Swisher brought experience, energy to RubberDucks rehab
Sporting a black RubberDucks batting practice uniform with a big, blue-and-orange outlined no. 20 centered upon his back, the biggest free-agent acquisition in Cleveland Indians history emerged from the Akron clubhouse, his customized glove and bat in hand.
As an established big leaguer entering an unaccustomed atmosphere of youth and inexperience, Nick Swisher could have easily "big-leagued" these up-and-comers, keeping to himself and focusing on his inevitable return to the Indians lineup.
Instead, the man who's immense personality creates his larger-than-life persona immediately stepped towards the batting cage and immersed himself in the intense bunting competition at hand, spewing jokes and laughing amongst the RubberDuck regulars.
As he worked his way through a pre-game ritual featuring stretches, batting practice and infield work, Swisher was jovial, but focused, blending perfectly his joy in returning to the diamond and his desire to return to the Tribe lineup.
Calling himself "a caveman" and announcing that he would shave his bearded face prior to his first game in a RubberDucks uniform, Swisher kept the bounce in his step as he met with the media.
"I'm really stoked to get back," Swisher said, his body moving in rhythm, almost as if it was pulsating with beats of adrenaline. "Baseball is my favorite thing to do in life. I'm just excited to go out there and play tonight."
If anything matched Swisher's desire to get back between the foul lines, it was his enthusiasm for the opportunity to be a part of the Akron RubberDucks, if for only a couple of days.
Admittedly getting lost on his way to Canal Park and taking an impromptu tour of the city of Akron, Swisher was thrilled at the chance to see some of the young prospects he remembered from Spring Training and excited to be a part of the new RubberDucks culture.
"Coming here, man, I know a lot of guys, so it was easy walking in the door because I knew some guys," Swisher explained. "It's such a good group of guys and for me to be able to be down here and play a couple of games for them, I'm super stoked."
While Swisher was certainly exuberant upon his arrival, RubberDucks manager David Wallace was just as thrilled to have Swisher in the clubhouse, hoping that the RubberDucks would soak in all of his authentic passion for baseball, for life and for just about anything around him.
"The couple hours he's been here, he's been Swisher. That's what I hoped he would be," Wallace said, when asked about the Tribe slugger. "I hope the players get in conversations and ask him anything from advice on hitting mechanics to hitting approach, to advice on life, living this baseball life and how you manage that. I love that they can see his energy and how that affects the clubhouse. His work ethic, it's not a fake energy, it's a genuine excitement for the game. You see it in his work and you also see it in his play. That's great."
As game time approached on the first night of Swisher's rehab stint, the man who's played in over 1,400 games at the Major League level admitted that the butterflies were churning as he got back out onto the diamond.
"First at-bat, man, it felt like that pitcher was a hundred feet away. I was like, 'you gotta bring him back a little bit,'" Swisher joked. "It felt like it was my first game."
That lack of comfort manifested itself and was relatively easy to see, as Swisher whiffed badly in his first plate appearance. As he approached the plate again, however, he looked like the professional ballplayer he's become over ten big league seasons.
The liner that Swisher scorched in his second-and-final at-bat of the day ended up in the glove of Binghamton shortstop Rylan Sandoval, but the end result was of no consequence to the star, who was concerned only with the way he felt out on the field.
"Right now, I don't really feel anything," Swisher said, regarding his troublesome knee. "I'm just trying to get my swings in and make up for some lost time. To just be able to get the work in that I really need these past couple days has been great."
Swisher added that, for once in what he called a couple of weeks, it was good to have his legs back under him.
"I just feel better, that's it. I mean, I don't know how else to say it," Swisher said. "I feel stronger, I feel better, I'm just excited to go out there and play."
With his dress rehearsal as a RubberDuck under his belt, Swisher was ready for the real thing- a full game of action in Akron on Wednesday.
As the dark, gray clouds rolled over Canal Park, keeping the ever-present grounds crew on their toes for most of the day, it seemed as if Swisher would have to wait an extra day to play in a full nine-inning game.
Be it a stroke of luck or an act of a higher power, the green-speckled radar that scared the aforementioned grounds crew never touched downtown Akron and Swisher's RubberDucks show was set to go on.
As the threat of a downpour continued to wane with each minute, a dry Swisher stepped to the box in the bottom of the first inning, looking for his first hit in Akron, coincidentally with two Ducks on the pond.
After looking at a couple of pitches, no. 20 took a 2-2 slider down the left-field line for a two-RBI double that gave the RubberDucks an early 2-1 advantage.
"My first at-bat, in that situation, I know nothing about any of these guys. I don't know what pitches they have, I don't know what their velocity is, things like that," Swisher explained. "You got a situation like that, you got guys on second and third, you gotta grind because all I was trying to do was get that one at-bat in. He just happened to throw me a backdoor slider and I hit it out to left field for a double. Hey, I'll take it, bro."
With his first hit behind him and his body back in rhythm, Swisher went on to smash two more hits on the evening- a double over the head of center fielder Kyle Johnson and a single through the hole between second and short- before hugging his teammates and heading into the clubhouse in the seventh inning.
"I think tonight, man, it was nice," Swisher said of his three-hit performance. "I just really felt good tonight. It felt like I was really in the swing of the game. It felt like I had my swing ready."
Swisher continued to explain just how good it felt to put some solid swings on the baseball.
"I wasn't being passive, I was being aggressive," Swisher explained, his hands and body squirming all over with apparent delight. "I was getting my pitches, I was putting great swings on them and just being the player that I know and can be."
Swisher's trio of hits may have encouraged his already jovial demeanor, but Swisher admitted that hits weren't his biggest goal.
The self-proclaimed slow guy proclaimed that above all else, it was his ability to run that gave him the most satisfaction.
"I think more than anything, the biggest thing that I was really worried about coming back was making sure that I was able to run. I was sick and tired of limping around and not being able to do what I needed to do," Swisher said. "I wasn't necessarily worried about ground balls or hitting or anything like that, I just wanted to make sure my legs were ready to be able to run."
As he ran around the diamond, Swisher left a couple of things in his wake.
In addition to some signed mementos for "Fan Appreciation Night" at Canal Park, some "selfies" for Akron's adoring fans and even a picture with a canine companion on "Bark at the Park Night," Swisher left his fellow RubberDucks with something they considered much more valuable: advice and experience from a big-league veteran.
Many spoke of Swisher's attitude and how his love for the game helped them to appreciate the opportunity to play baseball for a living, but outfielder Tyler Naquin took a different approach.
Rather than to beat around the bush and speak in generalities, the speedy outfielder dug a little deeper and explained how Swisher helped him on a specific play, frame-by-frame.
"Today, there was a shallow fly ball, there was a runner on first base and he (Swisher) kind of came out halfway. I ran in and I threw it across my body low on the ground, on purpose," Naquin said, setting the stage. "I wanted to make sure to throw it low on the ground to Swisher to make sure that ball wouldn't get by him."
As he entered the dugout following the inning, Naquin took part in a conversation that would help his development into a big league ballplayer.
"I said, 'hey, from your experience, how smart is that throw right there?'" Naquin explained, working his way through the encounter. "He's like, 'dude, that's a great throw. You purposely threw it low to make sure I kept it in front and that you had a chance to get the guy. There's nothing wrong with that at all.'"
It was moments like these that will leave a tremendous impression on Naquin and his RubberDucks teammates, but someone believes that Akron may have had a bigger impact on Swisher than Swisher had on Akron.
Swisher himself, of course.
"Bro, I don't know what else to say other than this place was so awesome," Swisher said of Akron, the city in which he spent parts of a couple of days. "I didn't know what to expect coming down here and just to be able to get the welcome that I did from the fans, the organization and the players, I can't thank these guys enough."
With a fully functional pair of legs and an unparalleled desire to win with the Tribe, Swisher headed towards the players parking lot, but not before RubberDucks owner Ken Babby threw a truthful-yet-clever jab his way.
"Nick, I can't thank you enough for your time here, it's truly been life-changing," Babby told Swisher. "But I hope we don't see you again any time soon."