Friday, September 17, 2004
Updated: September 19, 2:07 AM ET
Welcome to the bigs
By Gary Miller
Special to ESPN.com
Nick Swisher was famous before he made it to the major leagues, prominently featured in Michael Lewis' best-seller "Moneyball." The most celebrated of Oakland's seven first-round picks in 2002 is the first of the group to make it to "The Show."
Swisher's swagger is openly acknowledged by veteran A's, who immediately sought to humble their newest teammate with roughly $1,500 in kangaroo court fines upon his arrival. The infractions ranged from the sublime, ($1,000 for taking the team bus to the park, something no self-respecting major leaguer would be caught dead doing) to the ridiculous ($100 for making it to the majors for his "ability to work the count"). Swisher, of course, got the obligatory shaving cream pie during the postgame interview after Saturday's game-winning, eighth-inning homer.
As Swisher sees it, his demeanor is merely confidence in his abilities, not cockiness. He was reminded of his humble beginnings two years ago with A's fans asking for autographs on pictures of him in his Modesto A's uniform; one asked him to sign a box of Swisher Sweets cigars, which, remarkably, was the "first time that's happened." The prized rookie will be impossible to live with if he continues to make his baptism in the big leagues look so easy, with a tie-saving, diving, extra-inning grab in last Friday's loss, and big hits and crucial at-bats in the heat of a pennant race. Last Saturday's homer followed one by Bobby Crosby and produced one of the great stats of the year from Elias Sports Bureau. Crosby and Swisher were the first rookies to hit back-to-back homers that late in a game, including a game-winner, since Joe "Big Foot" Ferguson and Ron Cey with the 1973 Dodgers.
The A's were suitably impressed, and while Crosby is still technically a rookie himself and too busy getting wide-eyed over a long discussion with Joe Morgan about pivoting on the double play to join in the hazing, Swisher's not without an aw-shucks quality himself. Whether it's getting excited over meeting a mere mortal in the form of a former "Baseball Tonight" host, or describing how he checks in every day with his teammates on the Sacramento Rivercats to see how they're doing without him in pursuit of the Pacific Coast League title, Swisher's still very much a 23-year old. He was called into Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco's office on a weekday afternoon and asked if he was ready for the Las Vegas pitcher that night. Swisher thought he was, but "Tony D" started saying the guy was a lot like Ted Lilly. "Ted Lilly, what's this guy got to do with Ted Lilly?" Swisher wondered. "Well, that's who you better get ready for, because that's who you're facing tomorrow night in Toronto," DeFrancesco deadpanned. When it finally sank in, Swisher could hardly contain his euphoria. His first call was to his father in Parkersburg, W.Va. That's another reason Nick's notoriety preceded him. Steve Swisher caught for the Cubs and Cardinals, and surprised Nick by coming north for his major league debut in Canada.
What Nick wants more than anything is for his beloved grandma Betty to see him in a big league uniform in person. Battling a serious illness, she's not well enough to leave Parkersburg yet, and his father is back there now tending to his mother. Less than a month after Nick was born, his dad was traded from the Cardinals to San Diego in the Rollie Fingers-Gene Tenace-Terry Kennedy trade. Steve Swisher retired by the time Nick turned two in 1982, but any time he wants to re-live his father's big league playing or coaching days, he strolls through the den of the house in Parkersburg to view the memorabilia. Nick's adding to it now with the balls from his first major league hit and home run. When I asked him to name his favorite item from his dad's collection, Nick said the ring from Steve's 1976 All-Star appearance as the lone Cubs representative. Nick's dream is to one day have one of his own. Nick isn't the only Athletic that Steve Swisher has helped get to the majors. When he was named manager of the Mets' Triple-A team in Norfolk, Swisher tapped just-retired utility infielder Ron Washington to be his third base coach. A coaching position that significant just wasn't given to a man with no experience, but Swisher knew Washington had an instinct for it and made the bold move, which "Wash" has never forgotten. Thirteen years later he is one of the most respected coaches in the game, a central figure in "Moneyball" himself, and a staff member Billy Beane considers "indispensable."
|Rookie Nick Swisher has stepped in and played a key role for the A's both offensively and defensively this season.|
Swisher would not have started his major league service time this September if not for Jermaine Dye's debilitating thumb injury. Although the broken bone has been confirmed by the club, it took three X-rays to find it. Dye has had to leave two games in three weeks and not played since coming out of the first game in Skydome because of a strained ligament, which is pulling away from the bone in his left thumb. A cortisone shot is not an option because there's not enough tissue or blood flow in that area to withstand it. Oakland trainer Larry Davis has sent Dye to the same hand specialist who salvaged Jose Guillen's season from his mystifying wrist injury last year. Dye has progressed to soft-toss hitting, but his contributions, if any the rest of the way, are expected to be minimal. If the injury, suffered by jamming his glove hand on a diving catch attempt in the Metrodome, had happened in the first half, Dye would have had surgery and missed about six weeks. That's no longer an option until the offseason, and Dye's availability isn't based so much on pain tolerance as his ability to compete. Most days, the injury doesn't allow Dye to come close to the power he rediscover this summer before this latest injury.
