By A.J. Martelli
Most Mercy College students spent their summers tanning on the beach. Many went on expensive vacations while others spent sunny days relaxing by the sides of their pools.
Brian Sweeney, a graduate of the Mercy class of 1996, spent his summer pitching against Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. On July 1, Sweeney got Jeter to groundout to short in a scoreless, perfect seventh inning of a Yankees vs. Mariners game.
“I did the same thing with Jeter that I did with the other hitters,” he told the Impact. “I took the same pitching approach.”
Sweeney didn’t shy away from facing one of the most decorated New York Yankees in history and viewed it as a great challenge for his career. And of course, the veteran had some tricks while at the plate.
“I just wish he had gotten into the batter’s box a little quicker. I’m not sure if he was trying to slow me down, but it could just be his routine.”
The Mercy alumnus, who had been pitching in Japan for three years, returned home and made it back to the major leagues. Sweeney had previous stints with the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres, and once again experienced the thrill of pitching at the big league level this summer.
“It felt like I was in a time machine,” Sweeney said. “Where am I? That was all I could say. Coming back and getting called up was especially satisfying, since I got to go back to the Mariners. They are the team that brought me up and bred me.”
Now that he is back with the Mariners, Sweeney noted what the biggest change was from his first stint compared to his second.
“Getting acclimated was the most challenging aspect,” he said. “The only teammate I knew from my first stint was Ichiro (Suzuki). I had to get to know the rest of my teammates, and that was a learning process that took some time.”
So far in his Major League Baseball career, Sweeney has compiled a 4-2 record and an earned run average of 3.38, coupled with 54 lifetime strikeouts.
Although he is happy to be back and pitching in the majors, Sweeney, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., imagined his baseball career going in a different direction.
“I grew up a Yankee fan and my idol was Don Mattingly,” he stated.
“Being called up to the majors was extremely satisfying because I always wanted to be a professional baseball player. Granted, I wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees, but I worked hard for seven years in the minor leagues to make it to the majors.”
Before he made it to the minors, Sweeney pitched for the Flyers, now known to the Mercy student body as the Mavericks. He recalled what it was like to play for Mercy before making it to the show.
“Pitching for Mercy was an incredible learning experience,” Sweeney said. “I learned about hard work, dedication, and how important it is not to give in, no matter what the circumstance. I also learned about losing-which made me want to win even more! Our team’s records each season were not very good, but it was not for lack of effort.
“We lost off the field as well, because our assistant coach passed away in a car accident my freshman year.”
Sweeney also learned his knee-buckling changeup from his head coach at Mercy, his go-to pitch on the mound.
On Aug. 13, 2003, Sweeney was called up to the majors for the first time. He recalled how Jim Slaton, one of the pitching coaches, made it an interesting experience.
“The night before I was called up, I went out with an old roomate of mine,” Sweeney remembered.
“We had a few beers and then Slaton told me I was fired because the team was not pitching well. I did not take it very well and I had some choice words for him. He finally calmed me down and told me I was going to the Major Leagues. I wanted to pass out because all the hard work I had put in paid off.”
The first person Sweeney wanted to tell was his father, but it was difficult to do at the time.
“I was so happy when I got called up, but I could not get in touch with my dad right away,” he said.
“There was a terrible blackout that plagued the east coast in the summer of 2003, which prevented me from calling him to tell him. I wanted him to be the first to know because he was and still is a huge part of my success.”
After a year with Seattle, Sweeney went to San Diego to pitch for the Padres. On June 29, 2004, he recorded his first win at the Major League level. It was a unique win and one that would prove to be historic.
“Of all the games I have won, my first win was the most rewarding for me,” he said.
San Diego needed a starter to face the Arizona Diamondbacks and their starter Randy Johnson, who was going for 4,000 strikeouts in that game.
“He had 3,992 at the time and needless to say, he got to 4,000.”
Sweeney helped The Big Unit get to the milestone, as he struck out twice in the game. However, it was Sweeney who got the last laugh as the Padres beat the Diamondbacks, 3-2.
“It was a great feeling to win the game,” he stated.”The next day I met Randy and got to talk with him, which also made it a memorable achievement.”
Although he has had experience as a starting pitcher, Sweeney’s comfort zone is the bullpen. On May 7, 2006 he recorded his first career save in a 6-3 Padres’ victory over the Chicago Cubs. Sweeney remembered what it was like to pitch in place of a legend.
“All the Padres fans expected Trevor Hoffman, the all-time baseball saves leader, to come running out of the bullpen, but they got me that day,” he remarked.
“Hoffy had pitched five days in a row and needed a day off. It was a very cool experience and all things winning are good, so I love that I picked up that save.”
At the conclusion on the 2006 MLB season, Sweeney took his talents to Japan and pitched for the Nippon-Ham Fighters. Sweeney said there are many things that are different about playing in the Far East compared to the U.S.A., and he misses a few things about life in Japan.
“I miss some of the drills that were conducted over there,” he remarked.
“For instance, they would put the pitchers at shortstop, which is something that is not done here in the States. I also miss some of my teammates. I had the opportunity to play with Yu Darvish, who is a classy individual and an excellent player.
“Overall, it was fun to play in Japan.”
On April 15, Sweeney signed a minor league deal with Seattle and was assigned to Triple-A Tacoma. Exactly two months later on June 15 he found himself back in the majors. When he pitched at Yankee Stadium on July 1, his family sat in the stands with signs that read “Believe” on them. Sweeney explained what the signs meant.
“Believe is a word my children use; they are 11 and six,” he stated.
“It is a strong word that means a lot and it pays dividends over time. Believe in yourself, believe in God, just believe and you will be fine. My family made those signs for me and it meant so much that they did that.”
Sweeney later found out that the Mariners’ 2010 motto is “Believe Big.”
This year Sweeney is 1-2 with an ERA of 3.16. But numbers do not seem as important to him as other things in his life.
“I put less pressure on myself when I’m pitching,” he said.
“I know that at the end of the day, win or lose, there is a hug waiting for me at home.”