A comedian friend told me this once … I’m paraphrasing: “People think the punch line is the most important part of the joke. But it isn’t. The punch line is nothing. If you tell a joke right, you can say 50 different punch lines and all of them will be funny. If you tell a joke right, you can grab a kid out of the crowd and have him come up and give the punch line.
“It isn’t the punch line. It’s the set-up. Everything is in the set-up. You ever hear about the biggest laugh in the history of television? They say it was Jack Benny … you remember he was famous for being cheap. Simple gag, a mugger holds up Jack Benny, which already is funny. Then the mugger says ‘Your money or your life.’ And Jack Benny just stands there. Doesn’t say a word. The laughter grows louder and louder and louder. He just holds it, that look on his face, and by the time he gives the punchline — “I’m thinking” — everybody’s howling. Nobody even HEARD the punch line they were laughing so hard. Why? Jack Benny had been setting up that joke for 40 years. The punch line had nothing to do with it.”
Pick a day any day. Make it a Tuesday. Make it a Tuesday in August. That seems as bland a day as any. Of course, it could be a Wednesday in May or a Sunday afternoon in July or a Monday as the days grow shorter and September bleeds into October. The point, the only point, is it could be any day, because the days of a losing baseball season don’t change much. They repeat, they rerun, nothing especially important changes. At first, when there’s hope, you know that you have to be in Detroit on Tuesday. Once hope fades, you only know that it’s Tuesday because you are in Detroit.
So, make it a Tuesday in August, and the Kansas City Royals are out of the pennant race because by August the Kansas City Royals are ALWAYS out of the pennant race. By August, the Royals players have also reached acceptance. At first, in April, maybe even into May, the players believe in themselves, believe that this year will be different, that if this pitcher can be at his best, and this hitter can have a few balls drop in, and this outfielder can run down a few more balls …
By late June, the best of them still cling to the belief that things can be turned around, that it isn’t hopeless. There might be a team meeting. Occasionally someone will say something in the local paper, something about how they have to get their act together. The manager and general manager will try something bold — send this guy to the minors, move that guy to the leadoff spot, put the other guy in the bullpen — and praise his team for refusing to quit. The general manager will talk about how he isn’t giving up on this team, there’s too much talent here, there’s no time to panic, the guys just have to stop TRYING so hard, they’re putting too much pressure on themselves.
By August, though, illusions are gone. Oh the players still understand — if understand is the right word — that they are lucky people, that they play baseball for a living, that they get paid a lot of money to do it. But by August the muscles ache constantly. Arms feels dull, slightly dead. The games are only as important as the imagination can make them. Some days the imagination allows them to see the 10-year-old boy they used to be, the boys who dreamed only of playing big league baseball. Some days, though, that picture is cloudy. The body doesn’t want to run out hopeless double-play ground balls. The arm doesn’t want to throw another 3-1 fastball to a hitter whose eyes are as large as cantaloupes. None of them want to face another collection of reporters who want to ask, yet again, what went wrong. By August, many hide in the weight room and the shower until the reporters and television cameras dissipate. The ones who come out do so out of duty. But, then, everything by August in a losing season feels duty-ridden. You play hard because you are supposed to play hard. You give your best because you owe it to your teammates, your fans and yourself. You try because to not try would tell you something bad about yourself.
But it all only matters because you tell yourself so.
So it’s a Tuesday in August, in Kansas City, the Royals are 25 or so games back, the manager has already been fired, Raul Ibanez is in the Kansas City clubhouse getting ready. Raul is one of the good ones, a self-made player who never stopped believing that he was good enough even though there was plenty good reason to stop believing. This is the first year he has been given 500 plate appearances in a season. He’s 30 years old.
He’s getting himself ready for the game mentally, physically, emotionally, and he knows he will do it … but it’s a chore. Raul cannot help but feel the dreariness of the season creeping up on him. He looks around at his teammates and knows it creeping up on them too. The losing has burned them out … it’s like standing in the sun too long, something else they have all done. It’s 103 degrees outside. Or something like it. One of the first English phrases Ichiro Suzuki learned playing in the big leagues is that August Kansas City in hotter than two rats f——- in a wool sock.
That’s how hot it is outside, and that’s how blah it is inside in the clubhouse, and Raul Ibanez feels the eyes of the younger players on him. They aren’t quite sure how to deal with all this. How are they supposed to react when baseball has stopped being fun? How much spirit are they supposed to show when playing only for pride? And even though Ibanez is new to this stuff too, he’s older, and they are watching him, watching how he goes about things, they are watching to see if he will show any signs of despair. He has to brace himself against it. He has to come up with jokes, in English and Spanish, light talk, something to show that he’s still into this season. He has to listen to some pumping music, something like that, to inspire himself, to forget about how much his body’s hurting, to make all the losses disappear, to remind himself that just because they’re LOSING does not make them LOSERS. It’s a Tuesday in August, another mostly meaningless day in another mostly forgettable season, and the reporters are asking their exhausted questions, and maybe 10,000 or 12,000 fans are still coming to the ballpark, and the ballplayers are pretending that it is still fun …
And all of a sudden Raul hears singing. Happy singing … “isn’t life wonderful?” singing … “aren’t we the luckiest people on planet earth?” singing … Raul Ibanez looks up and stares in crazy disbelief.
