Yonkers' Sweeney goes where he's wanted
By JOHN DELCOS
THE JOURNAL NEWS
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(Original publication: December 23, 2006)
Sometimes dreams get answered, only not the way you imagine.
Brian Sweeney grew up on Westchester's mounds, and like most kids had his eye - and heart - on the big prize.
It is a prize that varies and changes with age.
At 22, there were visions of stardom, celebrity and a contract defying the comprehension of a little-leaguer's imagination.
At 32, after a decade of minor-league bus rides and being the odd man out many times at the end of spring training, reality hasn't lived up to his dreams.
That hasn't changed his passion, just his perception.
"I still love the game," Sweeney, a Yonkers native, said earlier this week at a clinic in Armonk. "But I look at it differently now. It is still a game, but it is also a business.
"It is difficult to say I gave up on my dream. My dream was to play baseball in the major leagues. I've accomplished that. I pitched in the major leagues."
However, dreams change, which is why he said no thanks to a spring-training invite from San Diego - the team for whom he was a reliever this year - and inquiries from Baltimore and Cleveland, to play in Japan.
"Because I earned it," he said.
"I look at things differently. I'm going into my 12th season, and this is my first guaranteed contract.
"In this sport, a guaranteed contract is something you think of. It is something you strive for. This will give me the opportunity to give financial stability for my family."
While still playing baseball.
That he will do it on the other side of the world is irrelevant.
His father, Edward, a retired Yonkers fireman, used to stay up late to catch the Padres' scores, and before that, Seattle's.
Now he'll be on the Internet catching up with the Nippon Ham Fighters.
After all those summers in the minors, dad is pleased that his son is still working at this passion.
"After all that he's been through, I am happy for him," Edward said. "The team came after him. They scouted him. They wanted him."
That's important, too.
Nippon didn't come after him the way Boston pursued Daisuke Matsuzaka, but the Japanese team made an effort San Diego never did. Or any other major-league team, for that matter.
"They came after me aggressively," Sweeney said. "They wanted me. That hasn't happened with me before. It's nice to have that."
In the deal worked out last week, Nippon offered not only a guaranteed contract - with the perk of a round-trip business-class ticket to Japan for his father - but a job description nobody else would: Instead of mop-up relief, Sweeney will get to start.
Sweeney worked 56 1/3 innings in 37 appearances this year, going 2-0 with a 3.20 ERA, including a victory in a three-inning stint against the Mets April 21. In his career, he has thrown 80 major-league innings in 49 appearances for San Diego and Seattle, and is 3-0 with a 3.49 ERA.
Now the former Stepinac High and Mercy College player has the opportunity to more than double his innings. And if he has a similar ERA in Japan, that could translate to enough victories to warrant another contract.
A good year in Japan could lead to a major-league offer, but Sweeney isn't counting on it. If an offer comes, it comes. If not and he stays in Japan, well, there's nothing wrong with that, either.
"I've seen the business side of the sport," Sweeney said. "You have no control over things. I'm trying to give some security to my family."
Sweeney has the four pitches it takes to succeed as a starter - a fastball, curve, cutter and changeup - the perseverance to make it work and the curiosity of a tourist.
He's reading a book by Warren Cromartie, a former star player with the Montreal Expos, on his experiences playing in Japan. He's picked the brain of former Padres teammate Brian Sikorski, who played four years in Japan.
And he's going with the right attitude.
Some players go to Japan for the money. They spend their spare time in their hotel rooms and frequent American chain restaurants.
But before he's done, Sweeney plans to order off the menu without pointing.
"It's intriguing. It's scary," Sweeney said of his pending experience, which will begin at the end of January with a 17-hour flight, from which he'll start an eight-week spring training. "But I'd be stupid if I don't take advantage of learning another culture. I'm looking forward to this."