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It's a role few players enjoy and in which fewer thrive. It's the role to which Sweeney owes his career. "You want to play every day, and that burning desire has never left me," he says. "But if I had been an everyday player, I wouldn't be playing right now."
He has ripened on the pine. Last year with San Diego, at age 35, he tied his career high with 40 RBIs and swatted eight home runs, one shy of his personal best. He batted .294 and rapped 18 pinch-hits, the fourth-highest total in the National League. With the Padres planning to move outfielder Ryan Klesko back to first base, however, Sweeney jumped when the Giants offered a two-year contract, only the second multi-year deal of his career.
Sweeney migrated north after San Francisco cut ties with first baseman J.T. Snow, a six-time Gold Glove winner and crowd favorite, who earned $2 million last year. The team picked up Sweeney to split time at first base with Lance Niekro, as Snow had done, and to spell Bonds and Alou in the outfield.
Snow loyalists brayed, accusing the Giants of discarding a name-brand player to scrounge in the bargain bin for Sweeney. The discount model took no offense at the criticism.
"To me, you don't really replace a J.T. Snow, just like you don't replace a Barry Bonds," Sweeney says. "J.T. Snow, to me, is the best all-around first baseman I've seen play in my era."
Amid the first-person culture of pro sports, rife with athletes who point to the heavens while praying to the trinity of me, myself, and I, Sweeney conveys a carpenter's modesty. Despite his reputation as one of baseball's best late-game hitters entering the week, his 137 pinch-hits ranked sixth all-time he accepts his bench fate with grace. As he told the San Diego Union-Tribune last spring after joining the Padres, "We're a better team with Phil Nevin [starting] at first."
Sweeney adapted to the backup life early in his career. He broke into the big leagues with St. Louis in 1995, four years after he was drafted out of the University of Maine by the California Angels, as they were then known. He stayed with the Cardinals through mid-1997, savoring his chance to share the dugout with future Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith and former MVP Willie McGee.
Though the aging McGee no longer started every day, Sweeney ranked below him on the outfield depth chart. First base belonged to a young John Mabry, a future pine-rider whose best years as a starter happened to coincide with Sweeney's time in St. Louis.
Sweeney read the writing on the clubhouse wall, in the spot where the manager taped the starting lineup. Only in his mid-20s, he was already tagged a bench jockey, a label that can leave a young player picking splinters from his ego. But Sweeney felt Lady Luck had kissed him on the lips. He was absorbing the wisdom of Smith and McGee, playing on a team that would come within one win of reaching the World Series in 1996 and he was only in his mid-20s.
"How could I complain?" he asks. "It was an opportunity to have a big-league uniform on."
He has carried that optimism on his gypsy's tour of the majors, backing up some of the better first basemen of the last decade: Wally Joyner, Klesko, and Nevin during three separate stints in San Diego, Sean Casey in Cincinnati, Richie Sexson in Milwaukee, Todd Helton in Colorado. Along the way, when a team forced him to take side trips to the minors, he found a route back to the parent club.
Another player might have cursed the baseball gods for casting him as an eternal understudy. Sweeney recognized that he lacked the raw ability of the big names he played behind, a list that also included outfielders Tony Gwynn, Greg Vaughn, and Larry Walker. He could either embrace his supporting role or pout his way out of the game.
"It's not hard to be humble when you play with guys like that," he says. "It's not taking away from my talent. It's the honest truth. They're superstars."
Sweeney's self-effacing candor traces back to growing up the youngest of Dan and Peggy Sweeney's four sons in Holliston, Massachusetts, a small town 30 miles west of Boston. His father, a print advertising salesman, and his mother, a counselor at a private high school, preached and practiced the virtues of hard work. "They're both grinders, and I mean that in a good way," Sweeney says. "They taught us to respect what it means to make a living."
Rearing four kids could strain Dan and Peggy's finances, and Sweeney recalls his father struggling to sell ads as the economy stalled in the late 1980s. One evening, after months of Dan working 14-hour days to little avail, Peggy suggested he search for another job. Then in his teens, Sweeney still remembers his father's quiet reply: "Peggy, this is what I love to do."
The words returned to Sweeney after San Diego released him in August 2002, ending his second hitch with the Padres. A nagging shoulder injury had gummed up his swing, dropping his batting average to .169. He sat out the rest of the season and chewed on the idea of retiring. It didn't taste right. A Sweeney boy wasn't raised to quit.