Most Valuable Teammate

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

"I'd like us to go from the locker room to the field and show that we're having fun," Sweeney says. "All of us on this team still have that feeling about baseball we had as kids. If you interviewed Barry, I guarantee he would say, 'Hey, man, we're all little kids.'"

But when dealing with the media, Bonds remains an enigma, his disposition cleaving to one of two extremes: detached or surly. Before a game against the Dodgers last month, he chose detached, watching an NBA playoff game on the 40-inch-screen TV that squats in front of his three lockers. (The team provides him with one more TV and two more lockers than any other player.) As Bonds' teammates talked to reporters, two of his aides stood guard near him, ready to block the path of anyone who approached toting a notebook or microphone.

After the game, a 6-1 Giants loss in which Bonds failed to hit a home run, keeping him one behind Ruth, he veered toward surly. Walking out of the trainer's room with a hitched gait reminiscent of Redd Foxx, he spotted a cluster of reporters near his lockers. "Not talking," he snapped. End of interview.

Says Shortstop Omar Vizquel: "It's important to have someone like [Sweeney] here."
James Sanders
Says Shortstop Omar Vizquel: "It's important to have someone like [Sweeney] here."
Sweeney: "I'd like us to go from the locker room to the field and show that we're having fun."
James Sanders
Sweeney: "I'd like us to go from the locker room to the field and show that we're having fun."

Bonds' animosity toward the press and acute sense of entitlement minced his national reputation long before he moved to the Bay Area. At the moment, given the recent steroids allegations and a federal probe into whether he lied to the BALCO grand jury, he arguably ranks as the most reviled figure in sports. Sweeney contends the media scrutiny forces Bonds to withdraw.

"Here's a guy who's going through all this stuff because of his success. He has no free time, and most players couldn't handle it," Sweeney says. "It's very hard for him to be open. He picks and chooses his spots."

Bonds' habit of evading the media compels reporters to solicit comments about him from his teammates. The unrelenting questions chafed some players last year, when Bonds missed most of the season following knee surgery in the spring. Sweeney's open-locker policy with the press, irrespective of whether the topic of Bonds arises, has helped defray the tension as much as his pelo routine.

Following the Dodgers loss, Sweeney sat in the clubhouse, hands clasped on his head. He discussed the game with a pair of reporters, his voice softened by defeat. "Losing gets to me," he says. "We should be playing better. It's been frustrating."

Troy Renck, national baseball writer for the Denver Post, spent a portion of the season's early weeks with the Giants as Bonds chased Ruth. The change in the clubhouse since last year reminded him of what occurred with the Colorado Rockies earlier this decade. By forging a rapport with Larry Walker, the injury-prone former MVP apt to sulk about his own misfortunes, Sweeney reduced the friction between Walker and players who felt he ignored the team.

"There's no doubt having Mark there makes it easier for the other guys," Renck says. "Mark's just one of those guys who gets it. He's professional while not forgetting baseball's the greatest job in the world."

Sweeney has gained a dual reputation as clubhouse jester and den mother, checking on players suffering through slumps or injuries or other troubles. Before a game against the Cubs in mid-May, Sweeney sought out catcher Todd Greene and hugged him. He knew Greene was missing his daughter's second birthday back home in Atlanta.

"He's always there to give guys pick-me-ups," Greene says. "That's important to have because you start coming together as a team more."

Sweeney also makes a point of supporting young players. Two weeks ago, the team called up first baseman Travis Ishikawa from the minors to replace the injured Lance Niekro. When Ishikawa went 3-for-4 against Colorado, Alou started him again the next night, even though he previously had assured Sweeney that he would be in the lineup.

The veteran bore no grudge, telling reporters, "If I was the manager, I would have done the same thing."

Sweeney's ability to appreciate his place in the game derives from the fan within. He has collected the jerseys of dozens of players he regards as the best of his time, among them Albert Pujols, Greg Maddux, and Bonds. "Honestly, I pinch myself all the time saying how special it is to be out there on the field and having people cheer and having little kids asking for your autograph," he says. "That feeling stays with you."

It is a feeling that Ozzie Smith insisted Sweeney strive to nurture. When the Cardinals traded Sweeney to Cincinnati in mid-1997, he visited with Smith to thank him for the tutelage he provided. Smith gave him the advice that would sustain his career. "Listen, the one thing I don't want you to ever do is change the way you are as a person and the way you treat the game," Smith said. "You always have fun, you always go about the game the right way.

"If you ever change, I'll kill ya."

Sweeney stood on-deck when Bonds blasted career home run No. 715 to pass Babe Ruth two weeks ago. This time, there was no fake freeze-out in the dugout. He and other players gathered around Bonds to trade high-fives and savor the moment.

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