Swisher Excited to Lead Tribe on the Field and in the Community
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the 15 newcomers to the 40-man roster this winter and the role they can play moving forward.
By Mike Brandyberry
Nick Swisher is excited.
Swisher is excited when he hits left-handed or right-handed. Swisher is excited when he plays right field or first base. Swisher is excited to run the bases and play the game. Swisher is excited to be a father . Swisher is excited to be a leader, an Ohio State Buckeye and a Cleveland Indian.
If Swisher wasn’t in Goodyear, Ariz., preparing for the Indians’ upcoming season, he probably would be at today’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Cleveland. If he wasn’t a famous athlete, he’d still be the guy in the crowd friends would gravitate to. He’s always excited, and it’s infectious.
“As a little kid, you always dream about playing in the big leagues, but I don’t know if you ever dream about being in a situation like this,” Swisher said after his introductory press conference on Jan. 3.
Swisher agreed in principle on Dec. 23 to a four-year, $56 million contract with the Indians, leaving the New York Yankees. The deal has a fifth year option, contingent upon plate appearances in 2016. After the Tribe signed Terry Francona to manage the team, Swisher’s free agent signing this winter was the next signal in a long line to indicate that the Indians were building a team to compete in 2013.
It isn’t often the Indians sign a player via free agency, much less someone from New York. It’s usually players leaving small town Cleveland for big city New York. Cleveland doesn’t normally make a big splash in the free agent market, but Swisher’s signing was the organization’s biggest in franchise history. His contract is the largest the Indians ever have agreed to with a free agent. In addition to the money, the team put a full-court press on Swisher and his wife when they visited Cleveland in December. The Tribe had a Swisher onesie ready for their baby daughter who is due in May, video messages from Buckeye coaches Urban Meyer and Thad Matta and a visit from former OSU head football coach Jim Tressel.
“At the end, when everything was on the table, we kind of laid it all out and this was the place we wanted to be,” Swisher said. “Maybe this will be the first of the start of bringing over more guys. To be the first of those guys is an honor.”
While Swisher might have been the first free agent to sign in Cleveland, it didn’t take long for his excitement to help bring the next player. Just six weeks later, Michael Bourn signed a similar four-year contract. Swisher was aware the Indians were quietly pursuing Bourn and how the acquisition would move him from right field where he was signed to play to first base. Swisher didn’t just give his blessing, he called Bourn to help recruit him.
Bourn will assume his spot in the leadoff position, but Swisher likely will hit fourth for the Indians instead of sixth or seventh like he had in previous seasons with the Yankees. Instead of being just a piece of the Yankees’ puzzle, Swisher is aware he becomes a centerpiece of the Tribe’s lineup and clubhouse atmosphere. The four-year experience in New York is something Swisher thinks will prepare him for his new role in Cleveland.
“It was a great time,” Swisher said. “I like to think I have fun everywhere I go, but just to be part of an organization, with that winning tradition, that rubs off on you. I hope that is something I can bring over here and maybe I can be more of a leader in the clubhouse than I’ve ever been before.”
The switch-hitting Swisher has hit more than 20 home runs in each of his eight full Major League seasons. Last season he hit .272, with 24 home runs and 93 runs batted in. His home runs and RBIs would have led the Indians in their respective categories a season ago. His offensive production will help deepen the lineup and take pressure off players like Carlos Santana. Santana hit cleanup most of last season, hitting only 18 home runs and driving in 76.
However, it’s Swisher’s attitude and excitement for the game that continues to impress those around him. His positive outlook, and way he plays the game, may be the first and biggest element to his new leadership role.
“I’ve known Swish for a long time,” Francona said in his March 6 daily press conference. “I was with him when he was a kid in Oakland. He’s like that every day. That’s him. If you’re on Field Six this morning, he’ll be leading us in baserunning. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks it, he lives it and he believes it. And it works.”
“When you strap it on to play the game, whether it is Spring Training or not, he’s ready to go,” Francona said.
Swisher’s energy is consistent. He’s played in more than 145 games in each of the last seven seasons, making the Tribe’s free agent investment a valuable one that’s expected to be on the field often. He’s never suffered an injury causing him to miss substantial time from the lineup. Being in the lineup daily, with his enthusiasm, is a responsibility in Swisher’s eyes.
“I love this game so much and I know how blessed I am to play it,” Swisher said. “It would just be rude to not go out there and give it your all. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in that and being on the field as much as I can.”
His attitude and leadership, combined with Francona’s and others, already have led to a much looser clubhouse this spring. With a young roster, Swisher, Bourn and Jason Giambi will lead on the field and by example. Each are known to be loud, boisterous and energetic. This week they lead the team, along with Francona, in shooting a Harlem Shake video. A new, loose attitude in the Tribe clubhouse is something Swisher is proud to help create.
“I’m excited about that,” Swisher said. “I’m excited to just be part of the team. It’s a great locker room and a great bunch of guys that want to win and I’m hoping this year we got a chance to.”
Swisher was originally signed to play right field, but will convert to first base, his natural position as a kid and at Ohio State from 2000-2002. He was Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2000 when he started for the Buckeyes at first base and he already has played more than 300 big league games at first base, making the transition easy. However, he still will be a possibility in the outfield throughout the season. Francona expects Swisher to get some time in the outfield before the team leaves Goodyear.
“We’ll probably put him in right field for a few games,” Francona said. “He’s been keeping his arm stretched out, just in case. If an injury occurs, we could make some adjustments, so we will definitely put him out there a little bit.”
Versatility is a common theme in the Tribe this season; several players can play numerous positions. If Swisher plays right field on occasion, he makes it possible for Bourn or Drew Stubbs to have a day off. His switch-hitting bat in the middle of the Indians order will create matchup problems for opposing pitchers.
“Getting a guy that can play first base and the outfield is a real valuable tool, finding that guy is not easy, plus he is a switch-hitter,” Francona said. “You take a good player and make him even better.”
When Swisher was a visiting player in right field with the Yankees at Progressive Field, he would always make O-H-I-O hand signs to “Hang On Sloopy” in the middle of the eighth inning. This season he’ll take his Buckeye excitement to the infield, but being able to represent his Buckeye pride 81 times during the season as a member of the home team is something special to him and his family. His arrival in Cleveland, return to the Buckeye state and new contract is a special time for his growing family.
“It’s just an amazing time for my family and I, especially being a father soon,” Swisher said. “Obviously, that puts a lot of precedence on taking care of my family and making sure everything is going to be great for them. My wife and I sat down, and this was the spot for us to be. This was the place where we wanted to raise our kids and be a part of the community. We’re gonna rock this place and we’re excited to do it.”
Swisher and his wife, actress Joanna Garcia, help lead his charitable cause Swish’s Wishes, which is designed to help children fighting major illnesses. In 2011, Swisher released a children’s album, “Believe.” The 12-song album was all cover songs and included guest appearances by Bernie Williams and Barry Zito.
Swisher also has shaved his head to support breast cancer awareness and support his mother. His mother, Lillian, lost her battle with breast cancer in February. As for baseball, he donated $500,000 to the Ohio State baseball program for new field turf. In November 2011, the field was renamed Nick Swisher Field at Bill Davis Stadium in his honor.
“We’re the type of people that when we get an opportunity, we jump in with two feet,” Swisher said. “We don’t mess around. I figure in life, if you don’t get excited with what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it anyway. An opportunity like this comes about once in a lifetime.”
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer