We know that Bishop-elect Kevin Sweeney, pastor of St. Michael’s, Sunset Park, has a strong devotion to his faith. That’s exactly why he was recently appointed the new bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, N.J.
He also has a very strong devotion to the sport of baseball. In fact, saying he has a “strong devotion” would be an understatement.
Bishop-elect Sweeney is a true baseball fanatic, especially when it comes to rooting for his beloved New York Yankees.
This passion for America’s pastime started at a young age. Bishop-elect Sweeney grew up on a dead-end street in Whitestone — the perfect spot for the neighborhood children to play every sport imaginable.
“We changed sports with the seasons,” said Bishop-elect Sweeney, 50. “We played everything … stickball with a tennis ball and a strike box on the dead-end. The box was from the shoulders to the knees and the width of the plate. That was the strike zone. We then moved to the schoolyards.”
Bishop-elect Sweeney played Catholic Youth Organization baseball and attended grammar school at St. Luke, Whitestone. These were his formative years in the late 1970s, so it was pretty easy for him to become a Yankee fan, even though he grew up a mere 5 miles from Shea Stadium.
“In second or third grade, they stuck me in right field and gave me number 14,” he said. “That was Lou Piniella’s number. “In 1977 and 1978, I was 7 and 8 years old, and those were back-to-back World Series championships.”
Bishop-elect Sweeney revered those Yankees teams, featuring the likes of Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Mickey Rivers, Chris Chambliss, Bucky Dent, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Roy White, Ro Guidry, Catfish Hunter, and Goose Gossage.
The architect of those teams was none other than George Steinbrenner.
“George Steinbrenner was like most great artists: He was misunderstood,” Bishop-elect Sweeney said. “But I don’t think you could have asked for a better owner.”
From 1984-1988, he attended Cathedral Prep and Seminary, Elmhurst, where he was an all-star player on the baseball team. He started at second base, played a little outfield and then pitched his senior year.
His prowess on the diamond earned him an induction into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2013
“It was a great place to play baseball,” he said. “We had some success, and it was a lot of fun. I thank the good Lord for allowing me to go to Cathedral Prep.”
The 1980s were not so pleasant for Yankee fans, but Bishop-elect Sweeney stuck by his team, despite the turmoil surrounding the constant fi ring and rehiring of manager Billy Martin by Steinbrenner.
“Don Mattingly was probably the highlight of the ’80s,” he said. “It wasn’t all glory years. Sometimes people think if you’re a Yankee fan that you win it all the time. But check the ’80s. Really 1980 through 1994.”
Upon his ordination in 1997, Bishop-elect Sweeney enjoyed the resurgence of the Bronx Bombers. He was especially fond of the “Core Four” — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada — of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
“1996 was as special as it gets because they were back where they’re supposed to be,” he said of the start of the Yankees’ dynasty. “For Yankee fans, the expectations are always the same: that they hopefully win the World Series. Anything other than a World Series championship is a disappointment.”
Growing up, Bishop-elect Sweeney’s dream was to be a professional baseball player for the Yankees. However, as a seventh-grader at St. Luke, he began to think differently when asked what he thought Jesus wanted to be when He grew up. He started realizing God’s plan for him did not involve playing pro ball but instead serving the faithful as a priest.
Of course, as a priest he’s still been able to follow — and even play — the game. The past two summers, he was a member of the Collars team in the “Collars vs. Scholars” softball game, which pitted diocesan priests (Collars) against diocesan principals (Scholars) in a fun-filled event during Catholic Schools Night at MCU Park in Coney Island.
“Being out there was great,” he said. “There was a lot of spirit amongst the priests participating. It was a lot of fun. We’ll see what they have in Paterson.”
Though not being able to watch the Yankees these days has been challenging, Bishop-elect Sweeney fully expects sports to play a major role in the nation’s overall healing and recovery — just like we saw after Sept. 11, 2001.
He knows the right time will come, and when it does, he’s glad that he will be in New Jersey, rather than assigned as a bishop anywhere else in the country.
“Other places might have been farther from Yankee Stadium,” he said. “I hear Paterson’s not too far. It’s good to know that I’m not too far from the Stadium.”
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.