It's not always injuries that prevent a player from taking the field. One look at his massive shoulders and thighs bulging out of a batter's box and you can picture Travis Hafner leading a sweep as a pulling guard or destroying a linebacker as a fullback. But Hafner never played football growing up in North Dakota. "Oh, you weren't this big as a high school kid?" I asked. "No," said Hafner, "I was always big. My parents wouldn't let me play." They couldn't have been afraid him getting hurt, I presumed. "No. Football season was always during harvest time. I had to work the farm." While "Pronk" may be the unofficial mascot of this column, Hafner knows you can't manufacture that sort of affection and enthusiasm. The Indians found out first hand in the wake of the notorious squirrel incident when Cleveland snapped out of a nine-game losing streak last month against the Yankees at Jacobs Field. As seen on "SportsCenter," the squirrel was a constant throughout the game. Sensing destiny, someone upstairs decided to run the video late in games in the next series with the White Sox, a la the Rally Monkey in Anaheim. What's worse, someone with the club actually decided to dress up a "Rally Squirrel" in costume on the field. While Hafner and his teammates looked on in disbelief, they split a four-game set with Chicago. The forced momentum never got going, and thankfully, the "Rally Squirrel" went into hibernation.
Victor Martinez was among the players perplexed by the rally rodent, and while he'll never fill out to "Hafner-size," the first-time All-Star has muscled up. Called up after the Futures Game last summer, Martinez made an immediate impact, batting .289, but with only one home run. In his first full season, he's already set a franchise record for RBI by a catcher, the first to collect over 100, and he's blown by the 20-homer plateau as well. How did he do it? Sacrifice. What else would you call a native Venezuelan volunteering to spend the winter in Cleveland! Except for a brief trip home to see his family for the holidays, from November until spring training in February, Martinez was in snowy, bitter-cold Cleveland. Much of the time he was in the gym with Indians strength coach Tim Maxey, working on his upper body, but mostly his legs. It's made him nearly as feared offensively as fellow switch-hitting catching legends Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek. Martinez is hitting so well, the Indians have to keep his bat in the lineup when he's not catching, and with Hafner locked in at DH, he's being asked to fill in at first base on his off days. Martinez has played first base in winter ball and may go back in December for a tuneup, but otherwise, he'll winter again in Cleveland. Although he expects another holiday trip to Venezuela, his visits are shorter and shorter with the dangerous political situation there. Martinez says it's especially tough for himself, and fellow stars like the Marlins' Alex Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera, who can't enjoy the anonymity they have in the United States. In Venezuela, they're recognized instantly. The recent kidnapping of Ugueth Urbina's mother from her home has only added to their fears of returning to the country. Urbina left the Tigers when he heard of the abduction Sept. 2, and while Venezuelan authorities identified the kidnappers this week and hope to negotiate her release soon, it's not known if Urbina paid the ransom he willingly offered for his mother's safe return.
On Jason Alexander's publicity tour for his new TV show, "Listen Up," which is based on fellow follically challenged media figure Tony Kornheiser, Alexander readily admits his own sports knowledge and experience is limited. That's despite having an uncle, Jack Simon, who was a director on Mets, Knicks and Rangers broadcasts, and got his nephew into games. As George Costanza on "Seinfeld," Alexander's most famous job was as an assistant to the traveling secretary for the Yankees, including an occasional visit to the office of George Steinbrenner, whom we now know was voiced by Larry David. What Alexander often leaves out of his sparse sports résumé is those KFC commercials with Barry Bonds. That collaboration produced one of my favorite Bonds' moments around the batting cage last year. Not long after the ad campaign wound down, in the midst of a rant about his lack of endorsement offers, I asked Barry if he still sees Alexander, or if he ever came to Giants' games. Bonds said, "Who's Jason Alexander?" After I reminded him of his KFC co-star, Bonds acknowledged he hadn't spoken with the actor since, nor seen him at a game.
Bonds bemoans the physical toll of turning 40 and still having to take the field in between his at-bats in pursuit of the 700 Homer Club. He says he starts wearing down in left field by the sixth inning. Imagine then what former teammate Andres Galarraga feels like as a 43-year old, back in uniform after surviving a second bout with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In an earlier column, we chronicled Fred McGriff's last desperate grasp to get to 500 home runs, stalling seven shy. For Galarraga, he merely wants to become the 37th member of the 400 Club and needs two home runs to get there. Galarraga reached 398 last season by hitting a dozen with the Giants. In the offseason as he worked out at West Palm Beach High School near his Florida home, Galarraga was diagnosed with a recurrence of the cancer he first beat in 1999. Just after Christmas, Galarraga spent more than three weeks in a Chicago hospital having his blood methodically removed, cleaned, and returned. By spring, the treatment process was producing clean CAT scans, and he returned to the local high school to get in shape for another comeback and an attempt to get those two home runs, one for each of the times he's beaten cancer. That's what it's really all about, not some round number to enhance his stature as a player. It's a platform to spread his story of survival, faith, and perseverance. It's well documented in a video available on Galarraga's Web site www.BigCat14.com, with all proceeds going to cancer research. After signing with the Angels' Triple-A team in Salt Lake City on Aug. 4, Galarraga batted .316 with three home runs before being called up Sept. 1. Neither Galarraga nor the Angels are under any illusions of the "The Big Cat" getting those two home runs, or even the opportunities to try. Anaheim's in a tight playoff fight with the A's,and not in position to give away any at-bats, especially as an American League team not prone to a preponderance of pinch-hitting possibilities. In two weeks, he's had two at-bats, and both of those came in blowouts. Incidentally, Andres wears No. 20. His trademark No. 14 was unavailable. Some guy named Scioscia has had it since 2000.
|Jason Alexander's alter ego had some front office experience.|
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.