MOOSIC, Pa. — In his mind, Nick Swisher can still hear the roll call. He can still summon the feeling of having thousands of New Yorkers chant his name, the feeling of mutual respect they shared before each game when he would turn and salute the fans in the outfield.
Yes, in his mind, Swisher can still hear it, even though it is mid-June and he is some 150 miles away from the Bronx, standing on first base and wearing the black-and-neon-green uniform of the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. There are no crazy bleacher creatures in the outfield here; just families picnicking on a hillside. Over his left shoulder, kids cheer as a blue furry mascot named Champ waddles across the top of the home dugout.
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Twilight descends on PNC Stadium, and Swisher waves his mitt back and forth to shoo away a swarm of gnats.
“I didn’t think I was going to be here this long,” Swisher tells a visitor, “but here I am. I really thought this was going to be more of a sprint than a marathon.”
But if a marathon is what it takes to get back to the big leagues, than a marathon is what Swisher says he will run, even with two cranky 35-year-old knees. A little more than a week ago, he got the bad news that despite having a sinkhole at first base, the Yankees had bypassed him once again and instead decided to call up an extra pitcher. For any other player, it might have been the ultimate insult, something that made them question why they are doing what they are doing. For the glass-is-half-full Swisher, being passed over for the fourth straight time was actually liberating.
“I’m like, dude, who cares what anyone else thinks about you right now?” Swisher said. “Before I was too worried about what other people were thinking. I was starting to think that I wasn’t any good and it was affecting my game. Then, this happens, and I said to myself, ‘Get it together’. Because I know what I can do.”
Swisher, who was cut from Atlanta on March 27, signed with the Yankees’ Triple-A team just before the start of the season and hit .340 with three homers in 13 April games. But with rumors of a potential promotion circulating, he struggled in May, hitting .200 with just one home run.
“It was the wrong month to have a bad month,” said Swisher, who is hitting .375 with three home runs in his last 10 games.
Swisher doesn’t need to be doing this. He owns a World Series ring, an All-Star Game appearance and a dozen mostly solid seasons with the A’s, White Sox, Yankees, Indians and Braves. He could have stayed home this season and collected millions of dollars, $10 million from Atlanta and $5 million from Cleveland to be exact. An extremely popular player with both fans and the media, Swisher says he has a number of options to mull over for his post-playing career.
But he’s not ready for that yet, which is why he’s living out of a cookie-cutter hotel near the stadium and celebrating Father’s Day on Facetime. Swisher has a 3-year-old daughter, Emerson, and his wife, JoAnna Garcia, is nine months pregnant.
“It’s been a tough strangle on our family a little bit,” Swisher said. “I’m blessed to have a wife to give me this opportunity to chase my dream, but I’m still here in Triple-A and my wife is nine months pregnant in Tampa. I can’t bring her up here to Scranton. No offense to anyone from Scranton, but this is, well, it’s not New York, if you know what I mean.”
No it’s not. It’s been 13 years since Swisher was last in the minors, and at this stage of his career it has lost any charm it once had. There is no private plane travel in the International League. In fact, there is no plane travel at all. On Thursday night, after finishing a four-game series in Toledo, Swisher and teammates boarded a coach bus for a nine-hour ride back to Scranton, arriving at 6:30 a.m. They had to be back at the ballpark 10 hours later.
No, this is not the Ritz Carlton and the Yankees. This is hotels without late-night room service and towns who shut down before the game is over. Postgame dinner is sometimes a sandwich from the ballpark wrapped in a napkin.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Swisher said.
Like he was with the Yankees, Swisher is a popular teammate. When the team does go somewhere with an open restaurant, the salary disparity between Swisher and the rest of his teammates — most of whom are trying to eat off their $25 per diem — makes it no big deal for him to pick up a check. He is also always there to offer advice an encouragement.
“He’s been a great addition to the clubhouse,” Sranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Al Pedrique said. “He’s a guy who loves to share his experience with the young players.”
Of course, he would rather be sharing that experience with players in the Bronx, or another major league ballpark somewhere. And he is convinced that he will.
“The one thing I always dream about is running back on that field one more time and getting the roll call and pumping up those bleacher creatures like a WWE wrestler,” he said. “I dream about bringing energy back in that stadium, because that’s how I remember it.”
Yes, for now, Swisher can still hear the roll call.