Nick Swisher isgood. He is home-run-beltin', sideburn-wearin', nonstop-talkin',bear-hug-dispensin', self-proclaimin' good. His coaches know it, his teammatesknow it, and most of all Swisher knows it.
"He truly believes he is the best player on the planet," says A's thirdbaseman Eric Chavez. "It's his greatest asset."
"He acts like a perennial All-Star who's been in the league 10 years,"says Dan Johnson, Oakland's first baseman.
Says Swisher, in his high-volume, West Virginia twang, "It's just mypersonality, bro!"--a point he emphasizes by enthusiastically slapping areporter on the knee--"I just love playing this game."
He has the kind of self-assurance one develops as the son of a major leaguer(his father, Steve, was a catcher who played nine seasons with three clubs), afirst-round draft pick (in 2002) and the golden child of an organization,anointed in this case by the prospect prophet himself, general manager BillyBeane. Perhaps you've heard of a little book called Moneyball? Then you'llremember Swisher's role as the can't-miss slugger from Ohio State about whomboth the old-school scouts and new-school sabermetricians agreed; the kid sogood Beane couldn't bring himself to see him play, lest another team noticeBeane's interest.
Now, four yearsafter he was drafted, Swisher, 25, is in his second full season with the bigclub and has been a major reason why the A's have made their traditional Junesprint up the AL West standings. Despite a frightening list of injuries--nineplayers have missed a combined 260 games--Oakland had won 10 games in a row atweek's end and moved into first place. Swisher has been a big reason why."He basically carried us the first month," says catcher Jason Kendall."And he's done it playing all over the place."
Indeed, theversatile, switch-hitting Swisher, who toggles between first base andleftfield, was leading the team in average (.286), home runs (17) and runsscored (51) through Sunday and was tied with Chavez for tops in RBIs (46). Forthose inclined toward the sabermetric measures Beane favors, Swisher's on-basepercentage is .389 and his VORP--value over replacement player--is the highestof any AL leftfielder. (Just don't expect Swisher, who cheerfully admits thathe hasn't read Moneyball, to be aware of it. "VORP?" he says when thetopic is raised. "Not a clue what that is. But if it's good, I'll takeit!")
Still, ask managerKen Macha about Swisher, and he tries to lower expectations, saying, "Wedon't need people writing about him, telling him how good he is." To whichwe say, good luck with that, Ken. Swisher is so friendly, so available--he'susually the first to the clubhouse, normally at 1 p.m. for night games, part ofa work ethic that dates back to high school--and so talkative that reporterswould have to make an effort not to write about him.
Here he is, beforelast Friday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, strutting around theclubhouse. Though 6 feet and 214 pounds, Swisher has a certain bobblehead-dolllook about him--a large, constantly moving cranium on a stocky body--accentedby scruffy brown hair, sideburns and a goatee. As he roams, Swisher talks smackto third base coach Ron Washington ("You're so full of crap, it's seepingout your ears!"), ribs centerfielder Mark Kotsay and then yells, "Comeget one!" splaying his arms open in the general vicinity of, well, it'sunclear exactly whom, but it may be rightfielder Milton Bradley. Says Swisher,"This is the best hug in the major leagues right here!"
His ebullience isnot restricted to fellow players. Swisher distributes shoulder hugs, butt slapsand how-the-hell-you-doings to batboys, clubhouse assistants and janitors. Incollege two of his teammates offered him $50 if he could stay quiet for a longbus ride back to Columbus. "It was the hardest thing for me to do. I wantedto just shoot myself," he says. "But"--and here he brightensup--"I got my 50 bucks, boy!"
Swisher, however,will listen. In spring training he lockered next to Frank Thomas andimmediately began pumping the 17-year veteran for information. The brawny DHwarmed to Swisher, of whom Thomas says, "He's quirky but in a consistentway. His heart's in the right place." Now the two get coffee togetherbefore games, Thomas dispensing hitting tips ("Mostly about focus,"says Thomas) and Swisher soaking them up. It's all part of Swisher's continuingmaturation as a hitter. Last season he had good power numbers (21 homers and 74RBIs in 131 games) but batted only .236, so this spring he switched to alighter bat, going from a 34-ounce model to one that's 30 ounces, which he saysallows him to wait better on off-speed pitches.
While Thomas andhitting coach Gerald Perry help Swisher with his batting, the 31-year-oldKendall serves as his tough-love older brother--"He keeps me in line when Iget too hyper," says Swisher--and Kotsay tutors him on outfield defense.(Macha, who said Swisher was "below subpar" as a fielder last season,rates him as "definitely improved.") For his part Swisher is willing tolearn but not to change. "It took me 25 years to get where I am," hesays. "I'm not going to try to be somebody else." So what you see iswhat you get: a big, joyful hitter who grew up sleeping on bat racks when hisdad was a minor league manager, was recruited as a strong safety by Notre Dame,plays beer pong at the house he shares with righthanders Rich Harden, JoeBlanton and Huston Street, and has Oakland poised for yet another second-halfrun.
In fact, there hegoes now, out to take early batting practice. As he heads down the tunnel tothe field, Swisher can be heard for far longer than he can be seen, a boomingvoice greeting all those he encounters with a "Hey, there he is" and a"What is goin' on, my man!" If you haven't yet heard of him--or fromhim--don't worry. Swisher will make sure you do soon enough.
Tom Verducci on baseball every Tuesday and Wednesday at SI.com/baseball.
Photograph by Robert Beck
CONFIDENCE MAN Swisher, the son of a former big leaguer, grew up around the sport and has a knack for putting even prickly veterans at ease.
SWITCH HIT Swisher listened when a scout said he'd have more power from the left side.