The following story appeared in the February 24 Idaho Catholic Register.
Michael Sweeney, an All-Star first baseman for the Kansas City Royals, was one of the main speakers at the Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference presented by Salt & Light Radio (ICR photos/Michael Carbone.)
By Gene Fadness
Mike Sweeney was likely destined to play baseball from the first moments of his life, if not before.
When he was born two months pre-mature in 1973, he weighed 4 pounds and doctors said he had only a 50-50 chance of surviving the night. His father, who played professional baseball, put a baseball bat in the incubator with him on that tense first night.
But he also did two “heroic things” that night, Sweeney told the men at-tending the recent Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference. First, he called a priest
to have him baptized. “ ‘I want my firstborn son to die a Christian,’ my dad said. Second, he named me Michael John,” after St. Michael the Archangel and the Apostle John.
The next day, the doctors told Sweeney’s father they “don’t know what happened, other than a miracle occurred. Not only did he survive the night, but he is going to be just fine.”
Sweeney played major league base-ball for 16 years, most of those as a first baseman with the Kansas City Royals and played also in five All Star games. His father and brother also played the sport, as did his wife’s uncle and father.
Sweeney was one of three primary speakers for the daylong conference on Feb. 4. The other speakers were Monsignor James Shea (whose remarks were summarized in the Feb. 10 issue of the Idaho Catholic Register) and Bishop Peter Christensen.
Sweeney, now a special assistant to the general manager for the Royals and founder of the San Diego Saints base-ball camps, uses his baseball career as a platform to spread the gospel or, as he likes to put it, “I use the greatest game ever played to share the greatest story ever told.”
More important than being a professional athlete or a Hall of Fame inductee (he’s part of the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame), is the call to “Be A Saint,” which was the theme of the annual conference presented by Salt & Light Radio. His storied life is a testament to the fact, he said, that saints aren’t perfect, “but they are the quickest ones to get up when they fail and go to Confession.”
Though raised in a devout Catholic family, Sweeney did not take his faith nearly as seriously as his desire to play professional baseball.
That changed when he was 17 and attended a retreat that was required for his upcoming Confirmation. There he met a college-aged young man from NET Ministries who asked him, “What’s your friendship with Jesus like?” Sweeney responded by reciting a list of things he and his family do, like regularly attending Mass and saying grace before meals. The NET missionary pressed further, wanting to know about Sweeney’s relationship with Christ. “I don’t know if I have a friendship with Jesus,” Sweeney told him. That same night the retreatants had Eucharistic Adoration. “It was the most joyful day of my life. For the first time in my life, I understood the love of God, and I wept like a baby.”
For his Confirmation, he was given a Bible, which he carries with him every-where he goes, including at the Idaho conference. On the Bible is a sticker of a tandem bicycle, put there to remind him that Christ is on the front seat and he is seated in the back. “You can’t drive it, you can’t always see where Jesus is taking you, but you pedal your heart out,” he said, reminding the 800 men attending the conference and 200 listening online, of St. Augustine’s admonition to “pray as if everything de-pends on God and work like everything depends on you.”
There were many times when Sweeney’s faith was tested and his commitment to his faith mocked during his professional career, he said. Protestant teammates were critical of his Catholicism, telling him that Catholics worshipped Mary and were working their way to heaven. They told him he needed to be re-baptized. At the same time, his family was critical of him, fearful that he would become Protestant because he was attending Protestant worship with his teammates before games, often because that was all that was offered. Other teammates who were not religious mocked his decision not to date for more than two years so that he could focus on the game and also be open to priesthood if the call came. The team manager called him “reverend.” The media were also critical of his play. In fact, not long after he bought a home in Kansas City, speculation was ram-pant that he would be released from the Royals. “Through all of this I felt the Holy Spirit say, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ ”
Over time, his game improved and the player who gave him the most grief over his faith became his closest friend and is now a broadcaster for a Major League team.
Five gifts for the Prodigal
During his remarks, Sweeney re-counted the story of the Prodigal Son, telling the men that the son, upon returning home to his merciful father, received five gifts. He brought up a young man from the audience, Grayson, who “received” the gifts as Sweeney recounted the Biblical parable.
The first gift, he said, was a robe, a sign of sonship and a “robe of righteousness,” he explained, while placing the robe over Grayson’s shoulders.
