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Nick Swisher is
good. He is home-run-beltin', sideburn-wearin', nonstop-talkin',
bear-hug-dispensin', self-proclaimin' good. His coaches know it, his teammates
know it, and most of all Swisher knows it.
Now, four years after he was drafted, Swisher, 25, is in his second full season with the big club and has been a major reason why the A's have made their traditional June sprint up the AL West standings. Despite a frightening list of injuries--nine players have missed a combined 260 games-- Oakland had won 10 games in a row at week'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, the versatile, switch-hitting Swisher, who toggles between first base and leftfield, was leading the team in average (.286), home runs (17) and runs scored (51) through Sunday and was tied with Chavez for tops in RBIs (46). For those inclined toward the sabermetric measures Beane favors, Swisher's on-base percentage is .389 and his VORP--value over replacement player--is the highest of any AL leftfielder. (Just don't expect Swisher, who cheerfully admits that he hasn't read Moneyball, to be aware of it. "VORP?" he says when the topic is raised. "Not a clue what that is. But if it's good, I'll take it!")
Still, ask manager Ken Macha about Swisher, and he tries to lower expectations, saying, "We don't need people writing about him, telling him how good he is." To which we say, good luck with that, Ken. Swisher is so friendly, so available--he's usually the first to the clubhouse, normally at 1 p.m. for night games, part of a work ethic that dates back to high school--and so talkative that reporters would have to make an effort not to write about him.
Here he is, before last Friday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, strutting around the clubhouse. Though 6 feet and 214 pounds, Swisher has a certain bobblehead-doll look about him--a large, constantly moving cranium on a stocky body--accented by scruffy brown hair, sideburns and a goatee. As he roams, Swisher talks smack to third base coach Ron Washington ("You're so full of crap, it's seeping out your ears!"), ribs centerfielder Mark Kotsay and then yells, "Come get one!" splaying his arms open in the general vicinity of, well, it's unclear exactly whom, but it may be rightfielder Milton Bradley. Says Swisher, "This is the best hug in the major leagues right here!"
His ebullience is not restricted to fellow players. Swisher distributes shoulder hugs, butt slaps and how-the-hell-you-doings to batboys, clubhouse assistants and janitors. In college two of his teammates offered him $50 if he could stay quiet for a long bus ride back to Columbus. "It was the hardest thing for me to do. I wanted to just shoot myself," he says. "But"--and here he brightens up--"I got my 50 bucks, boy!"
Swisher, however, will listen. In spring training he lockered next to Frank Thomas and immediately began pumping the 17-year veteran for information. The brawny DH warmed to Swisher, of whom Thomas says, "He's quirky but in a consistent way. His heart's in the right place." Now the two get coffee together before games, Thomas dispensing hitting tips ("Mostly about focus," says Thomas) and Swisher soaking them up. It's all part of Swisher's continuing maturation as a hitter. Last season he had good power numbers (21 homers and 74 RBIs in 131 games) but batted only .236, so this spring he switched to a lighter bat, going from a 34-ounce model to one that's 30 ounces, which he says allows him to wait better on off-speed pitches.
While Thomas and hitting coach Gerald Perry help Swisher with his batting, the 31-year-old Kendall serves as his tough-love older brother--"He keeps me in line when I get 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 to learn but not to change. "It took me 25 years to get where I am," he says. "I'm not going to try to be somebody else." So what you see is what you get: a big, joyful hitter who grew up sleeping on bat racks when his dad 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, Joe Blanton and Huston Street, and has Oakland poised for yet another second-half run.
In fact, there he goes now, out to take early batting practice. As he heads down the tunnel to the field, Swisher can be heard for far longer than he can be seen, a booming voice 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 from him--don't worry. Swisher will make sure you do soon enough.