Sports

Sweeney visits South Kitsap area

Seattle Mariner Mike Sweeney visited South Kitsap last week to kick off the state Little League championships. - Courtesy photo
Seattle Mariner Mike Sweeney visited South Kitsap last week to kick off the state Little League championships.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Mike Sweeney isn’t used to taking the mound, but the Seattle Mariners’ designated hitter was instructed by the Little League catcher to throw hard.

Sweeney succeeded with a strike to begin Friday morning’s festivities at Art Mikelsen Field in Port Orchard.

That was the easy part.

He was concerned about arriving on time to throw the first pitch at the Little League Major Baseball state tournament. The Mariners finished seven games in eight days on the road Thursday at Detroit, and didn’t land back at Sea-Tac Airport until early Friday morning.

Sweeney then was delayed on Highway 16 as a horse trailer blocked the left lane en route to Port Orchard. But even with the Mariners hosting Cleveland on Friday, Sweeney was determined to visit and sign autographs for more than 90 minutes.

A 15-year Major League veteran, Sweeney, 36, said giving back to Little Leaguers has been important to him since he was a youth playing in Ontario, Calif. While playing Little League, Sweeney met Brian Downing, a star slugger with the California Angels. He wears No. 5 as a tribute to Downing.

“I’m hoping that being here today will inspire one or two kids in their walk,” he said.

Sweeney, who entered the series against Cleveland with a career .298 batting average, told players that he never was the best player on his team dating back to Little League, but that they can accomplish their objectives through hard work and “without taking short cuts.”

He was referring to the steroids scandal that has ruined the legacy of several Major League players. Sweeney, who doesn’t drink or smoke, said he never has used steroids, and that those who do in the future can count on not making it.

Sweeney no longer is the player who made five All-Star appearances for the Kansas City Royals between 2000-05, but he stressed the importance of being a leader and a good teammate. With Ken Griffey Jr. serving as the Mariners’ primary designated hitter, Sweeney has played in less than half of the team’s games this season. That doesn’t mean he pouts about it, though.

“It’s been a fun year,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of guys and we’re starting to play good baseball. We’re still in the thick of things.”

Despite his busy schedule, Sweeney agreed to appear in Port Orchard after being asked to participate by his father-in-law, Jim Nettles, who runs a baseball academy in Gig Harbor. Nettles, a former major leaguer, is the brother of famed former New York Yankees third baseman Craig Nettles.

Sweeney was accompanied by two of his three children — Michael, 5, and McKara, 4 — before heading to Seattle. Sweeney and his wife, Shara, a former volleyball player at Pacific Lutheran, also have a seven-month old boy, Donovan, and own a home in Gig Harbor.

His batting average (.258) and slugging percentage (.395) through Thursday are the lowest since 1997, but Sweeney said he’ll continue to play “as long as God allows me to.”

The same applies to giving back to the community. Sweeney was the 2007 recipient of the Fred Hutchinson Award that is given annually to the major leaguer who best exemplifies “Hutch’s fighting spirit and competitive desire.”  He also has been nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes the “player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”

“Just hanging out with these kids is a highlight,” Sweeney said. “Any time I have a chance to have an impact on a kid’s life, I’m doing it.”

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