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Mike Sweeney, the Royals, and being merely very good

Trying to find Royals that beat on the Indians led to musings on the merely very good Mike Sweeney. And a couple other players just for fun.

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When I started this supposed series on division rival players that have done well against the Cleveland Indians in the past, I had hopes it would be straightforward and interesting. Sometimes writing doesn’t work out the way you want. Sometimes you get derailed almost immediately because your second part ends up being nothing like your first, and suddenly you’re just writing baseball history and supposition articles again. But no matter.

I took a look at the Kansas City Royals the other day, looking into players through their history that had incredible success against the Cleveland Indians. I used the same parameters as in the article about the Detroit Tigers,, 400+ plate appearances against the Tribe with a .900+ OPS in those PA’s. It turns out, when you try to do this with a team that was created in 1969, with a history of being mostly bad, you don’t end up with the Ty Cobbs or Miguel Cabreras of the world. In fact, you end up with one name, Mike Sweeney. What a player he was, en every sense of the phrase.

The Indians were graced with a player cut from similar cloth as Sweeney for many years. Jim Thome is known as being the nicest person on the planet, as long as you weren’t a rawhide sphere moving 90 miles per hour at an area just in front of him. More than a cornerstone of some good teams, Thome gave you hope for the human race. Sweeney is just as much of a sweetie as Thome ever was, serving as a role model for Kansas Citians for more than a decade and proving that there's more to being a baseball star than just hitting a ball. He did that, though not quite as loudly as Thome. He sure did crush the Tribe though, to the tune of a .312/.380/.525 slash line as a Royal. In the 142 games he faced the Indians he hit 25 home runs, more than he averaged per 162 games over his career. He also only struck out 62 times. He was a perfect player for those middling KC teams of the turn of the century - excellent enough that you remembered him, but against most teams merely very good, not great. Like those teams, he’s a faint memory for most, and easily forgotten in the face of other, better players

He also officiallybecame a baseball senior citizen with Ken Griffey Jr. when Griffey returned to the Mariners, and possibly true stories of them napping in rocking chairs in the clubhouse leaked out. Which is just perfect for Sweeney. He seems like he’d like a good rock. He always gave off the vibe of being a grandpa in a 30-year old's body.

I’d like to see some sort of former pro slow pitch softball team form, or even league. Sweeney and Thome would be co-commissioners or something. Nobody can tell me this is a bad idea.

Bizarrely, Sweeney's greatest year, 2002 when he logged a 148 OPS+, slashed .340/.417/.563, was one of his worst against the Tribe, at least comparatively. He hit "only" .321/.400/.509. This against a team that finished 74-88 and had one guy with an ERA under 4. That was Bartolo Colon at 2.55,  but even his work couldn't lift his compatriots. Despite the miserable pitching Sweeney had only a pretty good year against the Indians. Baseball is bad luck sometimes.

The trouble with baseball is that Mike Sweeney is going to be forgotten in a few years because he was merely pretty good, and on a lot of bad teams. Kansas City will remember him as the cornerstone of repeated failed rebuilds. But the wider audience will let Sweeney disappear into the mists of the past. it's not to say nice guys finish last, since Jim Thome will get a plaque in Cooperstown. But baseball is a meritocracy.  You can be the nicest guy around, and nobody will care unless you're good at the on-field stuff, too. Sweeney was good at it, but like the team he played for, just never good enough.

Since I was  rooting around in Royals career numbers against the Indians anyway, two other names popped out at me and triggered memories. The first was Jermaine Dye. The Royals cut ties with Dye after only four years, but he kept coming back to beat on the Indians. Between his time with the Royals, White Sox and Athletics he logged an .879 OPS against the Indians, good for a 113 tOPS+. He hit 17 home runs in 73  career games at Jacobs Field despite only 77 total hits there. That's his most home runs in a park that he didn't call home at some point. He made nose when he hit the ball when he came to Cleveland. Dye had one truly transcendent year in 2006 with the White Sox, hitting 44 home runs with a 1.006 OPS, but that was the best he'd ever be. He was one of many players that have simply very good careers. It's cool that he really showed up against at least one of his team rivals though, even if it was just good luck that he got to see a lot of bad pitching from the Indians. he also smashed the Tigers, but the early 2000's Tigers did things like lose 119 games. So maybe that's praise better left unsaid. Good player though.

The other is Johnny Damon. Of all people, Johnny Damon. As a Royal he was an excellent young outfielder before heading to the bright lights of Boston. Against the Tribe he hit .306/.376/.455. Solid numbers, and a step above his career numbers as a Royal at .292/.351/.435. He was still growing as a player, but he did perform against the Indians like it was his prime. He was excellent. But then, many years later, he signed with Cleveland, and proceeded to butcher the ball in the outfield, be generally old and helped contribute to one of the most depressing Indians seasons in recent memory. If anything, those days in 2012 were as damaging to the Tribe as anything he did with Kansas City. While that's not actually technically true since he was worth 0.2 WAR as an Indian and 17.2 as a Royal, it sure felt that way. What a terrible signing. That he even appeared in 64 games speaks to the misery of that season. Nothing went right, Damon chief among them. Between him and Dye, it's amazing the names they had come through that outfield along with Carlos Beltran, David DeJesus and Raul Ibanez, yet could muster all of one winning season in all that time. That's just strange drafting.

The Royals have just never been good enough, long enough to have a true Tribe terrorizer. Maybe some time in the future they'll get a guy who sees the Wahoo (or whatever logo they finally decide on and stop jerking people around) and is triggered into wrecking shop, but even now their best hitters are little better than league average. Salvador Perez does have impeccable timing, so maybe he'll just have all the big hits for them and make the Cleveland faithful dread his presence late in games. But until they figure it out, they’ll have Mike Sweeney smiling in the face of mediocrity, decades of being bad, those shining days of the mid-80’s, and the most on-paper-average, grindingly scrappy world champions of the new millennium. It could be worse.