After the years of regular breakdowns and relentless defeat, Mike Sweeney says his heart remains in the game, and it's good to know there's still a willing body part in there somewhere.
Today it's his right knee, "some cartilage thing," he said, that the arthroscope probably will get to after the season.
If nothing else, the knee breaks up the monotony of the back and neck ailments, so there's something new to treat, to rehabilitate, to agonize over, and something else to think about while he watches the Kansas City Royals lose baseball games.
Sweeney is in the final months of a five-year, $55-million contract, during which he has never played close to a full season. That's a big commitment and a bigger financial hit in a place such as Kansas City, amounting to between one-quarter and one-fifth of the Royals' payroll since, and to more than half of what David Glass paid for the franchise seven years ago.
The franchise might still be playing annually to avoid 100 losses if Sweeney played every game of every season, or if it had never re-upped Sweeney. The Royals have one winning season since 1994 and haven't been a playoff team in 22 years, which is hard to lay on one fruitless contract extension or one bad back.
They've even been interesting lately, having just out-pitched the Los Angeles Angels for three days in Anaheim while getting some at-bats for prospect Billy Butler, having rookie Alex Gordon slog through two sub-.200 months then batting .341 in June, and watching Mark Teahen become a reliable big leaguer.
Meanwhile, Sweeney is a merry figure in the clubhouse and a committed one on the disabled list, but, he said, "It's not a big deal," and that he ought to be back in another week-and-a-half.
That's good, because it's time for the Royals to trade this guy, get a little something in return, save themselves a few hundred thousand dollars and get on with their lives, even if it is a couple years too late.
And, oh, the irony.
In another few months, Sweeney, coming up on 34 years old, will be one of those inexpensive, short-term-contract ballplayers whose body must be babied but can on occasion drive the offense. Don't forget, for a few years around the turn of the century, he was among the elite hitters in the American League. And he's a career .299 hitter who batted .340 in 2002 and .300 as recently as 2005.
He'll be a friendly, grounded, enthusiastic personality who lives clean and plays as hard as that body will allow. In that limited facility, he'll hit for a respectable average and win a few games with home runs and be a formidable bat against those nasty situational lefties and, with any luck at all, make a run at Comeback Player of the Year. And the fans will adore him for it.
Which would be just perfect for … the Royals.
It's just cruel.
"The writing's on the wall," Sweeney said. "This kid here, Billy Butler, he's probably going to take over for me at DH. Who knows? Go to mass, light a few candles. But, I know I'll have a happy ending no matter what."
And get this: Sweeney says he wants to catch again. He came through the minor leagues as a catcher, through 1998 was exclusively a catcher, and in 1999 played four more games at catcher.
He said he viewed it as baseball's version of an NFL long snapper.
"Just to add some value," he said. "Not to just be the guy, if I'm not with Kansas City, sign with a new team and say, 'OK, I'm ready to DH.' I want to play some first and if they need me to catch every two weeks or once a month, just to help a guy out, I can do that. I feel like I can bring a lot to a team."
In the meantime, in a little bit of business before the contract expires, Sweeney will stand with some of the Plan B players available at the non-waiver trading deadline, hitters who could become Plan A if the likes of Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Troy Glaus, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Adam Dunn, Carl Crawford and Ken Griffey Jr. can't be had.
After the injuries, and all the time off, there'd been some talk Sweeney might retire. But, he said, his back has felt fine for more than a year and he still loves the game, and he didn't sound anything like a guy considering it.
"I still feel like when I'm healthy I'm still productive," he said. "My heart still wants to play. If my body gives me a chance to play and a team would offer me a chance to play, I still want to play. We'll see what happens."
"Yeah, we'll see. I know due to my injuries, my market value is way down, which is fine."
Royals general manager Dayton Moore inherited the final two years of the contract, or $22 million he couldn't spend on upright, mobile players or, say, a couple more pitchers. He, too, adores Sweeney and his attitude, his commitment, the player he once was. So, July 31 could require a delicate touch.
"Mike Sweeney is an impact player and we'll make a decision when it's time to make a decision," Moore said. "Obviously, it's a little more complex than just making a trade. … Mike's one of the very best people that I know. So, it's something you always want to handle in a way that's respectful to the player.
"At the same time, every decision you make has to be to the benefit of the organization. The personal side of it, the emotional side, you've just got to be able to separate it."
Dressing in a clubhouse before another game he wouldn't play in, Sweeney said it was, indeed, strange to have that contract, those days with the Royals, probably coming to an end. By the time he's through, he'll have been an All Star five times, but he'll have played on one winning team, that one just barely.
"If I get to play three more months or three more years, I know I'll retire a happy man," Sweeney said. "Whether I walk away with a World Series ring or one of the longest-tenured guys never to play in a postseason, it won't identify me, because I know I played the game the right way.
"I do want to win. Just a chance to play in the postseason would be amazing."
"You never know," he said on his way to the trainers' room. "The trading deadline is coming up and my knee's starting to feel better."
- Mike Sweeney