51 Minutes With Nick Swisher

Photo: John G. Mabanglo/EPA/Corbis

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.”

The trade to the Yankees revived Swisher’s passion for baseball. “There’s a lot of guys that breeze through this game, and it’s easy, and there are never any struggles,” he says. “For me, man, it hasn’t been like that. It gives me goose bumps talking about it. That trade was the transformation.” Swisher has become fiercely attached to New York, living in the West Sixties with his wife, the actress JoAnna Garcia Swisher, walking the streets eagerly, never turning down a fan who asks him to pose for a photo. “I’m gonna walk twenty blocks with my wife just because we want to walk around the city,” he says. “If people stop and want to say hello, that’s my job! It just so happens, with my personality, I have fun with it, man.”

Through four seasons, he’s played even better than Cashman had hoped, becoming one of the team’s ­regular-season leaders in on-base percentage and runs batted in. This August, with Mark Teixeira and A-Rod lost to injuries, Swisher carried the Yankees’ offense, hitting .306 with six home runs and 22 RBIs. He’s sagged in September, though, just like the rest of the team. Swisher will need to start hitting again if the Yankees are to stop the bleeding, but his attitude will be an equally important contribution. That’s why his grin after catching the pop-up in Tampa last week should be reassuring instead of infuriating to Yankees fans. Even as manager Joe Girardi was growing so tight it looked as if his crew cut might pop off his head, Swisher was loose. Sure, the losses were killing him, and he was angry about going oh-for-three with three strikeouts, but Swisher wasn’t going to let those failures carry over to the next at-bat or the next game. Instead of panicking, he’s going to keep smiling.

“My whole philosophy about this thing, man, there’s so much stress put on winning and losing, stuff like that, sometimes I feel like people kind of forget the reason why we play this game: Because we love it!” Swisher says. “Brad Fisher, a coach in Oakland, told me, ‘As long as you put that uniform on, you have a lifetime pass to be a kid.’ And it’s so true! When I take that field, and the place is packed, I feel like a little kid running out there, dude! People come to games expecting to see the Nick Swisher Show. Well, they’re gonna get it!”

But the show may be playing its final weeks in the Bronx. If the Yankees don’t make the playoffs, the clamor for a roster overhaul will be ferocious, and Swisher’s expiring contract makes him one of the most easily shed parts. If the team plays into October, Swisher’s regular-season successes won’t earn him much credit come contract-negotiation time. The Yankees, famously, see anything short of a championship as unacceptable, so Swisher will need to produce in the playoffs, where he has flopped in past years. “People say, ‘Man, you look like you’re having so much fun!’ And I am,” Swisher says. “But people need to realize, on the other end, we’re all the same, we worry about having a job. It just so happens my job is on TV and under the lights. But do I know about the uncertainty that’s coming up this off-season? Absolutely. Everybody knows how much I want to be in New York. Everyone knows how much I love New York.”

“Hey!” yells Kevin Long, the Yankees hitting coach, who is waiting to throw batting practice. “Wrap it up!”

Swisher pulls on his batting gloves and laughs. “Let’s talk about this after we win the World Series.”

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51 Minutes With Nick Swisher