Then again, Stairs was just another late-season pick-up by general manager Pat Gillick in a long list of such moves. In 2006 Gillick swung a post-deadline deal for veteran Jeff Conine as well as less splashier moves to get veterans Jose Hernandez and Randall Simon. Jamie Moyer also came aboard in a late-season trade in ’06 and still hasn’t left.
Sometimes those additions have a smaller impact. For instance, in late 2007 the Phillies picked up Russell Branyan for two weeks in August before trading him to the Cardinals just before the September postseason rosters had to be set. But in nine at-bats with the Phillies, Branyan hit two home runs to go with six strikeouts.
That’s pretty much the definition of hit-or-miss.
Stairs wasn’t quite as extreme as Branyan during his 2008 run with the Phillies. He got into 19 games during the final month, hit two homers (three strikeouts) and even started three times. But even then Stairs just kind of blended in.
Until the playoffs, that is…
Stairs, of course, hit a home run in Game 4 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium that very well might be the most clutch hit in franchise history. After that homer that propelled the Phils to the win in Game 4 and the clincher in Game 5, it didn’t really matter what he did afterwards. That home run was enough, but the fact that he said all of the right things and embraced the Philly fans was the icing on the cake.
So it’s with that nod to cult-hero worship that Mike Sweeney arrived in Philadelphia as yet another shrewd, post-deadline move. In fact, Sweeney was quickly dubbed, “The Right-Handed Matt Stairs” upon his arrival as a backup first baseman to Ryan Howard as well as the quintessential “professional hitter” for late-game pinch-hitting situations.
Still, for a guy who has driven in 144 RBIs in a season, batted better than .300 five times and a 200-hit season, before injuries cost him much of the past five seasons, comparisons to Stairs didn’t seem to fit Sweeney’s career arc when he broke in with Kansas City in 1995. With the Royals, Sweeney the team’s best player and biggest box office draw. In fact, the Royals’ only winning season since George Brett retired came in 2003 when Sweeney and Raul Ibanez, with Carlos Beltran, were just a few of the eight guys on the team to club at least 13 homers.
Sweeney was a star in Kansas City even though he and Stairs were teammates during three straight 100-loss seasons. Nevertheless, it’s kind of strange that just a handful of years removed from being teammates, the star of those teams hopes to follow in the footsteps of the quintessential journeyman.
“It’s an honor to be compared to Matt,” Sweeney said before Monday night’s game against the Astros at the Bank. “He’s a great competitor, a great teammate and a good friend.”
What Sweeney has going for him is that just like Stairs he’s the kind of player manager Charlie Manuel likes to have around. The manager likes hitters with track records and even though Sweeney hasn’t played in more than 74 games since 2005, Manuel is confident in his veteran hitter for one big reason…
“I’ve seen him. I’ve seen him his entire career,” the manager said.
“Sweeney hadn’t played much this year and he got to play some, which was good for him,” Manuel said. “I look for Sweeney to really help us coming off the bench when Howard comes back. That will cut into his playing time, of course, but in September having him and (Ben) Francisco on the bench gives us two really good right-handed hitters.”
Before the injuries became chronic, Sweeney once had a streak of 171 consecutive games played that was snapped when he was suspended for beating up Angels’ pitcher Jeff Weaver when he reportedly insulted Sweeney’s devout Catholic faith. So to find himself on the bench after two decades of being at the heart of his team, admittedly, has been an adjustment, but not one that has been difficult.
After all, the Phillies are just the third team Sweeney has played for that will finish the season with a winning record and he has appeared in the fourth-highest number of games amongst active players without a playoff appearance.
Stairs had something of a playoff drought himself while playing every day in Kansas City, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Chicago during some lean times. But these days he’s working on a third straight playoff appearance with the resurgent Padres in a limited role. Actually, limited doesn’t seem to describe it considering Stairs has started just 12 games this season.
Since joining the Phillies two weeks ago, Sweeney nearly has Stairs beat in starts.
“I’ve always been an everyday guy, but my role is to come off the bench,” Sweeney said. “That’s what is great about this game. One day you’re playing every day and the next day you’re called on to be a pinch hitter and both days you’re called on to help the team. That’s what it’s all about.”
When he first joined the Phillies, Sweeney called it “a dream come true.” But that was before he spent any time in the clubhouse with his new teammates. The notion of getting to the playoffs and mixing it up in a pennant race was enough.
However, since coming aboard Sweeney has blended in. As a pinch hitter he’s 3-for-8 with a walk, sacrifice fly and two RBIs, and often can be seen talking baseball with rookie Dom Brown, the Phillies’ top prospect who started the season at Double-A.
More than a dream, the stay in Philadelphia has been even better than Sweeney imagined.
“Love it,” he said. “The guys have been great. It’s the best group of guys I’ve ever been around. We’re winning and that’s what we’re here to do.
“It’s awesome. The guys in the clubhouse have a great makeup and fire and passion, so yeah, it’s a joy to be a part of.”
Sweeney can often be found taking extra batting practice before the game before playing catch with his six-year-old son, also dressed in a No. 5 uniform top with "Sweeney" written on the back. In fact, young Sweeney is already such a fixture in the team's clubhouse that he already has a signature handshake with boss of the romper room, Shane Victorino.
Matt Stairs used to talk that way, too. In fact, he still talks fondly about his time with the Phillies, and not just because it allowed him a chance to become a folk hero. Still, comparisons are tough to live up to and even more difficult to rationalize—especially when it’s about something as rare as amazing playoff moments.
But there something about Sweeney that makes one believe that he’s going to make an impact on the season. After all, he’s waited too long to allow the moment to simply slip by.