I want to hate Nick Swisher. There he is, showing off again: flexing like a pro wrestler when he reaches second base after doubling to complete a wild nine-run comeback against the Red Sox. Shimmying in the dugout after he smacks a three-run homer to bury the Mets. Even last week, during a tense tie game against the Rays—in the middle of the Yankees’ accelerating collapse—there’s Swisher, grinning goofily after catching a routine pop-up. This guy is ridiculous.
Except now he’s sitting next to me in the dugout, before the slide began, and there are tears in the corners of his eyes. It’s four hours before game time. Swisher is getting ready to take early batting practice. He needs it. Last night, he struck out twice; his father, a former big leaguer, called and yelled at him. At 31, Swisher is young in life but rapidly approaching baseball old age. His six-year, $36 million contract ends when this season does. And it’s the prospect of not being a Yankee next year that’s got him moistening up. “I’ve never been part of an organization that welcomed me in and said, ‘You know what, you are exactly the guy we want. Don’t change a thing. Be yourself.’ I’ve never really had that before,” he says. “Oh my gosh! Talk about filling your heart up, man! I’m the type of guy, you give me a hug, I’ll run through a brick wall for you. Every time I take the field and the place goes crazy …” Swisher pauses. “Man, I really want to be here. I want to stay here.”
The protocol for pro athletes in the final year of their contract is to hide behind self-protective clichés, refusing to acknowledge any anxiety about their impending limbo. But what’s ultimately endearing about Swisher is that he can’t hide his feelings. And raw emotion, in a perverse way, is what propelled Swisher to the Bronx. He’d set hitting records at Ohio State, then had three terrific seasons with the Oakland A’s—then was crushed when he was suddenly traded to the Chicago White Sox. “It hurt me because I thought I was gonna be one of those guys who plays with one team my whole career,” Swisher says. “It was the first time in my life I felt like somebody didn’t want me.” Disappointed, he slacked off during winter workouts, then hit an abysmal .219 and butted heads with White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. The 2008 off-season brought another stunning trade, this time to the Yankees. “I’m in Parkersburg, West Virginia, at home with my dad, and my cell rings: ‘Nick, it’s Brian Cashman,’ ” Swisher says. “I almost shit myself, man! I had never dreamed somebody would want me after such a horrible season.”
Cashman saw an opportunity to buy low on a useful right-fielder and first-baseman; as a bonus, Swisher could inject some levity into the dour Yankees clubhouse. Swisher cranks up the clubhouse stereo, or bursts into his own version of “Call Me Maybe,” or tells an assistant coach “You’re so full of crap, it’s seeping out of your ears!” Today Robinson Cano stares and shakes his head at Swisher’s pregame outfit: a pair of classic white-with-navy pin-striped Yankees home-uniform baseball pants, a gray T-shirt with the sleeves hacked off, a lighter-blue headband with the team’s intertwined NY logo centered on his forehead, wraparound sunglasses, and enough styling product to make his hair stand straight up. He looks as if he’s heading to a beer-league softball game, or maybe to a Born in the USA–era Springsteen concert.
Swisher’s boyish exuberance is genuine and innate, but it’s also a product of the darker side of his childhood. His father, Steve, was gone nine months of the year, first as an all-glove-no-bat catcher for the Cubs, Cardinals, and Padres; when Steve Swisher’s nine-year playing career ended, he spent the next dozen years coaching in the minors. “I had bunk beds in my room,” Nick remembers. “One night, in the off-season, my dad started sleeping in the bottom bunk and made me sleep in the top. I thought he was just kind of hanging out with me, you know? Little did I know that a week later they were gonna drop the bomb on us. I didn’t see it coming at all, man.” Swisher’s parents divorced when he was in the sixth grade. Nick initially lived in Columbus, Ohio, with his mother and younger brother. He tried to remain sunny, telling his brother, Mark, “This is gonna be great, this is gonna work out, because we’re gonna get two Christmases!” But Nick was miserable and, at age 14, made a bold decision. He called his father’s parents and persuaded them to let him move to their house in West Virginia. “My mother didn’t believe me at first,” Swisher says. “I absolutely know it hurt her. But at that point in my life, I had to make a change. If you’re not happy, you’ve got to find something that will make you happy.” Steve Swisher is still amazed by his son’s choice. “Sports became his release,” he says. “He poured everything he was feeling into baseball.”