Having a Ball

Having a Ball

KC Royals Mike Sweeney has an All-Star appetite for fly-fishing

  • By: Greg Echlin
In the last five years, Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney has established himself as one of the premier hitters in Major League Baseball. In 2002, he finished second in the American League batting race with a .340 average. Entering the 2003 season, Sweeney's lifetime average in his seven years with the Royals was .309 and was the Royals representative at the All-Star game three years in a row. At that same time, Sweeney has also increased his batting average as a fly fisherman, catching trout from some of this country's finest rivers.He grew up in Ontario, California(CK) but now makes his home in the Kansas City area. Kansas City sports journalist Greg Echlin covers the Royals on a regular basis and recently sat down with Mike Sweeney to talk about the All-Star's enthusiasm for fly-fishing. GREG ECHLIN: You have said to me that when you're not representing the American League in the All-Star game, you would rather be fly-fishing. You're pretty serious about that, aren't you? MIKE SWEENEY: Absolutely. In fact, the last three seasons in Kansas City I had my bags packed. I had my fly-fishing gear ready until I got the call that I was going to represent the Royals as an All-Star. I was really serious about doing it. People would ask, 'What are going to do for the All-Star break?' My first response was, 'I'm driving down to the Lake of the Ozarks (in southern Missouri). I'm going to fly-fish in some streams down there.' I really meant it. Baseball is my job. I love it, but there's something about fly-fishing. I've never been to an ugly spot to fly-fish. It's always beautiful. It's always lined with trees and the fish are just gorgeous. But in the same breath, I've never been to an ugly major-league stadium, so I love 'em both. But if I ever get a break during the major league season, I always try to go out and do some fly-fishing. So when do you get a chance if you have that break during the season? I did get a chance last year a couple times during the season to take a break. Usually, if we have an off day and we're on the road in a city, I'll try to find a watershed and find out where the best fly-fishing is in the area. Last year was pretty cool. We were up in Montreal and had a guide come pick us up at the hotel at 5:30 in the morning. Myself and (former teammate) Jeff Austin went out and caught some trout. One of the neatest things was Jeff had never been trout fly-fishing before and he caught his first trout and he was like a little kid at Christmas. Times like that are precious. For the first time before spring training, you took a fishing trip that involved steelhead. Well, I had always fished either in the Sierras in northern California, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, up in Canada, but I always fly-fished for rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout and golden trout. And this year, for the first time, I went steelhead fishing. Man, I needed a bigger fly rod. I had to get an 8-weight rather than a 5- and 6-weight I used for trout fishing. It was a hoot. Man, I'm not saying I'll never fly-fish for trout again, but steelhead fishing was sooooo enjoyable. Catching the big fish on small 16-, 18-hook flies. It was a time I'll never forget. Up by Mount Shasta [Oregon], we fished the Upper Klamath and we also fished the Trinity River. I went out there with a couple friends of mine who are in my fly-fishing fraternity. Where do you trace the origins of this fly-fishing fraternity? Funny you ask. It started about four years ago. One of my best friends, Jed Hanson, who is a major-league player, formerly with the Royals, and I took a trip to Montana. Up in Dillon, we fished the Beaver Head, the Big Hole, the Madison. I went up there for five days and I was hooked right away. Literally. Just had the time of my life and ever since then it's been a great outlet for me. In the realm of baseball, you're basically on every single day, on call or at work for eight months straight. During an eight-month period, I think we a have a total of 19 off-days. That's it. So for eight months straight, we're on pretty much every day. So in the off-season, I try to go out as many times as I can just to refresh my soul. I think it's one of the neatest soul-refreshers on earth for me. I figure a lot of Jesus' disciples were fishermen, too, so I figure let's try to follow in their footsteps. Did you ever have a chance to meet Ted Williams? No, I always wanted to meet him. I wanted to meet him before he passed away because, number one, he was my dad's favorite growing up. He was my dad's idol. Growing up, I heard 'greatest hitter ever, Ted Williams.' I always watched his tapes, read about him, read his philosophies and I also found out he was a strong fly-fisherman, so my dream would have been to go up to the Madison River in Montana and fly-fish with Ted Williams, but who knows? Maybe the good Lord has some trout streams up in heaven and I'll be able to fly-fish with him someday up there. One of your traits as a hitter is your ability to concentrate. Does that carry over to fly-fishing? It does. As a hitter, you have to adjust sometimes pitch to pitch in an at-bat. I carry that with me into fly-fishing. Depending on the weather or the water temperature, the barometric pressure, you going to have to change your outfits by maybe fishing deeper or if the water is shallower, go a little higher. You may have to change flies. Change colors. It's like baseball. You have to change often. But, just like baseball, when you're locked in and you know what's biting, it's a great feeling. It's similar to when you get in a pitcher's head and you know what he's going to throw on every single pitch. You know where he's going to go with it and you're swinging the bat well. It's like that in fishing when you know what the fish want for lunch. Do you tie your flies? I just started tying flies about a year ago. It's fun. I did catch my first fish on one of my flies and it was a great, great feeling. I caught it up in Montana. How proud were you of that moment? It was good. It was a mangled up Olive Woolly Bugger. But it caught fish, so I was really excited that I sat down on our team flight. We were flying from Kansas City to Oakland and I brought my vise with me on the plane. (Teammate) Brent Mayne and I tied flies together. You started as a child a bait fisherman. What are the differences in your mind between bait fishing and fly-fishing? Well, I remember when I was a little boy. I was about five years old and my dad took me fishing for the first time. Bought me my little Snoopy pole and took me out with the guys. I think that was the first time in my life I felt like a man. There was something about fishing that was great. Now that I've jumped into fly-fishing, it's a whole new level. I draw the comparison to being a starting catcher on a major league baseball team. It's very comparable to a fly fisherman vs. being a bullpen catcher. There's a big difference between a bullpen catcher and a major league catcher who's catching every pitch, working the pitchers, trying to get the pitchers through an inning. I think a fly fisherman is like that starting catcher. It's hands on. You have to think a lot. You have to adapt a lot. In the last five years, Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney has established himself as one of the premier hitters in Major League Baseball. In 2002, he finished second in the American League batting race with a .340 average. Entering the 2003 season, Sweeney's lifetime average in his seven years with the Royals was .309 and was the Royals representative at the All-Star game three years in a row. At that same time, Sweeney has also increased his batting average as a fly fisherman catching trout from some of this country's finest rivers. He grew up in Ontario, Cal., but now makes his home in the Kansas City area. Kansas City sports journalist Greg Echlin covers the Royals a regular basis and recently sat down with Mike Sweeney to talk about his enthusiasm for fly fishing.