The Missing Piece

Long before any player put on a uniform this spring, there were days of discussion spent on just what the Seattle Mariners needed in 2009.

More pitching, better defense, left-handed power, a stronger bench ... it wasn’t a short list, and general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu kept adding to it.

When they got around to discussing the clubhouse and how best to avoid the meltdowns of 2008, Wakamatsu made a request.

He wanted Mike Sweeney.

“We were aware of the issues that go along with a team losing 100 games,” Wakamatsu said. “To be successful, you all have to be going in the same direction.”

It’s about establishing a comfort level, a trust in the clubhouse. It’s about having respect for one another and for the team.

“Sweeney was a piece we needed.”

He wasn’t hard to get. Released last year by Oakland after surgeries on both knees, Sweeney was at home with his family when the Mariners called. Wakamatsu had been with the Athletics last year, had seen Sweeney in good times and bad.

“We talked, and Don said ‘Just be yourself,’ ” Sweeney said. “I knew the situation here, and Don is one of my favorite people in baseball. I wanted to help him turn this around.”

There was one small sticking point.

“I had to make the team,” Sweeney said. “And until two days before camp broke, I wasn’t sure I had. By that time, I’d gotten to know the guys on this team, and I felt I owed it to them to try to help them get back to winning.”

Sweeney made the team by staying healthy and hitting, and he’s hit well in April, too. Still, from the day he put on a Mariners uniform, he began filling a role Zduriencik and Wakamatsu knew they needed filled.

Sweeney was a leader.

“A lot of leadership is how you go about your business, how you go about getting your point across,” catcher Jamie Burke said. “What a leader does is drive it home – it’s all about the team, not the individual. We don’t all hang out together off the field, but here, at the ballpark, you have to be involved in the team. Sweeney’s done that.

“In this clubhouse now, there aren’t really any fragmented groups. There’s a team. I can’t tell you how different that is.”

At 35, Sweeney speaks fluent Spanish. He’s played the game well for more than a decade and has earned the respect of his peers. He has seen the value of humor in a clubhouse, and the need for discipline.

Humor isn’t an issue.

Between Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr., there’s been more laughter in the Seattle clubhouse than Adrian Beltre can remember seeing.

“I always work,” Beltre said. “It’s easier working when you’re smiling. Everyone on this team wants to be here, in this clubhouse. We get here early to do the work, and to see what’s going to happen next.”

Beltre smiled when he said it. Across the clubhouse, Jarrod Washburn noticed.

There weren’t many smiles last year, he said, and from Beltre, almost none.

“It wasn’t much fun,” Washburn said. “Not for anyone.”

The first week of the season, veteran pitcher Miguel Batista was angered that he wasn’t used in a closing situation in Oakland. After a game in which David Aardsma got his first big-league save, Sweeney and the team gave Aardsma the expected beer shower.

Batista sat alone at his locker throughout, staring into space.

The next morning, Sweeney pulled a chair up to Batista’s, and the two talked for more than 30 minutes. It was obvious Batista didn’t like everything he heard, but he listened.

“How do you value what you can’t quantify? Mike’s value to this team goes beyond what he can do physically,” Wakamatsu said. “He’s the best example of what we’ve talked about here since camp opened – all of us need to give more than we take.

“Don’t come to the park thinking you need two hits to get your average up. Come here thinking you might have the chance to help this team win. You get every one to that point, you’re going to get the maximum out of the ability we have.”

For Sweeney, it can be a conversation that needs to be had, an example that needs to be set, a hard lesson that must be taught. He remembered his father teaching him one he never forgot.

“When I was a boy playing Little League, I didn’t run all out to first base,” Sweeney said. “My dad grabbed me by the jersey later and said, ‘Never again. I’ll pull you off the field first.’

“Well, I’ve never done it again, so that worked.”

Sweeney laughs when asked about leadership.

“I lead a little like St. Francis of Assisi did. He said he was called to preach the gospel, and whenever necessary, he used words,” Sweeney said. “That’s how I feel. If I have to, I’ll use words.”

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Sweeney’s impact in the Mariners clubhouse is how naturally it has come.

“Guys look for leadership in the clubhouse,” Brandon Morrow said. “What Sweeney has done is bring everyone together, including guys that might not have felt together without him in here.”

It hasn’t only been Sweeney, but from the outset he was willing to fill the role. Others have followed.

“Felix (Hernandez) has taken huge steps in that direction,” Wakamatsu said. “Washburn, Beltre – they’re examples of leadership. And Griffey? This is a man with 613 career home runs. When he bunts a man over, that’s leadership. If he can do that, how can anyone else be beyond it?

“I break managing down to three areas – dealing with the media, dealing with your players and in-game strategy. Sweeney helps with the first two, and that’s invaluable.”

Example? A year ago, after games, a lot of veteran players wouldn’t come out of the food room until the media left. It was something Zduriencik and Wakamatsu heard about and thought had to change.

It has.

“You want camaraderie in a clubhouse, but it has to be genuine. You want a clubhouse where guys want to be there,” Wakamatsu said. “Sweeney brings an energy to a club, and it’s always positive energy.”

In Kansas City, where he spent most of his career, Sweeney was perceived by the press as the nicest guy on the team – meaning he was too nice to be an effective leader. A leader, it was believed, was someone fiery, like George Brett.

Sweeney remembers the perception – and the reality.

“I had the honor in Kansas City of wearing the letter ‘C’ on my uniform, and George Brett put it on me,” Sweeney said. “Some people thought I wasn’t tough enough or mean enough, but I got that honor for who I was, not who I might become.”

He became a Seattle Mariner for who he was.

What he’s become has filled a void and helped a 101-loss team see the game differently.