speak to teen groups and in churches throughout the country. For example, in March, during spring training in Arizona, we had a Life Teen Day. One thousand kids attended a baseball game, then a concert and a talk by Life Teen founder Msgr. Dale Fushek. I am blessed to wear a big-league jersey and be able to use my position to help spread God's word.

There is nothing worse than seeing kids fall away from their faith during the teen years. That is when they need to embrace Christ, not embrace what the world offers through drugs, alcohol, sex. When I first came to Kansas City, I was a part-time parish youth minister. I saw kids get excited about the faith. They are at an age when their hearts can catch fire for Jesus, and I can help by pouring on some gas.

How does your Catholicism help you with baseball?

First, it gives me a purpose in life. I am playing for an audience of one, Christ, not for myself, the fans or teammates. He is my plumb line. Because of that, I can have joy even if things aren't going well on the field. As the Bible says, Jesus will never leave nor forsake us.

The Creator of the world chose to love me through what Jesus did on the cross, so my inheritance is eternal life. He did it all. I did nothing. Because I am playing for him, I work harder. I want to please him. I want my attitude to glorify God even if I am in a slump. They say true Christianity is doing right when things are rough, not when they are easy.

It sounds like you enjoy being Catholic.

When I wear a crucifix, I represent the Catholic Church. When people see how I live, they should be able to say, “Man, I want to be like him.” I am proud to be a Catholic. I want people to know that I love Jesus, I love Scripture, and I love the Catholic Church.

Bob Horning writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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