A devout Catholic, the newest Phillie follows Christ’s example in an era of Major League egos

By John Knebels Sports Columnist

It was a somber locker room Wednesday night, Aug. 25, underneath Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia.

The Phillies had just lost 3-2 to the heavy-underdog Houston Astros. Their third straight defeat to a team that is inferior on paper was reflected by a sea of vacant stalls – a far cry from how it looks when players celebrate a post-game victory.

Mike Sweeney, the newest Phillie acquired from the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 4, fully understands the nuances of player psychology and recognizes that some athletes are more accessible than others during the valleys of a long, 162-game season.

But, Sweeney admits, if you are going to answer questions following a win, it’s only fair to do likewise following a loss.

“I’ve heard it said that anyone can be a Christian when you’re hitting .350 or you are up on the mountain top,” Sweeney said. “But it’s who you are when you are in the valley and going through a storm in life, or when you are hitting .180.

“For me, I would hope that if I am hitting .350 or .150, the character that is exposed is the character of Christ.”

Since entering the major leagues in 1995, talking baseball comes easily for Sweeney. Talking about his Catholic faith is even easier.

The advisory chairman of Catholic Athletes for Christ and a spokesman for Life Teen, the largest Catholic youth ministry program in the United States, Sweeney has always been a person of remarkable character.

The second oldest of eight siblings from Ontario, Calif., Sweeney was 16 when he attended a Confirmation retreat. It was there that a mentor of Sweeney’s named Jim Wright challenged the handsome young athlete to strengthen his relationship with Jesus.

“He asked me a lot of questions, and it hit me. I realized that I wanted to deepen my relationship with Jesus,” Sweeney said. “From that point, I made a commitment to let Jesus into my heart.”

Sweeney, 37, and his wife Shara – the daughter of former baseball star Jim Nettles – married in 2002 at his home parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Ontario, Calif. The couple has three young children. The family even met Pope Benedict when they were in Rome; two prized photographs remain as mementos of the special occasion.

Labeling Shara his “best friend,” Sweeney asked a thought-provoking question.

“If I only spoke with my wife for one hour a week, what kind of a relationship would I have with her?” Sweeney said. “But I want to communicate with her. I want to share my deepest feelings with her. I want to share my highs and lows. I want to write love letters for her and read her love letters. That’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus. I always want to share myself with Him.”

So when the inevitable downfalls invade Sweeney’s profession, he feels prepared. And when he comes to bat in a pivotal situation, he isn’t worried.

“I think about playing for an audience of One,” he said.

“I want to honor God in the way I work. I don’t want someone to look at me and say, ‘Oh, that’s the way a Catholic acts?’ I don’t want to be like that.”

Teammate Raul Ibanez was ecstatic when the Phillies signed the first baseman with a resume that includes a .297 lifetime batting average and five trips to the All-Star game.

“He’s great,” said Ibanez. “There’s really no other way to put it. He’s a great person and a great teammate. It’s impossible not to appreciate Mike Sweeney.”

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel agrees.

“He’s a quality human being,” Manuel said. “He’s a true professional on and off the field. He’s great to have around in our locker room. He is a positive presence.”

Now that he is experiencing what it is like to be an important role player on a winning team, Sweeney is embracing his career change. And once his playing days are over, Sweeney wouldn’t be surprised if he began coaching. However, he would take at least one year off to discern what is best for his family.

“In the parable of talents, the master gave the men different talents,” Sweeney said. “For me, I want to use the talents that God’s given me to glorify Him. I want to be a tenacious worker. I want to set good examples for my teammates, that being a man of God is actually something attractive.

“I know that I am not perfect. When I get in the way, that’s when I screw up. My pride gets in the way and then it becomes about me. But when I become about Christ then His fruit could be displayed through me.”

Sweeney has attended Mass regularly no matter where he has lived and figures to do the same if his stop in Philadelphia lasts into the future.

“I participate in the sacraments trying to get fed as much as I can with the Eucharist so that when people do see me they can see the image of Christ in me,” Sweeney said. “The consecration is taken right from the Gospels. It brings the Mass to life.”

Sweeney said he does his best to apply the Gospel messages to his everyday life.

“So many times in the course of a day I might be going through something good or bad,” said Sweeney, “and a whisper of the Spirit will remind me of the Scriptures, to give me either strength or conviction about what to do or what not to do.”

And what about those times when Sweeney is at bat with the game on the line?

Sweeney smiled.

“I pray for God’s peace,” he said.

John Knebels can be reached at jknebs@aol.com.