FORT MYERS, Fla. – With the 2012 Major League Baseball spring training camps moving into their third week and most of the 15 Florida Grapefruit League teams more than 10 games into their 30-game preseason schedules, Boston Red Sox outfielder Ryan Sweeney still feels like he’s at a bit of a crossroad.
Sweeney, a 27-year-old native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a veteran of 21 Perfect Game events during his high school years in the early 2000s, was traded from the Oakland A’s to the Red Sox in a five-player deal in late December. He signed a one-year contract worth $1.75 million and came into the spring hoping to earn the job as Boston’s starting right-fielder for first-year skipper Bobby Valentine.
Sweeney left his winter home in Cedar Rapids and made his way to Fort Myers in early February, almost a month before he was required to report. Speaking with Perfect Game during the late afternoon of Saturday, March 10 from JetBlue Park, the Red Sox beautiful new spring training home, Sweeney was nothing if not upbeat.
“Everything’s going great so far,” he said with an easy smile that hints strongly at his Iowa roots. “It’s nice to start playing and start getting live at-bats again; coming from the Midwest, it’s tough to do that up there.”
Sweeney’s chances for playing time this spring were enhanced when All-Star left-fielder Carl Crawford developed inflammation in his wrist following off-season surgery and is yet to play in a Grapefruit League game. Crawford is also doubtful for Opening Day.
With Jacoby Ellsbury firmly cemented in center field and Crawford assured of taking over in left once he’s healthy, Sweeney will battle for the right field job with Cody Ross and Darnell McDonald. Sweeney got some at-bats the first two weeks of spring camp, but was just 1-for-12 (.083) with three RBI through Monday’s spring training games.
The spring actually started with a bang for Sweeney, although it came against the pitching staff from Northeastern University. In a scrimmage game with Northeastern played in early March, Sweeney was 4-for-5 with a double, home run and five RBI.
Opening Day is still weeks away and Sweeney is still trying to find his footing.
Ryan Sweeney was born in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 20, 1985, and graduated from Cedar Rapids Xavier High School in 2003. He was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the second round of the 2003 MLB amateur draft and spent seven years in the ChiSox organization, including two (2006-07) on the big league roster.
He was traded to Oakland before the 2008 season and spent the last four seasons with the A’s. He enjoyed the most productive season of his career in 2009 when in 134 games he hit .293 with six home runs, 31 doubles, three triples, 53 RBI and 68 runs scored. He played in only 82 games in 2010 and 108 last year, following knee surgery in 2010.
“Baseball is such a crazy game,” Sweeney said Saturday. “I got a little bit of time in Chicago and then I was starting in Oakland and then I had knee surgery and then I didn’t play. With injuries and different things for every player, nobody knows where they’re career is going to take them.
“I heard a good thing from (Red Sox first baseman) Adrian Gonzalez the other day. He said, ‘I don’t really have any expectations for myself, I just come out and prepare myself every single day for that game and if I do the right stuff I know things are going to take care of themselves.’”
Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Sweeney became one of Perfect Game’s first daily visitors, and he remains a regular during the off-season.
Sweeney was spotted several times over the winter taking his cuts in Perfect Game’s indoor batting cages on Cedar Rapids’ southwest side, just down the street from Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium, the home of the Class A Midwest League Cedar Rapids Kernels minor league club.
It’s not a stretch to say Sweeney and Perfect Game reached maturity together.
“Perfect Game has been huge for me, especially just having it be in Cedar Rapids. That’s a huge plus,” Sweeney said. “They have so many events now, and it’s definitely good exposure and good to have something like that to use as a tool for a kid from Iowa.”
He participated in just about every PG Top Prospect showcase he could travel to while in high school, especially the ones held near his home at Perfect Game Field. He was also in attendance at the 2002 PG National Top Prospect Showcase at Terry Park here and the 2003 World Showcase at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
But his first PG action came in the 1999 PG Iowa Fall Wood Bat League when he was just 14-years-old.
Sweeney played a total of six PG Iowa Spring and Fall Wood Bat League seasons, something he sees as yet another valuable opportunity for Iowa prospects. The Iowa High School Athletic Association quit offering a spring baseball season in 1973 and a fall season in 1986 and offers only a summer season today.
“For a guy like me, that just gave me more chances for exposure,” Sweeney said. “Even for the kids who might not be getting drafted, just having colleges and junior colleges coming out to see you play is a huge advantage that you might not get if you’re just playing high school summer baseball.”
Sweeney played alongside future MLB players Joel Hanrahan, Jeff Clement, Brad Nelson and a couple of others during that 1999 fall season. Many baseball players would view growing up in Iowa as a road-block to one day playing in the big leagues. Sweeney tried to turn it into a positive.
“You almost had to work twice as hard to get to where you were just because you weren’t in Florida or California or places where there were 30 or 40 prospects coming out of a college or a high school or whatever it may be,” he said. “You definitely have to work harder and Perfect Game was a tool that helped me do that.”
Through six full and partial seasons in the minor leagues and six more full and partial seasons in the Major Leagues, Sweeney has persevered. The minors were a grind. The big leagues can become one if you allow them to. And there always seems to be an ever-present sense of uncertainty.
“It’s a job now. People don’t realize that,” Sweeney said. “We have fun out here but it’s definitely like a normal job where we get frustrated just like everybody else. This is a game of failure. That was my toughest thing, going from high school when I never really had any failure to going to minor league ball and realizing that you’re not going to hit .450 or .500. That’s a tough thing for a young kid to grasp.
"You play a lot more games, your body takes on a lot more wear-and-tear, and then you get older and you’re not as young as used to be.”
While his status as an everyday player for the Red Sox in 2012 is yet-to-be-determined, Sweeney is happy and feels like he’s in a very good palce. He’s on the Boston Red Sox’s 40-man roster, after all, and part of an organization that won World Series Championships in 2004 and ’07 and could be built for another one this season.
“The organization is run first-class in every single way,” Sweeney said. “The way they take care of your family, the way they take care of everything; it’s a big league team and they do it the right way. Look around – the spring training games are all sold out. It’s like we’re playing in the regular season.
“Obviously it doesn’t count and its spring training, but everybody’s trying to do good and you have sold out crowds every night. It’s a lot of fun.”