By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Lamar Hunt Jr. has given a lot of big checks to a lot of professional athletes.
But a June 13 luncheon at the downtown Catholic Center might have marked the first time the owner of the NFL Kansas City Chiefs gave one to a baseball player.
Before an intimate crowd of the movers and shakers of the “Forward in Faith” campaign, Hunt handed to former Kansas City Royals great and campaign chairman Mike Sweeney an oversized, symbolic check to announce publicly his $3 million pledge to the fundraising drive to secure the future of Catholic education and formation in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, as well as construct a new St. Michael the Archangel High School in Lee’s Summit.
A convert to Catholicism, Hunt said it wouldn’t have made sense for him and his wife Rita not to support Forward in Faith after hearing about it personally from Bishop Robert W. Finn.
Besides, he said, it’s a family tradition.
“We thought it through,” he said.
“It came down to the fact that the Hunt family has benefitted from the generosity of Kansas City,” Hunt said. “My father (Chiefs founding owner Lamar Hunt Sr.) really believed that if you worked in a community and benefitted from a community, you give back to that community.”
Hunt also said that his gift was a challenge. No, he said, it wasn’t a “bridge” gift, or a matching grant that wouldn’t be given unless the campaign raised X amount of dollars.
“It’s really not right to do that to a not-for-profit (agency),” Hunt said.
“My challenge is that everyone here knows somebody. Let’s get this done in a timely fashion and with some enthusiasm,” he said, sounding more like a football coach than an owner.
“If you know people, get out there and spread the word. It’s a wonderful project and it is much needed,” Hunt said.
With such notable people as Carl DiCapo and Bill Dunn Sr. already on board, it is hard to imagine the campaign lacking for enthusiasm.
DiCapo and Dunn, who work in tandem, have placed their fingerprints all over Kansas City, raising private funds for projects ranging from Union Station to the Liberty Memorial, the nation’s official World War I museum.
In addition to taking on “Forward in Faith,” DiCapo and Dunn are also raising funds to get every fountain in the “City of Fountains” working again.
If it’s good for Kansas City, both men said, then they’ve got nothing better to do. And “Forward in Faith” is good for the entire diocese, including Kansas City.
“We want to give every kid a chance to get a Catholic education,” DiCapo said.
Besides, DiCapo joked, Dunn told him to help out.
“He sends me wherever he thinks we’re needed,” DiCapo said. “He says, ‘Carl, we got to help.’ So that’s what we do.”
Dunn said nobody in Kansas City is better at raising money than DiCapo.
“He knows everybody,” Dunn said. “He’s a very good pickpocket — and a legal one.”
But just in case they weren’t enthusiastic enough, Sweeney got on a post-luncheon roll, telling how the hundreds of kids he mentors in his Catholic Baseball Camps in San Diego and Kansas City are hungering for authentic Catholic teaching.
“It’s about loving Jesus Christ No. 1,” Sweeney said. “It’s about holding hands with his mother and having her tell you, ‘Do what he says.’”
Catholic education and formation is needed now, more than ever, said the man who is certain to be inducted in a few years into the Kansas City Royals’ Hall of Fame.
“So many young boys and girls are being led down the road of the world,” Sweeney said. “If we don’t raise up saints, the world will raise up sinners.”
Sweeney also told the audience the secret of keeping his head on straight in the ultra-competitive world of professional sports at the very highest level.
“I played for an audience of one,” he said. And that one person had given everything, including his life, for the salvation of the world. How could Sweeney, with his life, give less?
That lesson came home to him in 2010, his final year in baseball, he told the audience.
Barely hanging on as a right-handed pinch-hitter with the last place Seattle Mariners, Sweeney was traded at the mid-summer deadline to the contending Philadelphia Phillies, who had played in the previous two World Series, when Phillies superstar Ryan Howard got hurt.
He was happy at the opportunity to play in a pennant race and possible post-season playoffs for only the second time in his career. The first was with the 2003 Royals, who faded from the race in September.
But when he got to Philadelphia, he found the team virtually lifeless, even though they were just three games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves.
In one of his very first games, Sweeney drew a walk, then scored on a dead sprint from first base on a teammate’s double to cut a Phillies’ deficit to one run.
“When I got to the dugout, I’m high-fiving everybody. You know what it felt like? Dead fish,” Sweeney said.
“So I turned around to all of them and said, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? I’ve been waiting my whole career to play meaningful games in August and September and you’re acting like this?’”
It was like throwing gasoline on the embers of fire that had been dying. The Phillies not only rallied to win that game, but they got hot and overtook the Braves.
In the final week of September, Sweeney hit the go-ahead home run in the win over the Washington Nationals that clinched the National League East title for the Phillies. He was anxious to get his first champagne shower from the first team he had ever won a championship with.
But the television crew sent word that his celebration would be delayed, that they wanted Sweeney for the post-game interview, and he accommodated them.
“I expected the celebration when I finally got to the clubhouse, but it was dead silence. Everyone was sitting at their lockers,” he said.
“Then (Ryan) Howard said, ‘OK, Sweeney’s here,’ and he grabbed a bottle of champagne and walked over to me,” Sweeney said.
Howard then told his teammates another story. Following his very first professional season in the rookie leagues, Howard, a St. Louis native, came to Overland Park to visit his girlfriend. The Phillies organization told him to go to Mac ‘n Seitz, an indoor baseball training academy in South Kansas City, to get some work in.
When he got there, Sweeney, already an established All Star and one of the game’s most feared hitters, was working in the batting cages, but stopped to introduce himself like they had been friends for years.
“He watched me in the batting cages and said, “Wow! You have got a great swing! You’re going to be a superstar!” Howard said. “Here I was a nobody, and he was a star. And he’s treating me like I was somebody. I’ll never forget that.”
Then he handed the champagne bottle to Sweeney.
“Mike,” Howard said. “You pop the first cork.”
Maybe the celebration at the grand opening of St. Michael the Archangel High School won’t involve champagne poured over heads. But Sweeney said it is a day he is looking forward to, as much as he savors that moment in the Phillies clubhouse.
“When we are all there at the opening, when all our sacrifices for our faith have been made, that day will be a gift,” Sweeney said.