MLB All-Star Mike Sweeney Talks Family, Playoffs and New ‘Pray’ Documentary
Venerable Patrick Peyton’s prolific promotion of the Rosary highlighted in film.
Shortly after Mike Sweeney arrived in Surprise, Arizona, on Feb. 15 of this year to mentor Kansas City Royals players during spring training on what it takes to be a Major League Baseball star, he got news he did not expect.
The five-time MLB All-Star was not merely surprised, but shocked, on March 12 when Major League Baseball announced it was canceling the rest of spring training and that the regular season would be postponed. The season eventually started in July, with a shortened, 60-game schedule, but without fans filling the stadiums.
Now that the playoffs are underway, Sweeney spoke of those and other aspects of baseball, including his “Surprise in Surprise” earlier this year. The father of six also discussed Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, a new documentary about Venerable Patrick Peyton of the Holy Cross Fathers.
Part of the film, which opens in a limited number of theaters on Oct. 9, is about the transformative power of prayer in Sweeney’s own life. Mike is more prayerful and joyful than ever in this Month of the Rosary and pro-life causes — especially while holding his 1-year-old son, Ryan Burke, who was named after his godfather, Father Burke Masters of Joliet, Illinois, the team chaplain for the Chicago Cubs.
When the Marlins’ Pat Venditte was interviewed in April, it was unclear what this season would look like. Now that games have been played, what do you think of this shortened MLB season?
Baseball is America’s pastime, so stadiums are typically packed with screaming fans and the aroma of hot dogs throughout the summer. It’s been awkward to see MLB games played without vendors selling cracker jacks and peanuts as well as not seeing any fans in the stands, except for the cardboard cutouts that fill the seats.
During this time of division and civil unrest in America, baseball has the potential to be a rallying point for unity in our great country. It takes me back to my playing days, when, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush threw out the first pitch while wearing a bullet-proof vest at a packed Yankee Stadium. We were threatened by unexpected violence, yet we came together as one race, the human race, thanks, in part, to the great game of baseball.
The upcoming playoffs might be at least the start of something that unites. There are more MLB teams than ever before in the 2020 playoffs, which is good for the sport. It gives more teams a shot at a World Series Championship and it gives more fans a chance to cheer on their teams as they sit with loved ones in their living rooms. It also gives families a chance to get a three-hour break from the news and enjoy seeing the game that has brought families together for over 100 years.
Due to COVID-19, there have been strenuous restrictions on the number of people allowed in MLB stadiums. I have not been able to interact with many of our KC Royals Catholics, which include minor-leaguers Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino, Major League players such as Scott Blewett, Ryan McBroom and Brad Keller, or Royals coaches John Mabry, Vance Wilson and Pedro Grifol.
Jeff, Toby and Cody are dealing with the same issues, yet we are trying to keep things in perspective. It’s sad that MLB has imposed these rules that prevent employees and coaches from physically being in the stadiums with the players to serve them on their Major-League journey, but they are doing this to protect the players.
The worst thing that I’ve seen is most of the current Minor League Baseball players, who are some of the most talented in the world, have not been allowed to play baseball this year. Due to Minor League Baseball’s cancellation of the 2020 season, many of the players had to go back to college or take jobs with UPS, car dealerships or construction companies rather than play baseball in the hope of fulfilling their big-league dreams.
I’m not the MLB commissioner nor am I an owner of a team, but if I were, I’d allow all professional players an opportunity to “play ball” and give fans the choice of whether to attend games. If fans don’t feel comfortable heading out to a stadium, they can stay safe in their homes. If fans are comfortable and healthy, I’d invite them to come out to a stadium to cheer on their team. We are called to be prudent during this pandemic but we are not called to live in fear. We are called to live a life of trust in God — a life of faith, love, joy and freedom.
One expected positive this season might be the chance to be with family more.
No question about that. Even though I’ve been forced to stay away from baseball, this has really been the most joyful time of my life. My wife, Shara, and I have six children now, ranging in age from 16 to almost 1. ’ve held my baby boy practically every day at Mass, enjoyed family dinners and have been able to coach my sons MJ and DJ in baseball — something that would not have been possible under normal conditions.
Pro sports can be tough on families, even after playing careers are over. Our family can certainly attest to that. Even though I was a practicing Catholic throughout my 20-year playing career, my flawed view of myself as a man was not as a “beloved son of God.” Rather, my identity was being a Major League Baseball player.
