KANSAS CITY -- Underneath all the smiles and hugs, the charity and church work, the base hits and Boys in Blue, there's a Mike Sweeney who's a bit frayed.
His father, Big Mike Sweeney, was in from California this weekend for what could be his son's farewell baseball game in Kansas City.
"The last two years have really beaten him up emotionally. Physically, he feels great," Big Mike mused as he watched batting practice. "Did you see him go from first to home [Friday] night? That's the best he's run in five years.
"Physically, he feels wonderful. Emotionally, he's really beat up right now, and I think what he really needs is some time in the next two months to just kind of let his hair down, clear his mind and just wait and listen to what Dayton has to say."
That's Dayton Moore, the Royals general manager. He'll consider his options with the Royals' long-time captain, whose contract is up with free agency approaching.
"I really think in his heart he'd like to return to Kansas City. I just get that feeling," Big Mike said. "The way he interacts with kids and their parents outside signing autographs, the clubhouse guys, everybody around here. ... I really think his heart is here in Kansas City and he really loves the people here.
If Sunday was to be his last game for KC, Sweeney made sure he went out with a heart-felt flourish. He bought 500 tickets for military personnel, purchased a full-page ad in the Kansas City Star to thank fans for their support and gave embossed Bibles to friends at the ballpark.
Against the Indians, Sweeney played first base for the first time since May 18. When he came to bat in the first inning, the fans gave him a warm reception, many standing to applaud.
"My first at-bat, I had to fight back tears when I was digging in the box, and I can never recall a moment like that, maybe since I was a little boy," he said.
After Sweeney fouled out in the sixth inning, manager Buddy Bell left him in the game until there was one out in the seventh. Then he sent in Jason Smith to replace him.
Sweeney hugged Smith, bowed in the direction of his teammates on the field and then bowed to the fans in the stands. There was a standing ovation and the crowd of 19,104 cheered until Sweeney bounced up the dugout steps for a curtain call, tipping his cap in gratitude.
After the 4-2 loss to Cleveland, Sweeney hugged teammates and usher JoAnn Colbert, Indians pitcher Paul Byrd and buddy Joe Randa. He ran around the diamond with his children, Michael and McKara. Brothers Tim and Richard joined Big Mike in the fast-emptying clubhouse. Outside the door, mother Maureen and wife Shara waited.
"If this is my last day as a Kansas City Royal, I couldn't picture going out any better way," he said into a swarm of cameras, microphones and notebooks. "The fans were incredible. ... The only thing missing was a win. If this is the finish line, I'll never forget it."
|"If this is my last day as a Kansas City Royal, I couldn't picture going out any better way."|
|-- Mike Sweeney|
Bell, who has been discussing the matter with Moore, said: "I don't think the book is closed on Mike coming back here."
Whether he stays or leaves, he's sure to remain the same Mike Sweeney, a man who makes a mark on memories every day.
"There aren't enough kind words ...," said Bell, who was managing his last game for the Royals.
Even so, Bell tried.
"He's got the best combination of passion and competitiveness than anybody I've seen," Bell said. "He's just so sincere and so genuine, it's really hard to believe at times. I think it rubs off on our guys. He's taken an active role in dealing with our younger guys and taking them off to the side and explaining things to them. The situation we were in when we first got here, we couldn't have got this thing going in the right direction without Mike Sweeney."
Center fielder David DeJesus was one younger player helped by Sweeney.
"He's one of the most positive guys I've ever been around," DeJesus said. "Whenever anything goes wrong, he's always there. If you're struggling, he'll talk about like, 'You know, you're a good player and get lots of good swings and stuff like that.' And he's produced over the years and when he goes out, it's going to be one of the guys in Kansas City like George Brett and Frank White. Mike Sweeney is going to be one of them also."
Counting a token September callup in 1995 -- a reward for his great season at Class A Wilmington -- this was Sweeney's 13th season with the Royals. Because of injuries that reduced his playing time significantly starting in 2002, he didn't match the legendary status of Brett or White.
Oh, those injuries.
"That just wears on him," his father said. "He's told me two or three times in the last month, 'You know, Dad, I've worked as hard as I can work and for the last two years, I've come into Spring Training thinking this is the year and I'm going to take off again because I'm as healthy as can be. Then something jumps up, the knee or God knows what.' That's what's worn him down mentally. It's not what's happened on the field, it's his inability to get on the field. Mike, with his character and wanting to help the team as much as he can, it just tears him up."
Yet Sweeney was a five-time All-Star and Royals Player of the Year three times. He holds the Royals record for most RBIs in a season, 144, in 2000. He hit .340 in 2002, second only to Brett's .390 in 1980.
Sweeney is also second in career homers with 197 to Brett's 317 and is second in career slugging percentage, .497 to Danny Tartabull's .518. His career batting average, which slipped to .299 when he went 0-for-3 Sunday, is third-best in club history.
Most of all, though, Sweeney has been the Royals' leader in spirit, religion and humanity.
"He's just as sincere as they come, always positive. Everything I ever heard about him is pretty much on the money," said pitcher Gil Meche, who came from the Mariners.
"And that came from a guy named Raul Ibanez who himself is a pretty nice guy. I always told Raul that he's the nicest guy in the world. He always said, 'Well, you haven't met Mike Sweeney yet.' Now I'm here and I meet Sweeney and I'm like, 'Holy cow, this guy is pretty unique.'"
Right fielder Mark Teahen's connection goes back to southern California days, when his father taught Sweeney in junior high school.
"He took me under his wing right away and made sure I felt as comfortable as I could and he does that pretty much for everybody that comes up," Teahen. "You couldn't ask for a better teammate. It's unfortunate that he's been pretty banged up the last few years but he's left a pretty good legacy in Kansas City."
There's seemingly no end to the compliments.
"His smile can break ice," pitcher Brian Bannister said. "I had the pleasure of doing a fantasy camp with both Sean Casey and Mike Sweeney. I can verify that kids just adore those guys. They might be big and intimidating, but when the camp is over, those kids feel like they are their best friends. Those guys are amazing and baseball really needs more of those guys."
"He's right up there [with Casey]," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "He's religious and feels very strongly about that and that is awesome. He's always positive and uplifting and he always tries to do good everywhere he goes."
Bell, stepping down as manager, had Sweeney as his captain for almost three years.
"He's like a son to me," Bell said.
Bell was told that Sweeney said that Bell was like a second father to him.
"Yeah, well, that's because I yell at him," Bell said, chuckling.
Whether Sweeney's career will continue here or elsewhere remains to be seen. But his impact endures.
"There's not an insincere bone in his body," Bell said. "He genuinely wants everybody to feel good."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.