Where was here?
"We were in Peoria," Sweet, 66, said as he described the scene of his career's turning point. "Uh, not Peoria -- we were in -- Hm. Oh, where the heck was the Mariners Spring Training?"
It's been awhile, at least long enough to forget which Arizona municipality housed a few weeks of practice. (For the record, it was Tempe.) Sweet never played another game. He coached Seattle in the bigs for a year, advance scouted there for two and has managed in the Minor Leagues for nearly all of the last 33. On June 25, his team dumped a water cooler on him after he became the 12th skipper in history to win 2,000 games in the Minor Leagues. And players from his first club -- the Class A Short Season Bellingham Mariners -- to his current group -- the Triple-A San Antonio Missions -- say the same thing about him: he cares about the success and well-being of the team, the organization and, most importantly, them.
"I love going to the ballpark every day," Sweet said. "The fact that I get to help and be a part of so many young people's lives, even when I started managing 30-something years ago, that's what resonates with me. That's what drives me every day."
Back then, Sweet knew the type of manager he wanted to be. Rene Lachemann and Doug Rader were the models. The former, Sweet said, got to know his players. He excelled at communicating with them.
The latter did, too, but with intimidation. That was the side that Sweet -- a self-described "hard-nosed, loud, boisterous player" -- displayed more often with his first team in 1987. They were known locally as the Baby M's. They went 30-46.
Tossing batting practice was always Sweet's job. He had a young arm. One day, he scheduled a group of hitters, all roommates, for an early session. Among them was a 17-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. They were supposed to be ready to hit at 2 p.m. They showed up at 3:30, because an enthralling episode of "Oprah" had them glued to the TV. That was not a satisfactory excuse for Sweet, and he chewed them out with more volume and profanity than he'd ever use in dealing with teenagers today.
"He was focused on helping you from a development standpoint, always there for extra work," said second baseman Todd Haney. "His approach was for you to go out and play the game the right way. If you do that, then he was your biggest advocate."
That group found out what happened if you didn't. So did Chuck Carr, an outfielder on that '87 club. On a hot day, when Sweet had been throwing for almost two hours, Carr let a few lobs go right down the middle of the plate. He was working on his takes. This happened a lot, but that day Sweet had no time for Carr's games. The manager pleaded with him to swing. Nope. Fine. Sweet warned the 19-year-old that he'd drill him if another pitch got to the backstop.
The next one did.
"I absolutely hit him with the best fastball I could throw," Sweet said. "Hit him right in the ribs. He went down and I said, 'Drag that guy out of there!' Two players ran in, grabbed him by the legs, dragged him out of the batting cage, and I said, 'Next hitter.' I don't think that would go over too good nowadays."
When the Baby M's endured a losing streak, Haney recalled, Sweet had them get to the ballpark at 8 a.m. When they arrived, he told them to start running. He didn't tell them when to stop. When one player called Sweet the coach, according to third baseman Kevin Reichardt, Sweet barked back that he wasn't anyone's coach. He was their manager.
Most of the Baby M's were new to pro ball. Some were at prom a few months prior. Griffey made them the biggest show in town everywhere they went. Maybe, Sweet thinks now, they needed his tough love. Maybe not. He shakes his head at the thought.
"He was kind of stern but friendly," Reichardt said. "It wasn't like guys were afraid of him. But they knew his expectations were high and that he was looking out for the best interest of the club."
Sweet accepted a gift from Missions president Burl Yarbrough after No. 2,000. (Aaron Michael)
Starting in 1989, while at the helm of the Osceola Astros of the Florida State League, Sweet gave his players a piece of paper at the end of the season. They could write on it whatever they wanted. They could put it anywhere. He'd find it. No names. Sweet wanted honest feedback. He got it.
Every year, Sweet received comments attacking things he didn't even know he did. He got repeats. He listened.
His "in-your-face" style, as Sweet called it, disappeared. He remained. He spent eight seasons with the Astros, during the last of which he was the first base coach in Houston. He bounced around four more organizations before landing with the Reds in 2005 to manage Triple-A Louisville. That gig lasted seven seasons, and he's now been in charge of the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate (Nashville in 2014, Colorado Springs from 2015-18, San Antonio in 2019) for just as long. This is his 30th Minor League season in the manager's role.
Sweet will be quick to remind you that the 2,000 wins he's amassed are accompanied by nearly 1,900 losses -- he currently stands at 1,898. He's reached a milestone so few have before because of his longevity. But he's lasted so long because of his commitment to open, honest communication.
"The things that he does off the field that keep guys focused and doing what they need to do and their attitudes in check, I think, is as important as really anything he does on the field in terms of game management," Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said.
His anonymous surveys decades ago were early examples. Today, Sweet said, he will let a player know about a day off as soon as possible, even if that means a text at 2 a.m. He will try to touch the shoulder of everyone in the clubhouse after a loss, just so they know "Sweetie is here." After top prospect Keston Hiura earned a promotion to the big leagues two weeks ago, Sweet held individual meetings with the few players he anticipated would be disappointed they didn't get the call.
Nate Orf was one of them. He has played for Sweet in each of the last four seasons. Sweet was the one to tell him that after hitting .333 in his first stint in Triple-A, Orf was heading back to Double-A. Sweet was the one to tell him that after going undrafted out of Baylor, Orf was finally a big leaguer. The Missions gave Sweet a momento for his 2,000th win, an encased display with a ball, a hat, a lineup card and photos; one of the pictures is Sweet and Orf embracing.
2019 MiLB include
Earlier this month, Orf said, Sweet called a team meeting that none of the players wanted to have. The manager felt disrespected by something one of them did the night before. Tension in the clubhouse was high. Sweet, though, reminded the team that they are in all of this together, Orf said. If there's an issue, his door is open. If a conversation is hard to have, have it anyway. Talk without holding a grudge.
A younger version of Sweet might have lost his cool and lost the clubhouse.
"We went out that night and won the ballgame by a lot," Orf said. "That's the little things that play into 2,000 wins."
That number will continue to climb, so long as Sweet doesn't retire. The thought first entered his mind only this year, but the reasons to consider it are valid. His son, Seth, is a rising high school senior. His daughter, Mary, has two children of her own. His wife, Kimberly, wants to travel. His mother just turned 90 and the only appearance he made at her birthday party was via FaceTime.
Maybe he could have been there if he lived where he grew up, offering advice to high school students and constructing rosters of junior college transfers in a town on the bank of the Cowlitz River. That was once the dream. Reality will do for now, as it has for just about four and a half decades in baseball.
"As long as I keep loving the game," Sweet said, "as long as I keep coming to the ballpark and working with these young kids, I will continue to do this as long as they'll have me."