Paul Hagen: Phillies' NL East title is sweet for Sweeney

Mike Sweeney got a Champagne shower from Ryan Howard in the locker room after last night's win. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Mike Sweeney got a Champagne shower from Ryan Howard in the locker room after last night's win. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer) (Jonathan Tannenwald)
Posted: September 28, 2010

WASHINGTON - The last out was made, the championship was won, the customary display of jubilation began.

Of course, since Mike Sweeney was only 17 years old back then, some allowances had to be made. So the youngsters partied like it was 1991 after Ontario High School completed a 26-0 season and captured the California Interscholastic Federation 3-A title.

"We were able to celebrate with apple cider. There's no sting in apple cider," Sweeney, now 37 and completing his 20th professional season, noted the other day. "So I want to see what it's going to feel like with champagne. I want to at least feel what that sting is like."

Last night, finally, he got to feel the burn.

The Phillies beat the Nationals, 8-0, to tie a bright red bow around their regular season. They clinched their fourth straight National League East crown and homefield advantage as long as they last in the postseason.

And one of the nicest parts about it all is that, after 2 decades, Sweeney had the chance to act like a kid again for the first time.

"Next time I think I'd better go get some goggles," he said with a grin in the general pandemonium that gripped the visitors' clubhouse around 10 o'clock. "Because as good as it feels . . . whoo. I wanted to experience it and I'm glad I did. This is what it's all about."

He has plenty of accomplishments to be proud of. He's a five-time All-Star. He finished in the top 20 of the American League MVP voting twice. He had been on some successful teams in the minors. But this was unfinished business. Going into last night he'd played 1,451 games in the big leagues without making it to the postseason. Among active players, only Randy Winn of the Cardinals (1,713), Mike Young of the Rangers (1,502) and San Francisco's Aubrey Huff (1,473) had endured a longer search for tomorrow.

The Phillies have become just the third National League team to make at least four straight postseason appearances, joining the Braves (14) and the New York Giants (4, from 1921 through 1924). So the sophomoric hilarity that ensues after a clinching is kind of old hat for this team by now, leaving some to suggest that a franchise with aspirations of winning the World Series for the second time in 3 years should just skip the whole silly beer-and-champagne routine, at least until winning the pennant.

That argument has some merit, but doesn't stand up under further scrutiny.

For one thing, winning the division is an impressive accomplishment, no matter how many times a team has done it. The baseball season is a 6-month gantlet. Every year hurls different challenges. If you end up on top at the end, you deserve to have a little fun to mark the occasion.

The other is that rosters change every year. Sweeney is only one of a trio of Phillies veterans who went through the time-honored clinching ritual for the first time last night. It was also the champagne baptism for Roy Halladay, who pitched magnificently to earn his 21st win with a complete game shutout, and backup catcher Brian Schneider.

Both Halladay and Schneider, though, are signed beyond this season. They will at least have another chance in 2011. Sweeney, on the other hand, has gone to the last three spring trainings as a non-roster invitee. Who knows?

So his teammates were rooting for him. He's enormously popular in the clubhouse and fit right in almost immediately. Charlie Manuel was happy for all the players, but reserved a little extra affection for Sweeney.

"Sweeney is really tremendous, a real professional," the manager said. "He has passion for the game and the people in it. I knew when we got him how good a team player and what kind of guy he was."

It's not just that he's never been to the playoffs before, either. It's that he's played on a bunch of truly dreadful teams. He was with four Royals clubs that lost 100 or more games and two others that dropped 97.

The one time he had a sniff was 2003, when Kansas City was in first place as late as Aug. 29 . . . and then went 13-16 the rest of the way to finish third.

Here's the funny thing, though: As long as Sweeney has waited for this moment, as much as it fulfilled a longstanding dream, being around the Phillies for the last couple of months has taken the edge off a September song.

"For me, being around these guys has really changed my mindset. The last 10 years I really just wanted to get to the playoffs," he said. "But being around these guys, the feeling is not to be content on getting to the playoffs. Collectively, our mindset is to win a world championship."

At the same time, he'd waited so long, spent so many seasons with so little hope that he couldn't pretend that this wasn't a significant moment.

"I think it's better than I imagined," he said before wading back into the madness. "Because with the group of guys we've got in this clubhouse, it makes it that much more special."

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