Tacoma Rainiers pitcher Brian Sweeney might be considered something of a vagabond, having been with four organizations and nine teams in the United States over an 18-year career, plus spending three years in Japan with the Nippon Ham Fighters from 2007 to 2009. His Major League record is 4-2, while his Minor League stats are 88-61, with 11 combined saves. He has spent all or part of seven seasons with Tacoma.
This year, Sweeney leads the team in wins with an 8-3 record (remarkable because he is not in the starting rotation) in 94.2 innings while recording 74 strikeouts, both good enough for second among all Rainier pitchers. Sweeney recently talked to Tacoma Weekly baseball correspondent Karen Westeen about his amazing career.
KW: Where do you call home?
BS: My wife and I and our two daughters live in Clifton Park, N.Y., about two and a half hours north of New York City. They are here during the season.
KW: How old are your daughters?
BS: They’re 14 and 9.
KW: Are they involved in sports?
BS: Yes, the oldest plays tennis and softball and the youngest is in competition dance and gymnastics.
KW: You’ve been playing professionally for 18 seasons. What’s your earliest memory of playing baseball?
BS: When we were in Yonkers, N.Y., my sisters took me out on the deck and put a whiffle ball bat in my hands and pitched to me when I was two.
KW: What other sports did you play in school?
BS: Basketball and football, but baseball was always my first love.
KW: When did you decide that you were probably going to be a pitcher?
BS: My senior year in college. I played all positions in college and had pitched my whole life, but I started focusing on pitching that year.
KW: Did you have role models growing up?
BS: I didn’t realize it when I was growing up but my mother and father were huge role models for me in how they raised the family. When it comes to baseball I was a huge fan of Don Mattingly and the way he hit and played defense.
KW: Throughout your career you’ve been both a starter and a reliever. Do you consider yourself a relief pitcher who occasionally makes a spot start, or a starter who can also be a reliever?
BS: That’s a good question. Do you know what I consider myself – first and foremost I consider myself a baseball player. Does that answer the question?
KW: Sure because that’s a complex role. I know there are a lot of pitchers who get pulled into that position occasionally of making a spot start, but I can’t think of anybody else who has been more successful.
BS: I have a few wins in relief and they do count. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been out there in relief when we’ve been winning.
KW: Whichever role you’re pitching in do you use the same outpitch? And what do you consider to be your outpitch?
BS: That’s always a work in progress but I like to go to my changeup. I like to use all four of my pitches. Lately I’ve been going to my curveball.
KW: When you come to the park, if you aren’t penciled in to start, what’s your mind set – I might have to come in early? I might have to sit until the end?
BS: Every day when I come to the park I think I’m going to pitch. That’s the only way to do it. When we walk down to the bullpen as a group I’m prepared to pitch that day. I can’t turn the switch off. I watch what’s going on, I try to get a feel for the game, how the manager wants to use me. I go through my routine of stretching down there, and I’m prepared to pitch. When the phone rings and it’s my turn to pitch I’m ready. If it isn’t then I’ll be ready for tomorrow. I prepare pretty much the same way every day.
KW: You have a new pitching coach, Terry Clark, who’s up from Double-A. Have you worked with him before and has he given you any insights yet?
BS: We worked together in spring training this year but before that, no. All pitching coaches are different and have something to offer to help you get better. That’s the great thing about baseball. You think you know everything but you really don’t. There’s always something to learn.
KW: I never get tired of hearing how you got your first major-league win on June 29, 2004, against Randy Johnson, when you were with San Diego and he was pitching for Arizona. Talk a little about that, and how you felt going into the game.
BS: It was an incredible day. A week before I had pitched in Seattle, and after that game I found out I was going to start five days later in San Diego. I wasn’t too nervous until I remembered I’d have to hit too.
KW: How did you do?
BS: (I went) 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, but Randy went 0-for-4 as well. It was a great win for the team, and I was fortunate enough to see him in the weight room the next day. We spoke about things that happened during the game, and in talking to him he kind of inspired me to keep fighting. In fact both of my Major League starts were against Randy. It was a good experience. Unfortunately I was sent back down to the minor leagues the following day (and didn’t pitch in the Major Leagues again until 2006.)
KW: You made your Major League debut when you were with the Mariners in 2003. Describe that.
BS: It was in relief against Boston. I remember the run in from the bullpen was nerve-wracking. Damian Jackson was the first Major League batter I faced. I threw him two balls, then got him out on a ground ball to third on the third pitch. It was a fastball. I was able to breath after that first out and I thought, now let’s go to work.
KW: You pitched here at Cheney before it was remodeled. Even though the field’s the same there’s a different superstructure and the fences are different. Does that affect your pitching at all?
BS: It doesn’t really. I think the whole (remodel) gives us a better atmosphere, with new dugouts and locker rooms. Now we like being at home. I think they did a great job.
KW: So far what’s been the highlight of your career?
BS: I think it was the day in September 1996 when I signed my minor league contract with the Mariners. The Mariners’ scouting director Tom McNamara came to the house and my parents were there. There was no bonus but it was kind of like my draft day, because I’d been playing in an independent league. We walked out to his car and he reached under some stuff in his trunk and pulled out a Mariners’ cap, gave it to me and said “Welcome to the Seattle Mariners.” That was 17 years ago now, but it’s still vivid in my mind.
KW: How many clubs have you played with?
BS: Seattle, San Diego (twice), Tampa Bay, Japan, the Mets, and twice more with Seattle.
KW: Have you been to the postseason?
BS: Yes. San Diego played St. Louis in 2006 and we were eliminated in the first round, but that was a very cool experience. We also went to the Japanese World Series two of the years I was there, but didn’t win the series either year.
KW: What was it like being in Japan for three years?
BS: We all have fond memories. It was a good time for us as a family. The culture and people were wonderful.
KW: Have you thought any more about staying in baseball once you actually stop playing?
BS: I have to consider my family as well, and if I go into coaching I’d have to be away from them a lot. I don’t know if I want to do that. My kids told me recently that they want me to play next year but I’ll be 40 then, and who’s going to want a 40-year-old at this point in his career? I have to leave it up to God that he’ll guide me to make the right decision.