Most Valuable Teammate

What team more than the Giants needs a morale booster and respectful team player? They got one in Mark Sweeney.

A year earlier with San Diego, he had organized Padres Idol, cajoling the normally churlish Phil Nevin to play Ryan Seacrest as young players butchered Neil Diamond and Ice Cube tunes. The high jinks sowed a locker room unity that grew as the Padres went on to win a division title.

Sweeney realized the success of Giants Idol would depend on Bonds taking part in the sketch. Over the years, the unease of a demilitarized zone has existed between the brooding slugger and his teammates. Aside from his infamous dugout scrap with Jeff Kent, Bonds has regarded them as invisible, preferring to consort with his flock of personal aides.

But Sweeney found a superstar willing to be one of the guys — even the one guy in drag, as Bonds agreed to portray Paula Abdul. Sweeney recalls him saying, "I came into this game having fun, I'm leaving having fun. We never do this stuff. Let's go."

Bonds' dressing up as a woman in spring training exposed a man who cares if he belongs.
James Sanders
Bonds' dressing up as a woman in spring training exposed a man who cares if he belongs.
The Bench as Home: Sweeney spends most games in the dugout, nursing a patient intensity.
James Sanders
The Bench as Home: Sweeney spends most games in the dugout, nursing a patient intensity.

Bonds' turn as Abdul transformed the skit into national news. A sandy blond wig covering his bald head, he wore fake breasts beneath a black halter top, baring shoulder and pectoral muscles that resembled veined volcanic rock. Reacting to pitcher Brian Wilson's version of Billy Idol's "White Wedding," Bonds flashed a lewd smile and purred in falsetto, "Call me."

Players howled. To them, anyway, the chick shtick lanced his bubble of aloofness. They have responded by treating Bonds like any other teammate, as much as that's possible with someone who, until a week ago, had his own show on ESPN. They invite him to play cards in the clubhouse and join them for dinner after games — simple gestures that previous squads either didn't want or bother to try.

Bonds declines most of their offers, yet he has anointed his current teammates "the best group of guys I have ever played with." He has voiced gratitude for their support amid the steroids allegations dogging him, and in an act akin to a mob capo breaking his vow of omertà, Bonds discusses hitting with them, sharing tips he seldom divulged in the past.

Oddly enough, it appears, his dressing up as a woman exposed a man who, perhaps for the first time, cares whether he belongs. "All of us are like brothers in the locker room, that's how I feel about it," Sweeney says. "My job is to make everyone feel like they're around family."

A smile creasing his squarish face above a wispy devil's goatee, he nurtures that kinship with good-natured banter in the locker room before games. Spotting catcher Todd Greene, his closest friend on the team, Sweeney will yell "Shrek!" goading Greene with a moniker inspired by his last name, bald pate, and stocky physique. If the team struggled at the plate a day earlier, he razzes hitting coach Joe Lefebvre, gushing with feigned sincerity, "Hey, you're doing a great job, keep it up."

Nor does Sweeney spare team staff. A New England native, he apes the Boston accent of video coordinator Dan Martin, raising his voice to a nasal bleat: "Haaay, Danny Maaahten, whaat's goain' ahhn?"

The patter seeps into manager Felipe Alou's office, an oblong space with white cinder-block walls, one of which bears a small sign that reads "No Tampering Allowed." He welcomes the noise, describing last year's clubhouse as "kind of quiet," and he attributes the livelier vibe to Sweeney and Finley in particular, with one crucial difference between them.

"Finley's a good guy," Alou says, a grin pushing up the corners of his tin-colored mustache, "but he's not a funny guy."

Once a game starts, Sweeney corks his id, devoting his energy to exhorting teammates, unless the Giants hold a big lead in the late innings. At that point, he'll critique their scoreboard mug shots, wondering why most wear the frown of a guy working the KFC drive-through.

"So many of them have that mean look and they're not mean," he says. "I'm asking, 'Why wouldn't you be smiling?'" Sweeney's tall, barrel-chested build yields a deep laugh that supplies the bass line to his jibes. "I have a lot of time on my hands, that's where this stuff comes from."

His hazing leavens the grind of a six-month season that can take on the feel of an ocean crossing by rowboat. "You need to have someone who can break up the monotony," pitcher Jason Schmidt says. "He gets people laughing." Much of the mirth results from Sweeney teasing himself. Strolling into the clubhouse before a game against Los Angeles last month, he checked the lineup card and noticed he was starting.

Loud enough for everyone to hear, he cracked, "What, are we even trying today?"

Sweeney drives his Range Rover to AT&T Park from the two-bedroom condo he rents in the South Beach District. The short commute allows him a moment of Zen. He imagines standing at home plate, the Giants down to their last out, the fans on their feet. His inner voice reassures him.

"I'm gonna win the game tonight."

The odds run against him. He starts most games on the bench, chewing sunflower seeds and nursing a kind of patient intensity. If he sees action at all, he might record one at-bat in the late innings. By then, three or four hours will have passed since batting practice, time enough for muscles to stiffen and reflexes to slow. Depending on his luck, he may face the other team's best relief pitcher, a guy whose 98 mph fastball looks like a Tic Tac shot from a grenade launcher.

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