That meant, when my playing career ended in 2010, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had played baseball since I was 4, so when my career ended at age 37, I was searching and trying to figure out who I really was and what to do with my life. The fans were no longer cheering for me, kids were no longer asking for autographs, and big pay checks were no longer coming in because I was no longer a Major League Baseball player! I was lost.
Father Martin Latiff, a Miles Christi religious order priest whom I meet with monthly for spiritual direction, would often speak with me about the most important relationships in my life: Jesus, my wife Shara, my children, my family and my work. Shortly after retiring from Major League Baseball in 2010, I shared with Father Martin that, on a scale of 1 to 10, my relationship with my wife was an 8. Father Martin had me go home and ask my wife the same question about our marriage. Through tear-filled eyes, she told me she saw our marriage as a 3! It was like a punch to the face as my bride explained to me that in my search for my post-career identity, I was not present to her or our family and that I was not being the father or husband that God was calling me to be.
How did the situation improve?
I realized that I was not alone in my search for identity and that most athletes’ marriages struggle during the time of transition from playing to retirement. I read an alarming stat that showed 85% of professional athletes are bankrupt, chemically dependent and divorced within three years of retiring. It can be a trying time, but, thanks to prayer, my friendship with Jesus, my spiritual director Father Martin, the sacrament of reconciliation and the written word of God, we were able to work through these scary realities and come out better than ever before.
I also learned how to truly pray the Rosary during this time of growth in my life from a Holy Cross priest, Father Willy Raymond. Father Willy taught me how praying the Rosary is like holding hands with the Mother of God while worshipping her Son. I had recited the Rosary swiftly since childhood here and there, but Father taught me how to bring it to life by seeing myself within the mysteries of the Rosary as I offered this special set of prayers to God.
The Rosary is scripturally-based and draws us to worship Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is an encapsulation of everything we believe as Christians, and praying it has made my marriage so much sweeter.
Father Patrick Peyton coined the phrase “The family that prays together, stays together.” That’s true with the Sweeney family. I’d say that praying the Rosary is the glue that holds our family together, and praying it is my second favorite part of the day — just after receiving Jesus in Holy Communion at Mass every day that ends in “y.”
We pray the Rosary nightly after dinner when the kitchen is filled with messy dishes, pots and pans. Those sit until after we have taken the time to pray with the Mother of God — the one who made the Incarnation of Jesus possible. Mary brought us Jesus then and continues to bring us to Jesus today.
How did you get involved in the movie Pray, about Venerable Patrick Peyton?
Father Willy Raymond, producer-director Megan Harrington and Father David Duffy asked if Shara and I would like to be a part of this movie. We saw it as a way to share with the world the beauty of family prayer and share [specifically] our testimony of how it has blessed our family, so we said, “Yes.”
Pray tells the story of the famous Irish priest Patrick Peyton, who came to the U.S. in the late 1920s. Before he was ordained, he nearly died of tuberculosis. That was a depressing time for him, but he was saved from despair by praying to the Blessed Mother, who brought about a miraculous healing. Patrick Peyton became Father Peyton and went on to found Family Theater Productions in 1947 and conduct large Rosary rallies around the country and world.
Do you see a connection between Prayand the Vin Scully-narrated Rosary album from Catholic Athletes for Christ?
The first thing that typically comes to mind when people think of L.A. Dodger’s Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully is baseball, but with the CAC Rosary CDs, more people are seeing him as an Irish-American Rosary proponent, similar to Father Patrick Peyton.
I love to hear my daughters Fiona (8) and Quinn (6) — who are the youngest of our talking children — pray the Rosary. We take turns leading the prayers, so their voices stand out from time to time. I love to hear my children unpack the Mysteries of the Rosary and share the biblical truths tied to them. They are better formed as Catholic Christians than most adults I know. The only goal we have for our children is that they would spend eternity in heaven through a relationship with Jesus — and praying the Rosary encourages that hope and desire.
[With that said] I love to take out the CAC Vin Scully Rosary CDs from time to time to have him lead the way while we respond with the others — including Jeff Suppan — on the album. There’s something special about hearing Vin, the voice of baseball, state the Creed and then start the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, Glory Be, etc. Praying the Rosary with Vin Scully has brought thousands of men like me, who thought praying the Rosary was only for 80-year-old women, to fall in love with Jesus through praying this beautiful [set of prayers].
John Carney and Philip Rivers are involved in the production of the recently-released Fatima movie.Is that connected to Pray?
They do have the same overall Marian theme, but they are two separate movies. It’s kind of like Philip’s family and mine. The Rivers are a football family, and we are a baseball family, but we are both Catholic families. We have a lot in common with the Rivers, and we miss them terribly now that they are in Indianapolis with Philip as the QB of the Colts.
