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"My dad never gave up," Sweeney says. "He never came home and said, 'This isn't gonna work out.' That stayed with me." The next spring, healthy again in body and attitude, Sweeney revived his career with Colorado, where he played two seasons with the Rockies before heading back to San Diego last year.
While his parents remain in Holliston, Sweeney has taken them to every game since his earliest days in the minors, at least in spirit. Inside his baseball cap, on the bottom of the bill, he writes "Mom" and "Dad" in black marker. Next to those words appear the letters "GWS," a tribute to his uncles George and Walt Sweeney, who died before they could see him play in the majors. Beneath the initials he writes the number 50, in honor of the late Jimmy Reese, the legendary California Angels coach who Sweeney met in 1991 at his first and Reese's last spring training.
Sweeney studies the inscriptions before taking the field, offering a silent prayer. He recalls his parents attending his Little League games, his uncles spinning stories to friends about their ballplayer nephew. He smiles thinking about the 93-year-old Reese, swaddled in an Angels jersey and leaning on a fungo bat, teasing players with his self-styled catchphrase, "You're ugly, kid."
As Sweeney stretches in the dugout before a critical at-bat, he glances at his cap, reminding himself that life reaches beyond the diamond. A pinch hitter's livelihood depends on his ability to exhale in such moments, coping with the weirdly bipolar nature of his work: The manager deems him unfit to start, yet relies on him with the game at stake.
"It's tough because you're not getting up there as often to prove yourself," says Chicago Cubs' reserve John Mabry, Sweeney's old St. Louis teammate and longtime friend. "Most of the time you get your butt handed to you."
Pressed into pinch-hitting duty, a regular starter will discover the weight of a bench warmer's burden. In the ninth inning of a game against Colorado in April, Sweeney recounts, Bonds grimaced as he limbered up before his first at-bat of the day. "How do you do this, man?" he asked Sweeney. "I can't get my body loose." He struck out on five pitches.
Sweeney arrives at the ballpark a couple of hours before batting practice to hone muscles and mind alike. He soaks in a whirlpool, watches video of the opposing team's pitchers, and mulls his prior at-bats against them. During games, he talks to coaches about a pitcher's tendencies, trying to predict when if Felipe Alou will beckon him from the bench.
"It's almost like you have to be a second manager," Sweeney says, who entering the week had a .259 batting average with three home runs and 19 RBIs. "You don't want to be surprised when your chance comes."
In a game against St. Louis last month, with the Giants leading 4-1 in the eighth inning, the Cardinals brought in a right-handed reliever. Anticipating Alou would call his name to pinch hit for pitcher Jamey Wright, Sweeney, a left-handed hitter, began to stretch. Alou proved Sweeney right, and Sweeney made Alou look good, smacking a two-run single with the bases loaded.
He connected on the ninth pitch, fouling off five others and taking three balls. The duel showed Sweeney heeding the advice Manny Mota once offered him: "Don't ever look at the third strike" i.e., the job is pinch hitter, not pinch chin-tugger.
Mota, a former Los Angeles outfielder, retired in 1982 as the career leader in pinch-hits with 150, a record that lasted for almost two decades. His total still ranks third all-time and stands as the role player's answer to Babe Ruth's 714 home runs, a totemic figure that looms larger than the actual record. (Retired journeyman Lenny Harris owns the mark with 212 pinch-hits.) Revered as the bench player's shaman, Mota, who serves as a Dodgers coach, has tutored scores of pinch hitters, imparting a credo both simple and elusive.
"You have to feel like you're the best," he says. "And Mark Sweeney, he's one of the best."
Sweeney could climb past Mota on the career pinch-hit list this year. Unlike Bonds eclipsing Ruth, few would notice the feat, yet for Sweeney, the prospect of surpassing a man he describes as a mentor holds deep resonance. It would represent a craftsman's milestone, evidence that, for 11 years, he has survived on the game's fringe, the province of grinders.
"Ninth inning, two outs, and you're the last guy standing it's almost like you're set up to fail. But when you succeed," he says, shaking his head, "there's no better feeling."
Any Giants' player unaware that pelo means hairin Spanish has learned as much since Sweeney joined the club. When a teammate scores or hits a home run, he sometimes lingers near the top of the dugout steps. Once the player draws within arm's length, Sweeney snatches the batting helmet off his head and yells, "Show your pelo!"
He started the tradition or "just one of those stupid things I do," in his words a few years ago while with the Colorado Rockies. Instead of fans staring at scoreboard mug shots that inspire jokes about the androids of summer, he wants them to glimpse a bunch of guys enjoying their work.