by Joe Bollig
SHAWNEE — An excited boy, about 11 years old, poked his head down between the bleachers and yelled down to his hero.
“Sweeney! Hey, Sweeney!” he called. “I’m up here!”
Mike Sweeney, five-time Major League Baseball All-Star first baseman and former member of the Kansas City Royals, looked up and flashed a smile.
The kid was in heaven — he’d connected with his hero. That was enough for now, but later he’d lobby for an autograph.
That’s what all 135 boys, ages eight to 15, at the Catholic Baseball Camp of KC wanted from “Coach Sweeney” — a chance to connect with their hero.
Sweeney was more than willing. So were many of the other pro-sport heroes at the camp, which was conducted from June 4 to 6 at the Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee.
Sweeney, however, wanted to help the boys connect with an even greater hero: Jesus.
“When I got done playing baseball, I said, ‘God put this dream in my heart to do and I’m going to do it,’” said Sweeney. “If only 10 kids show up because it’s called a Catholic camp, then so be it. But I’m going to try to make saints of these 10 kids.”
Ten? Make that hundreds. Sweeney’s first Catholic baseball camp last year in San Diego (where he now lives) was very successful. For the Kansas City camp, boys — mostly Catholic, but not all — came from all over the metro area and even other states.
There’s a reason, Sweeney says, that the word “Catholic” comes first in the name of this endeavor.
Hits and hustle for One Greater
The Catholic Baseball Camp features opportunities to hone skills, have fun and meet celebrities. Each day, the boys participated in eight stations, lasting 20 minutes each, and then scrimmages.
They also received baseball skills instruction and motivational talks from such luminaries as Sweeney and members of his baseball family, including Mike Sweeney Sr., George Brett, Frank White, Jeff Montgomery, Mike Boddicker, Joe Randa, Kevin Seitzer, Al Fitzmorris, Tom Burgmeier, Emil Brown, Ryan Lefebvre, Tony Richardson, Jim Nettles and Mike Breslin.
But “Catholic” came before “baseball.”
Each day opened with Mass. There were opportunities to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, listen to an inspirational faith talk, sing praise music and pray the rosary.
Even non-baseball “celebrities” stopped by — Bishop Robert Finn and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. The latter’s father played minor league ball for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The camp was jointly sponsored by the Mike and Shara Sweeney Family Foundation and the Catholic Youth Organization of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.
“I read about [Sweeney’s San Diego camp] in the National Catholic Register, and thought we needed to bring this to Kansas City,” said Peter Piscitello, CYO executive director.
He contacted Sweeney, who was “overjoyed” to bring the camp here. They formed a partnership and made it happen.
But can sports and faith really mix? The camp is living proof that they can.
“We’ve had talks about faith and how to play the game of baseball the right way, how to live the right way, and put God first in all things,” said Piscitello.
“And then you have Mike Sweeney talk about his faith in God,” he continued, “and how he puts prayer first every day, how he puts his family first every day, and how he played the game the right way by glorifying God and asking God to lead his career.”
The boys “get it.” When asked why he was there, 10-year-old Max Heller, a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee said simply, “I love God and I love baseball.”
In answer to the same question, 12-year-old Ryan Hicks, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, aimed high.
“[I want] to learn everything there is to learn about baseball,” he said. “I want to be in [Major League Baseball] and to grow in my faith toward God. I thought this would be perfect for it, so that’s kind of why I’m here.”
Sweeney related a story from last year, told by the non-Catholic father of a participant.
When the father went to tuck his boy in bed one night, he saw that his son had pasted the Hail Mary on one side of his headboard and the Glory Be on the other.
“Dad,” the boy said, “I’ve never felt so close to Jesus. I want to be Catholic.”
Show them you care
The last day of the camp was perfect for baseball — a clear, sunny sky with a light, cool breeze. Parents watched from outside the dugouts and the bleachers.
From the fields came the “crack” and “ping” of the bats, the “slap” of the mitts as the balls hit gloves, and encouraging chatter from Sweeney. The boys hung on his every word and movement.
“Good rip,” he told one batter. “Nice hit, big fella,” he told another. “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” to one, and “Oh, safe — nice try, Connor.”
Most impressively, after only three days, he knew their names.
“You just take the time to care,” he said. “A lot of these boys, they don’t really care what you know, they want to know that you care. To look a boy in the eye, remember their name and give them a hug or pat on the back, that just means the world to them.”
At the end of the day, Sweeney told the boys that his dream was not to make them pro baseball players, but to make them saints.
“God looks at you boys as saints, and that’s what I’m here for,” he said. “If you walk out of here knowing you’re a saint in the eyes of God, you’re going to be amazing.”