Before there was Mike Sweeney, the former Seattle Mariner, there was Mike Sweeney, the former Saint Martin's Saint.
In 1968, Mike Sweeney Sr. was an 18-year-old freshman guard popping outside jumpers for Saint Martin’s junior varsity basketball team.
The father of the veteran first baseman now playing for the Philadelphia Phillies came to Saint Martin’s 42 years ago after starring in basketball and baseball at Mater Dei High School in California.
“Saint Martin’s just seemed like the perfect fit,” Sweeney said. “I’ve got great memories of Saint Martin’s. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
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Before his son made his name famous, Mike Sweeney Sr. was pursuing his dream of playing college basketball. But on Dec. 16, 1968, that dream ended when Sweeney raced down the court, chasing an opponent on a fastbreak.
Sweeney leaped to block a layup and felt something pop in his knee.
“My knee just kind of blew up,” Sweeney said in a recent phone interview.
He returned home to Anaheim, Calif., for surgery and missed the rest of the season. Against doctor’s orders, he played basketball his sophomore season.
“Being a full-blooded Irishman, that didn’t sit well about not playing,” Sweeney said with a chuckle. “I wanted to prove the doctor wrong.”
Like his son, Sweeney played with a fiery determination, always hustling in games and in practice.
“He had an outstanding attitude,” said Jerry Vermillion, then varsity coach at Saint Martin’s. “He had a real positive attitude. Very coachable. Got along well with everyone. He was a great hustler. It was disappointing when he got hurt.”
Sweeney needed his knee drained several times his sophomore year and it continued to give him problems throughout the season.
“That’s when I decided to make a career change,” Sweeney said.
When the season ended, Sweeney picked up a bat and turned out for Saint Martin’s baseball team as a center fielder. But it wasn’t long before his coach, Dick Kaufman, switched Sweeney to pitcher to take advantage of his strong arm.
In doubleheaders, Sweeney said, he sometimes pitched in both games, starting one and throwing in relief in the other.
Though Sweeney played only one season for Kaufman and attended Saint Martin’s two years, he named his second son, Richard, after Kaufman.
“Dick was a special guy. He was a career military guy, retired from the Army,” said Sweeney, the son of a career Navy man.
“He was very staunch, a man of principle. I really respected him.”
Sweeney doesn’t remember the Saints being very good that spring in 1970.
“We were a doormat,” Sweeney said with a chuckle. “When we won our first game, people were shocked.”
Sweeney, now 60, returned to his alma mater for the first time seven years ago, touring the campus with his famous son.
Mike Jr. had just married Shara, who grew up in Tacoma and played volleyball at Pacific Lutheran University. The wedding was in California and a reception was in Tacoma, giving Mike Sr. a chance to return to Saint Martin’s.
While looking through a yearbook while on campus, Mike Sr. saw a picture of Art Acuff, the former Saints athletic director. That led to a phone call with his old friend.
“Art remembered me and what had happened to me,” Sweeney said. “Art was a good man. I had a good relationship with him.”
Sweeney’s oldest son has lived the life he once wanted.
The elder Sweeney told all his sons that he’d take them to the batting cage whenever they wanted.
“But they had to ask,” Sweeney said. “I wasn’t going to push them.”
Mike Jr. started asking to go to the batting cages when he was 3. His dad coached him from Little League to ninth grade.
“Mikey wanted to go to the batting cage every night,” Sweeney said. “His work ethic was unparalleled. He always worked hard at it.”
The elder Sweeney has no hard feelings toward the Mariners for trading his son last week to Philadelphia. Quite the contrary.
“I was happy with the trade because it gives Mike the chance to play for a playoff contender,” Sweeney said.
In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, a survey of major league baseball players said that the nicest player in baseball is Mike Sweeney Jr.
“The two nicest people I’ve met in my life are my wife and Mike,” Mike Sr. said. “I tell people all the time we’re much more proud of who Mike is and not what Mike is.
“He’s a great human being who just happens to play baseball.”
Gail Wood: 360-754-5443 firstname.lastname@example.org