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ON BASEBALL

Sweeney is stuck, but sticking it out

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They stood in a near-empty Kauffman Stadium chatting for nearly a half-hour to the side of the batting cage, Tony Graffanino in T-shirt and shorts, Mike Sweeney already in his Royals uniform.

''Tony was more than a teammate," Sweeney would say a few minutes later, while TV camera crews converged on Graffanino and asked him what it was like to escape the baseball bottomless pit that is Kansas City. ''Tony is like a brother to me. You don't appreciate someone until they're gone. That's how I feel about Tony."

Graffanino has found new life with the first-place Red Sox. First baseman Sweeney is the guy he left behind, the one who just endured the humiliation of a near-historic 19-game losing streak that ended just last weekend. His summation of the Royals' play during the streak could not have been more succinct: ''We pitched terribly, we hit terribly, and we played defense badly."

How bad was it?

''About as tough as you can get," said Royals bench coach Bob Schaefer, the former Sox farm director, ''because you figure you may never win again. That game we won [Saturday in Oakland] was like the seventh game of the World Series."

It even came with champagne, as Royals pitcher and legendary character Jose Lima broke out six bottles of bubbly, a gesture that was appreciated by all.

''We've got a bunch of young guys," Schaefer said. ''When young guys struggle, they struggle."

Sweeney, 32, is no longer one of the young guys. Drafted by the Royals in 1991, he was the player they were supposed to build around. He was the slugging first baseman who battled Manny Ramirez for the AL batting title in 2002 until falling short in the season's final days, the guy who showed his commitment to the Royals by signing a five-year, $55 million contract.

The only concession to a building sense of frustration at the Royals' lengthening cycle of losing -- eight straight years of sub-.500 records -- was a clause in his contract that if the Royals did not at least break even in 2003 or 2004, Sweeney could exercise an ''out" option.

The Royals went 83-79 under Tony Pena in 2003, and Sweeney was bound to the Royals through 2007. The next year, the Royals lost a franchise-record 104 games, and Sweeney struggled with a bad back. They're on a pace to obliterate that record with 109 losses this season.

Graffanino had signed as a free agent with the Royals after the '03 season, when he could have taken an offer from the Red Sox.

''At the time they'd come off that 2003 season and things were looking pretty promising over there, so I thought it was going to be a different situation," Graffanino said. ''In 2004, we had tons of injuries and that's why things didn't work out. Now they're in the middle of a youth movement, and everyone knows how that goes. It's a tough road."

A tough road, Graffanino said, that he wouldn't mind if his friend Sweeney didn't have to travel.

''I'd be happy for him if he'd get a chance to go to a team that had a chance to go to the playoffs."

He suspects that Sweeney might be ready to go, too.

''Probably," he said. ''He's been there a long time, I know he wants to play for a winner. It's tough when you're in the middle of what they're doing over there. You don't know how fast things are going to turn around."

Who could blame Sweeney if he felt jealous of what Graffanino has found in Boston after Theo Epstein dealt for him in July?

''I know if I wasn't a man of strong faith I would be very jealous," Sweeney said, ''because I realize God, he opens and closes doors in our lives, and I know he opened the door that brought Tony to Boston. There were rumors I was going somewhere at the trading deadline. I heard rumors to Boston pretty strongly.

''But I just know that the good Lord has me here for a reason, and maybe it's to be a leader and an example for these young guys on our team."

Royals GM Allard Baird, the New Hampshire native who has taken some serious hits for the team's losing ways, said in a casual chat on the press box elevator that dealing Sweeney would leave the Royals ''pretty naked" next season. Schaefer, meanwhile, called Sweeney ''as good a person as I've ever been around in baseball.

''He plays hard, he's very unselfish, he works hard, he's a true pro," Schaefer said. ''He's as good a guy as you'd ever want on your team. He's just a perfect guy. I'd hate to see us lose him. Put it this way: If you had 25 guys like him, you wouldn't need coaches."

The Sox will be in the market for a first baseman this winter, and while Sweeney still has $22 million left on his deal -- and a clause that stipulates his salary would bump up to $12.5 million per year if he's traded -- it would not surprise anyone if he draws interest from the Sox, especially since Epstein likes short-term commitments.

Under the terms of his contract, the Sox are one of the teams to which Sweeney could veto a deal, but why would a guy with an Irish pedigree turn down the chance to play in a ballpark where he's hitting .310 lifetime (.400 on-base percentage) and where more of his drives would reach the seats?

Yes, he said, he'd be open to the prospect. ''But like I said, I signed my name on the dotted line to play for Kansas City for five years and I'm going to fulfill that," he said. ''If Allard Baird and the Glass family [owners of the team] come to me and say, 'We're going to look into trading you,' I will honor that as well.

''Right now, my end of the deal is to play as hard as I can until the end of the 2007 season for the Kansas City Royals and that's what I'm going to do until told otherwise."

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