“When we come into this Church at times, we’re broken and we’re a mess,” but God reminds us of our baptism that first brings us into the family of God. “We celebrate our kids’ baptism more than their birthdays,” Sweeney said of his six children. “At birth they took their first breath, but baptism is the day that the Holy Spirit comes into you and brings you into the family of God.”
The second gift is a ring, which in Biblical times, was called a “signet” ring because it contained the seal of a family or of a king that was imprinted on official documents. With that, he placed his $35,000 World Series ring on Grayson’s small finger. Sweeney said he rarely wears the ring. “I’m not a son of the Kansas City Royals, but a son of God.”
The third gift, he said, was sandals, handing Grayson a large pair of cleats he wore while playing in All-Star games. Players who are invited to play in two or more All-Star games have specialty cleats made for them by Nike. Sweeney has Matthew 5:16 – “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven” – inscribed on the inside of his.
Sweeney adorns Grayson with a robe, ring and “sandals” during his remarks about the parable of the Prodigal Son. (ICR photos/Michael Carbone)
The fourth gift was the fatted calf. Veal was a rare and expensive gift to offer up as a sacrifice. Sweeney handed Grayson a pyx used to carry a consecrated host, the Body of Christ offered up as the perfect sacrifice. Daily Mass and the rosary are the “secret sauce” that keep him close to the Lord, especially the knowledge that the consecrated host is the body of Christ. “If it isn’t Jesus, then we’re a bunch of idolaters worshipping a piece of bread,” he said.
The fifth and final gift to the Prodigal Son was a celebration; “the most beautiful party that he could have, but didn’t deserve,” Sweeney said. The gift that best represents the party, Sweeney said, is the gift of reconciliation and the joy and freedom that comes from participation in that Sacrament.
Speaking to younger men during the lunch break, Sweeney told a story about his 18-year-old son’s recruitment process to play college baseball.
“I had told MJ that my only goal for him was not to go to the big leagues and succeed like his father and grand-fathers, but to get to heaven.” During one interview with a recruiter at which Sweeney was present, the recruiter asked Sweeney’s son what his goals in life were. He said his goal was, as his dad expressed, “to get to heaven and be saint.”
“Tears rolled down that coach’s cheeks. He said he had never heard that from any kid,” Sweeney said.
He told the young men that if they are followers of Jesus Christ, they should be the hardest workers on any team, the first at practice or in class, “because you’re playing for an audience of One. Play with fire, but play with humility. The root of all virtue in life is humility, and the root of all sin in life is pride.”
The day began with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Peter Christensen.(ICR photos/Michael Carbone)
Bishop: Leaving safe harbor to follow the Lord
The conference opened with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Peter Christensen who, picking up on the conference’s theme to be a saint, noted that each saint “is uniquely his own, not a cookie-cutter person. Each one in this Church and beyond is totally unique. We’re all called to be saints and the good news is that you can be yourself as you were created to be.”
It’s during a process of “self-surrender” that one becomes a saint, not an easy thing to do, he said.
A sailor, the Bishop used the image of a sailboat that successfully takes sail as a metaphor for the Christian journey.
Sailboats are not meant to be permanently docked, but are made for sailing by leaving the secure harbor. In order to set sail, the boat is subject, at first, to human power, the boat initially propelled by a diesel engine. The sailor must set the boat directly into the right wind velocity. “When you crank up the sail there is this tremendous sound that is a little disturbing,” he said, but once the helm is set and the wind starts to fill the sail, a “magical moment happens,” when a new power takes over. “The skipper can then turn off the diesel and then there is this quiet … this vacuum that pulls you rather than pushes you. You are being drawn into the movement,” he said, the boat sailing on its own power.
Men pray during Adoration at the Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference. (ICR photos/Michael Carbone)
“When we take time to reach out to the Lord, the Spirit moves in and becomes the force of our draw to the new adventure,” he said. “You’ve felt the rattling noise and agitation of leaving the harbor for unchartered waters, but I promise you that if you give yourself to the Lord, He will take care of the rest. That’s where saints are made.”
In the Gospel reading for that day, Jesus was calling the disciples to a deserted place, which for them would have been good news because they were starting to fall in love with Jesus, he said. “How their lives changed, from being first called to becoming totally in love with the Lord. They were becoming saints.”
Like the disciples, it is important that we fall in love with the Lord as well, the Bishop said, asking the men to stand and sing a line from a song not found in the hymnal, Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
With hands raised, the men sang, “Take my hand, take my whole life, too, for I can’t help falling in love with you.”
If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.