MOOSIC, Pa. -- There are more than four hours until first pitch of Dollar Dog Night at PNC Field, the home of the New York Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, and Nick Swisher is doing Nick Swisher things as he and some minor leaguers hit off a tee. Swisher keeps yelling, “Dunk it!” and coaxing his younger teammates into exaggerated high-fives as they take swing after swing in the midday heat. Everyone is working and laughing hard.
When Swisher finishes practicing, he notices a familiar New York face behind the batting cage, struts over and jokes, “What is someone of your prominence doing in a place like this?”
The visitor responds, “I was just about to ask you the same question.”
Pets are allowed in the ballpark for $1 on Dollar Dog Night, and fans can purchase hot dogs at the game for the same price. The promotion attracts an announced crowd of 4,275. At first base and batting fifth will be Nick Swisher.
Swisher owns a World Series ring and an All-Star Game appearance in a dozen mostly solid big league seasons. He is 35 years old with two bad knees. When Mark Teixeira recently hurt his knee, the Yankees passed on Swisher and chose to convert utility man Rob Refsnyder to first base and call up journeyman Chris Parmelee instead.
On Thursday night, Parmelee went down with an ugly looking hamstring injury, which means the Yankees have now lost four first basemen this year (Greg Bird and Dustin Ackley both had season-ending shoulder surgery). Swisher is hitting .238 with four homers, 17 RBIs and a .605 OPS in 42 games for Scranton and remains at Triple-A.
Still, Swisher won't give up. His wife, actress JoAnna Garcia, is due this summer with the couple’s second child. She is at their home in Tampa, Florida. He lives alone in a nearby hotel.
Swisher doesn’t act any differently than when he was a Bleacher Creature favorite for four seasons beginning in 2009. He bombastically answers the question he himself had raised: What is someone of your prominence doing in a place like this?
“Why the hell is he doing this?” Swisher said on Monday. “He has made close to $100 million. Why is he doing this? Why is he still trying to fight for this? I have a baby girl and I have another one on the way in a couple of weeks. What am I teaching my kids? When times get tough, you just quit and go home. No, man, I’m going to fight for something I want.”
From the outside, it might seem apparent that Swisher is staring at the end, but he doesn’t see it that way.
While the pristine Triple-A facility and the beautiful landscape around it make the Moosic ballpark a Rockwellian minor league setting, it isn't where Swisher wants to be. His mind is two hours to the southeast in the Bronx. He daydreams about a Swishalicious tale that seems to meld elements of "Bull Durham," "Major League," "Moneyball" and "Rudy" into one.
“I want to be that inspirational story to somebody,” said Swisher, the 16th pick in the 2002 draft by the Oakland A's. “They could say, ‘Man, look what happened to Swisher in his career.’ A guy who was an All-Star and won the World Series and the whole nine [yards] to be kind of pushed aside in a sense and to be able to regain that fight and get what he thought was his. Why would you not want to be that guy?”
Swisher is being paid $15 million this season not to play for the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves, the final remnants of the four-year, $56 million contract he signed with Cleveland when the suddenly austere Yankees declined to pay him following the 2012 season in which he hit .272 with 24 homers and 93 RBIs.
The Indians are cutting checks worth a total of $5 million, while the Braves are in for $10 million. Atlanta cut Swisher at the end of spring training, making it difficult to find any major league interest, which might have been tough at any time because of his .204 average over the past two seasons and his bad knees. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman gave Swisher a chance, though there was no 40-man roster spot or major league guarantee.
"I kind of always thought about buying a school bus and pimping it out and driving all the kids to school. Can you imagine me as a bus driver? Welcome to first grade! Come on, let's go." Nick Swisher
He hit .340 during his initial 13 games in April, which he thought would lead to a quick return to the majors. When the Yankees placed Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list in early May, Swisher felt he would hear the roar of Yankee Stadium once again.
“I was as hot as a firecracker,” Swisher said. “Then a couple of moves were made and I started getting flustered. I think that is when it started to go downhill for me a little bit.”
After being passed over, Swisher went 2-for-19 and hasn’t hit much since. His swing became a little long, according to his manager, Al Pedrique, as he was trying to knock balls the 127 miles from PNC Field to Yankee Stadium.
Swisher has a lot of experience to share with his younger teammates, from his days in the Bronx, Oakland, Chicago, Cleveland and Atlanta, though he knows he is in the same boat they are. Swisher plays big brother to his minor league teammates, which sometimes means picking up a $1,000 check at a restaurant in a Syracuse mall or simply telling them tales of what The Show is really like.
“He’s the type of big leaguer you want to be,” a smiling Aaron Judge, the Yankees’ top outfield prospect, said. “He’s won a World Series. He’s been an All-Star. He’s done all that. But, even now in Triple-A with us, he just comes out and is having fun. He is always smiling. He is always positive. Even if he is 0-for-4, he is still on the bench, talking, ‘Come on, here we go.’ Even when we are down a run, he is always focused on the main thing.”
Swisher gets excited talking about how guys get a taste of the majors doing the “Scranton shuffle,” which is what the players call the quick call-ups to the Yankees.
Swisher’s eyes grow larger and his voice, if it is possible, becomes even more excited as he explains how guys return saying it is even “more awesome” than Swisher had described it. You can tell he thinks every day about getting his own call.
“Maybe run out there to right field one more time and pump those Bleacher Creatures up like a WWE wrestler, like the old days,” Swisher said. “I still think I bring a lot to the ballpark, not necessarily on the field, but even just walking into a locker room. Just being me brings a lot. I’ve put so much pressure on myself, thinking that it is going to be a sprint. I was so hot those first three or four weeks I was here, and nothing happened. From there, I just picked the wrong month to have a bad month.”
Swisher is surviving those bus rides that lack the luxury of the major league charter jets. His body is as good as it is going to be, he says. His mind is focused on his dream.
“When there are 110 people in the stands, it is tough,” Swisher said. “I’m a ham. I love playing in front of 50,000 people. I love being there when the lights are on. I think that is my biggest battle here, to keep my focus level at a certain level, I guess you could say, so I can get the numbers and produce so I can get myself where I want to be.”
Swisher said he hasn’t really thought about his next step if it doesn’t work out. He hints he would like to stay in the game in some capacity. If not, it could be time to finally go home to the day-to-day of regular life, though in his case that doesn’t sound mundane.
“I kind of always thought about buying a school bus and pimping it out and driving all the kids to school,” Swisher said. “Can you imagine me as a bus driver? Welcome to first grade! Come on, let’s go.”