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Should Mike Sweeney wake up tomorrow morning suddenly unable to hit a baseball, he'd have little trouble finding another job. There's not a preschool around that wouldn't be floored by his credentials. He's great with kids (just ask any young autograph seeker), he's intelligent and—here's what separates him from the field—he's proficient in handing out smiley-face stickers.
This spring Sweeney, the Royals' first baseman, took it upon himself to keep track of all the grins and smiles of manager Tony Muser. In the past that wouldn't have been too difficult, because during his 4�-year stint in Kansas City, Muser has largely kept the affable side of his personality out of the clubhouse. This year, though, after an off-season of rumors that he's on the hot seat, Muser decided to shake things up. So the first thing he did on the field every morning during spring training was assemble his troops and tell them a joke. "Tony's been a changed man," says Sweeney. "Away from the ballpark he's been a great guy. You could talk to him, and he was pleasant to be around. But when you got into the locker room, he was totally different. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But now he's brought the good Tony into the clubhouse."
Just to be sure there were no lapses, Sweeney put a chart on the wall in the locker room, and if Muser smiled enough Sweeney gave him a happy-face sticker to put next to that date. "If he looks up and sees four days with no happy face, he knows it's time to perk up," says Sweeney.
So will Muser's new attitude result in a better record for the Royals? Well, it should help some of the kids—like shortstop Angel Berroa—whom the team would like to see contribute. "In the past the younger guys have come in here and felt a militaristic, dictatorship mentality in this locker room, and they'd get tight," says Sweeney. But on the whole, Kansas City just doesn't have the horses to compete. Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye were traded last year, leaving Muser with only two consistent run producers: Sweeney and centerfielder Carlos Beltran, who hit .358 after the All-Star break.
The rotation is an even bigger mess. Of his top starter, righthander Jeff Suppan, Muser says, "He's very consistent. He'll go five, six, maybe seven innings and give you 200 innings a year." In other words, he's an innings eater, which isn't exactly the first trait you look for in an ace.
While Muser has chilled out in an effort to reverse Kansas City's fortunes, Sweeney has taken the opposite tack. In August he publicly ripped his teammates for their lack of effort, and then a few days later he charged the mound after a heated verbal exchange with the Tigers' Jeff Weaver. "Yeah, it is frustrating," says Sweeney of the exodus. "Especially when it's guys you're friends with who are really great baseball players who end up leaving. The reality is, we have no control over where we're going to be tomorrow."
Actually, that's not entirely true. Sweeney is in the walk year of the deal he signed in 2001—he'll earn a club-record $8 million this season—and the Royals are taking a wait-and-see approach on an extension. They want to see what the new collective bargaining agreement brings, but unless it includes a cap on the amount that guys whose middle name is John can make, they can forget about being able to afford Michael John Sweeney. For the past three years he has done a pretty fair impression of another nice-guy first baseman who wanted to stay with a small-market team: Jason Giambi, who nonetheless left the A's for the Bronx. Since 1999 Giambi has driven in 380 runs and hit .330. Sweeney has 345 RBIs and a .320 average, and that's including slightly diminished numbers in 2001, when he was banged up all season.
So this is what's in store for Muser: He's going to have to watch a healthy Sweeney do his best to carry another subpar team with another monster year, and he'll have to do so with the knowledge that Sweeney will probably be gone when it's all over. If he can smile through that, he can smile through anything.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]