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Most Valuable Teammate 

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

Wednesday, Jun 7 2006
You believe pro baseball has lost its soul. The national pastime is past its time, you tell your friends, reciting the charges as a prosecutor would list counts of an indictment:

Ticket prices that force you to sell your kidneys if you want a decent seat. Skull-cracking music between innings that both deafens you and leaves you hoarse from trying to talk over it. Drunken fans who stop cussing only long enough to chug more beer.

Major League Baseball — you most definitely do not live for this.

But none of that compares to your disdain for the players. You see them as preening egotists concerned about stats and salaries and little else. In your eyes, they go about their work with all the joy of a hazmat team. The boys of summer? Please. They're dollar signs in spikes.

And multiply that scorn by a googol for Barry Bonds. The mere sight of his moon-sized head almost makes you regret ever liking the sport. The allegations of steroids use simply reinforce what you've said for years: The man gives no respect to the game that has given him everything.

So acute is your Bonds fatigue that you decide to boycott the charade. You donate your old Matt Williams jersey to charity and ignore the Giants' box scores in the paper. You flip past their games on TV. You refuse to set foot inside Pac Bell/SBC/AT&T/Whatever the Hell Park.

You're not alone. Yet there's at least one reason why you should reconsider, one player whose love of baseball could rekindle your own. Never an All-Star, rarely a starter, Mark Sweeney approaches the game with humor and humility, two traits you thought extinct among pro athletes. He cares about teammates, respects fans, savors his small role in The Show.

He is, you might say, the anti-Barry.

Bonds opened the season needing seven home runs to surpass Babe Ruth for second on the all-time list. Fans and Bonds alike may have assumed he would reach the plateau within a few games. Instead, he looked every minute of his 41 years, his once potent uppercut slowed as if he stood chin-deep in honey.

Finally, in his 14th game, Bonds hit his first home run of the year, No. 709 of his career. But if he expected teammates to swarm him when he returned to the dugout, they offered an icier greeting. No one rose from the bench. None lifted a hand for a high-five or fist bump. Nobody spoke.

Lurking near the bat rack, Sweeney watched Bonds' eyes skitter back and forth, scanning faces for a twitch of recognition. Still no one moved. Sweeney waited a couple of beats, then erupted with laughter, cuing the gotcha moment. Players clustered around Bonds, who echoed their cackling.

"Those are the things people don't know about," Sweeney says. "Barry loves having fun. You just gotta pick the right time to do it."

The scene revealed a distinct change from last year, when the mood in the Giants' dugout and clubhouse called to mind Lenin's tomb. The closest anyone came to pulling a prank was tuning the locker room TVs to Punk'd. Players ate dinner together only on team flights. Outfielder Moises Alou groused that the lack of harmony off the field hurt their play on it.

One might guess that spirits would sink lower this season, that the media hordes and steroids scandal trailing Bonds would turn the Giants into Team Tension. In fact, despite the playofflike crush of attention, the squad appears at once looser and closer.

Above the din of Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones, chatter now fills the clubhouse before batting practice. Young players giving TV interviews after a win must beware of veterans sneaking up to deliver shaving-cream facials, baseball's version of baptism. Post-game meals on road trips draw a dozen or more teammates; on occasion, shedding his public persona that suggests there's no team in I, Bonds shows up.

Most often, Sweeney instigates the action, whether reserving tables at a restaurant or plotting the fake freeze-out of Bonds in the dugout. Acquired by San Francisco last winter, Sweeney arrived with his mouth running and his sense of mischief close behind. Since then, Sween Dog, as teammates call him, has helped them remember that playing baseball for a living is about as good as life gets.

"It's important to have someone like him here," shortstop Omar Vizquel says. "We didn't have a guy who did stuff like that. He breaks the ice."

On a team boasting a seven-time MVP and a half-dozen players with All-Star cred, Sweeney would seem less a leader than a guy lucky to have a jersey. The 36-year-old journeyman has bounced between the major and minor leagues throughout his 11-year career, clinging to the roster margins of six teams as a backup first baseman and outfielder. After playing with San Diego last year, he signed a two-year deal with the Giants worth $1.8 million. The biggest contract of his career will pay him about what Bonds earns in a month.

Yet as early as spring training in Arizona, his new teammates learned that Sweeney considers it part of the bench player's code to goose morale. The Giants recast their roster in the off-season after missing the playoffs in 2005, adding veterans Steve Finley, Matt Morris, and Steve Kline, among others. Sensing the need for a bit of manly bonding, Sweeney concocted a spoof of American Idol.

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.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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