We are very close to Philip, Tiffany and their nine children. We got to say good-bye to them on their last day in San Diego. As final things were being packed into the trucks, we hugged, cried and prayed a decade of the Rosary with them as they left California to start a new chapter in their lives. It’s a chapter many miles away from us, but Philip will always be my brother in Christ, and I’m sure we’ll see each other again — maybe after his Super Bowl win early next year.
Actually, it’s ironic to bring up the Super Bowl because the major thing I recall with Philip and Tiffany is how detached they are from the world. Philip is one of the best QBs to ever to play in the NFL and is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around, yet he’s not attached to the things of this world. Philip has one foot on the football field and the other in his home with his family, but his eyes and heart are focused on heaven.
I would love to see Philip win the Super Bowl because he would probably be known for a postgame clip a little different than the usual. I can hear him saying something like, “I’m going to Fatima” or “I’m going to Mass” or “I’m going to pray the Rosary with my family” rather than “I’m going to Disneyland.”
Much of Philip’s grounding can be linked to his parents, and you can say the same of yours. How is your father’s health doing now?
My father, who is my hero, went through some very serious struggles in 2015. He had esophageal cancer and things looked really bad for a while. He was in the ICU at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona when the doctor told us that normally patients in his unit were monitored hour by hour, but in my father’s case it was minute by minute. He was about to die.
The doctor told me and my mother, as we were in a waiting area, these striking words: “You seem like a family of faith. I’m not trying to scare you, but faith is all you have right now.” Right as we were hearing this dreadful news, a Catholic priest got off the elevator and, rosary in hand, walked with us to my father’s room. He was anointed, and we prayed to God and a nine-day novena to St. Peregrine for a miracle.
That miracle did happen! Despite removing his esophagus and part of his stomach, suffering a punctured and collapsed lung, having a tracheotomy and being given 4 liters of blood, he was somehow able to still breathe. On May 17, 2015, after awaking from his nine-day, medically-induced coma, he asked me what happened to him. Next, he asked me to call my oldest sister, Chrissy, whose birthday was that day. What a selfless man! A man who should be dead asks to call his oldest daughter minutes after waking from a nine-day coma. Chrissy got the best present she could have hoped for, as my father fought with all his might to muster the words “happy birthday” through the phone.
My parents, the best Catholic Christians I have ever witnessed, have been married almost 50 years and have been blessed with eight children and 40 grandchildren. They are still dating and loving every day of life that God has given them together. My dad was declared cancer-free when his five-year scans came up clean earlier this year. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic saw my father’s recovery and healing as an act of God and unlike anything they have ever seen. We all must depart this earth at some point, but I’m grateful we have more time with my dad this side of heaven, due to the “Miracle at Mayo.”
Have you been able to practice the faith with the wildfires and shutdowns?
About 15 years ago our house suffered fire damage and other houses on our street actually burned down. Can’t get much worse than that, but this year we had no fire troubles at all, thanks be to God.
When COVID initially hit, I was unsure about what to do. Soon after, however, I prayed that our churches would remain open. The No. 1 thing in life is to know, love and serve God, which the Catholic Church gives us the opportunity to do in a public, communal way every day at Mass.
Despite the health concerns, our church’s attendance has exploded because people realize that church is where Christians should be during a time like this. Every other pew is roped off, and our parish has taken great measures to ensure the safety of all parishioners, but our parish has been open every day since March 13, yet not one Mass attendee has contracted COVID. We are truly blessed to be able to go to Bible studies, participate in the sacrament of reconciliation and receive Jesus in the Eucharist daily at Mass.
Whatever the problem might be, the answer is ultimately found in Christ and in Christ alone. The love of God for man and the love of man for God are manifested perfectly in Jesus Christ, who makes salvation possible for all who were created in the image and likeness of God. This should be proclaimed far and wide, without hesitation.
A lot of Christians have not been allowed to go to Mass or partake of the divine riches offered by the Holy Catholic Church for over seven months, which just breaks my heart. During this awful time, followers of Jesus are forced to watch the Mass on TV, read the Holy Scriptures at home and pray the Rosary as a family, miles from their parish.
My prayer is that every church in our country would swing open its doors and welcome everyone in to fall in love with Jesus. I would rather go to Mass daily and die at the ripe age of 47 than to live a life of fear in a bubble until I’m 100 years, held away from Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, alone and away from other believers, stripped of the Church’s sacraments and fed with the food of this world rather than the precious Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.
His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.