Royals' Sweeney proves he's more than 1-hit wonder

On Baseball

April 16, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The surprising Kansas City Royals pride themselves on their anonymity, but it's going to be hard for power-hitting first baseman Mike Sweeney to stay in the background if he keeps swinging the bat the way he has through the first two weeks of the new season.

The guy knows all about obscurity. He was a third-string catcher until a serendipitous twist of fate -- the abrupt retirement of first baseman Jeff King -- opened a place for him at first base. He took advantage of the opportunity to establish himself as a quality major-league run-producer last year, and he has opened the 2000 season on a tremendous roll.

The Orioles found that out the hard way. Sweeney homered in the opener of the three-game series Tuesday and cranked a three-run homer off Mike Mussina to help the Royals complete a three-game sweep at Kauffman Stadium. That home run vaulted him into the major-league home run lead.

No one should be terribly surprised -- not after Sweeney took advantage of his opportunity to start last year to hit .322 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs -- but his evolution from no one to potential star still is catching opponents off guard.

"He had a big year last year for them," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, "but before last year, he was pretty much an out. Now, he's one of the tougher guys in their lineup. They took him out from behind the plate and he just blossomed as a hitter."

Sweeney is enjoying his elevated status, but he doesn't seem particularly interested in stardom. He got to this point on hard work and faith, and seems satisfied to stick with that formula.

"A year ago, I was the 25th guy on the Kansas City Royals roster," Sweeney said. "They didn't expect much from me. A year later, things have changed a lot, basically because of perseverance.

"You are going to get kicked down many times. The big thing is how quick you get up. I've had a couple of blows that brought me to my knees, but I've battled back, and I'm happy where I am today."

Of course, April is the month for short-lived legends, but Sweeney just might be the real deal.

"He's hitting the ball hard every time he hits it," Mussina said. "He really has matured as a hitter. He goes up to the plate with an idea of what opponents are going to do, and he hits the ball hard."

Comeback kid

How many lives does Kevin Elster really have? He resurrected his career a few years ago with the Texas Rangers and then faded into obscurity after signing as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He sat out last year -- thought about opening a bar in Las Vegas -- but was talked out of retirement in January by Dodgers manager Davey Johnson.

Now, he's back playing regularly and Tuesday jacked three home runs in the debut of Pac Bell Park.

"Everything I do I put in my mind as kind of a bonus because I wasn't going to be here," Elster said. "I had in my mind that I was retired. The situation changed, somewhere around mid-January. So everything from here is gravy. I'm very surprised about this."

Johnson apparently isn't. He chose Elster over younger shortstop Alex Cora because he needed more offensive punch at the bottom of the lineup. Elster has responded with a .304 batting average and some amazing pop out of the No. 8 slot in the batting order.

Rude homecoming

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile insisted that it was a change in attitude rather than a change in altitude that accounted for back-to-back victories in his first two starts since leaving the Colorado Rockies.

"What really helped me here is when I got to spring training, being able to meet Bob Gibson and having a chance to sit down and talk with Lou Brock, that kind of stuff was exciting to me," Kile said recently. "The tradition with this organization is really neat to be around. I've never had that opportunity to be around something like that before."

Sounded good, until he went back to Coors Field on Thursday night and gave up 11 runs in 1 2/3 innings. It's either the thin air or Kile is just totally psyched out by the conditions in the Mile High City.

Don't be surprised if manager Tony La Russa steers his rotation around Kile the next time the Cardinals go to Denver.

Pedro: I'm human

When the Anaheim Angels scored a run off Boston ace Pedro Martinez the other night, it broke a string of 35 1/3 scoreless innings by the two-time Cy Young Award winner -- dating back to the exhibition season.

Pretty impressive stuff, but Martinez waved off post-game questions about the streak.

"Who do you think I am?" Martinez said afterward. "I am just a man. I give up runs."

Still waiting

The Blue Jays still are waiting to get some kind of return on the $16 million they spent on signing pitcher Joey Hamilton to a three-year contract. He made just 18 starts last year before going on the disabled list with a frayed rotator cuff. Now, the club is waiting for him to make his first start of 2000 after opening the season on the disabled list with a hamstring strain.

"If it's not one thing, it's another," Hamilton said recently.

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