It’s a beautiful morning!
Ahhhh, I think I’ll go outside a while!
And just smile!
That … is Mike Sweeney.
* * *
Mike Sweeney, you probably know, is a part of the Philadelphia Phillies now, which means he is in the playoffs for the first time in his life. Mike Sweeney played in 1,454 regular season games before he got his first at-bat in his first postseason game. It was a hit, a bloop single, off preposterously hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman. Sweeney always could fight off a fastball.
So that was 1,454 games without a playoff appearance, and of course his teams lost most of them. Sweeney spent the bulk of his career — parts of 12 seasons — playing for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals had losing records in 11 of those seasons. The Royals lost 100 or more games in four of them, 90 or more in four other seasons. In Kansas City, he played for four managers, not including the two interims, played in five All-Star Games, signed an under-market deal that somehow made him look greedy later, almost won a batting title, almost won an RBI title, played hard though his body disintegrated, and by the end heard a few boos mostly because he could not stay healthy.
Put it this way: In Kansas City he had 1,398 hits in 4,669 at-bats. That’s a .299 batting average.
Had he managed 1,399 hits in those 4,669 at-bats — one more hit — he wold have hit .300.
That was the not-so-charmed story of Mike Sweeney in Kansas City. And all the while, he sang. He cared. He endured. He signed the autographs, and he appeared at all the charity events, and he served as media spokesman for defeat. Oh, sure, it backed up on him sometimes. People around town still remember the time he snapped when Detroit pitcher Jeff Weaver shouted something at him that, as Sweeney delicately put it, “Webster never put in his dictionary.” Sweeney threw his helmet at Weaver and charged after him. He would be suspended for 10 days, though his teammates (and, quietly, a few of Weaver’s teammates in Detroit) only gained more respect for him after the incident. “Believe me,” one said, “Weaver had it coming.”
Anyway, there was that, and there were other times when he expressed frustration at the organization or teammates who he didn’t think were giving their all and so on. There were times he felt the mean sting of the fans’ disapproval when he was really trying the best he could to get healthy.
But mostly, day after day, he came into the clubhouse singing, he spent every game playing hard as he can, he came back too soon from injuries, he played through intense pain … all for a mostly-hopeless team that was usually playing out the string. The other players looked at him like he was a freak. They all loved baseball, grew up with it, dreamed about it, but still they wondered: How could ANYONE love baseball — especially this kind of losing baseball — as much as Mike Sweeney?
* * *
Mike Sweeney was born a few days premature — “Couldn’t wait to get into this world,” he will say (yes, he will really say this). So when he was put in the incubator his father, Mike Sr. — Big Mike, everyone calls him — also put in a toy plastic bat.
Big Mike had wanted to play big league ball. He hacked around in semi-pro ball for a while, tried to make a go of it in the Angels minor league system, but when his first son was born he gave it all up and drove a beer truck. On the side, Big Mike would teach kids how to hit baseballs over at the Home Run Park batting cage in Anaheim. The one kid who would not come out of the cage, of course, was Mike Sweeney Jr.
The kid’s life was a Brady Bunch episode — anyway, that’s how Mike Jr. remembers it. They grew up, big Irish Catholic family, in a house on Tam O’ Shanter Lane. His memories are of Sunday morning trips to church, picnics when they would listen to Vin Scully on the radio, California Angels ballgames where he would watch his favorite player, a catcher-outfielder named Brian Downing. All that stuff. His one brush with the law happened when he and a friend toilet-papered a house. The officer told him he was going to jail for a long time. In memory, Mike Jr. believed it.
He was a catcher — probably because Downing was a catcher — and the Royals took him in the 10th round of the 1991 Draft. His catching did not leave anybody too impressed, but he started hitting with power when he was 21and the thing is he almost never struck out. All those days in the batting cage had given him an almost freakish ability to swing hard and make contact. From 1999 to 2002, Sweeney would hit .324/.396/.535 and would be in the Top 10 in fewest strikeouts per at-bat each of those four seasons.
By then, the Royals had given up on him as a catcher. They tried hard to make him a first baseman, and Mike tried hard to make himself a first baseman, and whenever you would ask scouts or coaches how he was doing defensively they would usually say the same thing: “Mike Sweeney can REALLY hit.” The effort to make Mike a first baseman was probably best expressed by one coach who, while watching Sweeney take extra ground balls, muttered: “That guy would rather face Nolan Ryan in a phone booth on Christmas in the dark that take a ground ball.” But Sweeney kept taking those extra ground balls. As one Royals player would say: “Mike isn’t a great first baseman. But he’s as good as he can be, I know that.”
The hitting went better. The first year the Royals gave him a shot to play every day, that was 1998, Sweeney hit .322 with 44 doubles and 22 home runs. Every thing was a line drive. The next year he hit .333 and set the Royals record with 144 RBIs. The next year he smashed 46 doubles. The next year he hit .340 and went into the final weekend with a shot at the batting title. He played every day, he carried himself with grace, he was a force in the community, he was the face of the Royals.
And it was just before that 2002 season that the Royals and Sweeney agreed to a semi-strange deal. The Royals offered Sweeney a five-year, $55 million — a deal that was so far under market value that, according to numerous people at the time, Sweeney took quite a bit of guff about it from the players union.*
*Later, after things took a bad turn, people would remember this differently, would think of Sweeney being wildly OVERPAID, though his newly minted $11 million deal put him only tied for 36th in baseball in 2003, not much for a 29-year old hitter coming off four very good years.
The odd part of the deal (if you don’t think a player taking an undervalued deal to stay in Kansas City is odd enough) is that the Royals gave Sweeney an out. They put in a small-print exit clause: If the teams did not finish .500 or better in either 2003 or 2004, Sweeney would be released from the final three years of his contract and could become a free agent. This seemed like a sure thing. The Royals had eight straight losing seasons going into 2003 — and they had lost 100 games in 2002.
Only, wacky things happened in 2003. The Royals, against all logic, won 16 of their first 19 games. They then started the inevitable losing but, of all things, were re-energized by the re-emergence of an almost forgotten pitcher named Jose Lima. In mid-August, the Royals improbably were still in first place. They clinched winning season on Sept. 22. They promptly lost five of their last six. But Sweeney was locked in.
And Sweeney … was happy about t. Yes, his body was beginning to betray him; in 2003, for the first time in a while, he did not hit .300 and he only played in a 108 games. But all he ever really wanted was to play for a winner in Kansas City, and 2003 seemed like a promising sign. He was as happy playing baseball as he ever had been …
He did not know then that the mirage of 2003 would be followed by three impossibly awful seasons, 100-plus losses in every one. He did not know then that his back would never again be right, that his hamstrings would pop like strings on a tennis racket, that the next four years would a a succession of pain and disappointment, that he would miss game after game. He did not know then that the under-market-value contract that he had signed because he loved Kansas City would soon be viewed as pure greed by some fans who grew tired of seeing his name on the disabled list, who grew sick of seeing his bat speed slow, who needed someone on the field to blame for all the Kansas City losing. By the last year of his contract, Sweeney hit just .260 in only 74 games, and for this he got paid $11 million, and there was a lot of anger and cynicism swirling around him.
Still … Sweeney kept singing his way into the clubhouse. It was something to see. He kept playing as hard as his body would allow him, harder even. He kept trying to lead, kept trying to inspire, kept strong with his faith, kept trying all the while … anytime the players would take a “nicest guy in baseball” poll, Sweeney’s name was always at or near the top. He went to Oakland, then to Seattle, offered a little value as a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman, the word was always that he was going to retire. But he figured that as long as somebody was willing to give him a job, he’d keep on playing the game for the minimum salary.
Whenever I would see him, he would rush over, talk about his family, ask about mine, and say the same thing: “Can you believe I’m still here playing this game?”
* * *
In August, the Phillies needed a little help, they traded for Sweeney. He was thrilled. He was suddenly, unexpectedly, for the first time in his life, part of a great team. And now here he is, in the playoffs for the first time. His role is tiny, almost insignificant. He will pinch-hit, maybe.
But that doesn’t matter. When you’ve been through all those losing seasons, that doesn’t matter at all. When or if Mike Sweeney steps to the plate during this National League Championship Series, the announcer will undoubtedly say something like this: “And here’s Mike Sweeney, who after so many losing seasons in Kansas City is finally playing in his first postseason.” And most people will miss it. Most people will miss it because, well, they weren’t there. They don’t know, and probably don’t care about all those terrible seasons, all those hopeless games, all those teammates he inspired, all that Kansas City humidity, all those injuries that made him feel helpless, all the fans who lost patience, all that singing …
“It’s funny,” Sweeney says. “When I was a kid, I would be getting ready in the morning. And my sister would say, ‘Be quiet already!’ And I’d say, ‘What? What was I saying?’ And she would say, ‘You were singing again.’
“I’d say, ‘I was?’ And then, sure enough, I’d hear myself singing. And I’d tell her, ‘I can’t help it!’ “
Now Mike Sweeney’s finally in the playoffs. That’s the punch line. But of course, the punch line isn’t important. That’s the secret of a good joke … and a good life. The punch line is just the punch line. The set-up, that’s what matters.