During his playing days with the St. Louis Cardinals, Chris Swauger may have been described as an “organizational soldier”. An organizational soldier, you might say? Some might prefer the term “organizational guy” instead, but either way, it spoke of a different value than necessarily having the capabilities to become a big-league mainstay.
Although reaching the big leagues was Swauger’s ultimate goal, it never occurred. Fortunately or unfortunately, he saw two of his former Springfield teammates, Jermaine Curtis and Jamie Romak, reach the pinnacle. Both are career minor leaguers who like Swauger played important roles in Springfield’s run to the Texas League title in 2012.
Swauger spent seven seasons in the minor leagues as a 26th-round draft pick from the historic military school The Citadel. It was remarkable that Swauger was able to top out at the highest level of minor league baseball (Triple-A Memphis) and earn 2,247 minor league plate appearances after being a senior sign.
On a relatively young Springfield club in 2012, Swauger played a significant role in helping position players mature, including the late Oscar Taveras, currently one of the game’s better defensive second baseman and evolving offensive player in Kolten Wong, and Wong’s St. Louis teammate Greg Garcia.
Not just raw talent got Springfield to the Texas League Championship Series. Swauger made his impact with a 6-for-11 (.545) stretch at the plate with a whopping eight RBI in the team’s final three games of the regular season. In the playoffs, Swauger slugged three home runs and drove in five in five games before breaking his collarbone making a diving catch. He was named top offensive player of the post-season.
The following season, Swauger collected another professional accolade by performing his way onto the Texas League All-Star team. In 2014, he hung up his spikes and retired as a player. His former Springfield manager Mike Shildt told the Springfield News-Leader last June of Swauger, "In my opinion, Chris has made it. You're talking about a senior sign that's played parts of five seasons in Double-A and helped two clubs win championships," Shildt added. "He's helped grow some of the players that have gone on to help St. Louis win championships. That's why he's going to be so valuable."
Swauger was given his first coaching assignment promptly after retiring. The organization had a vacancy for a hitting coach at their Johnson City affiliate and gave him his first coaching opportunity. Today, he is there managing the rookie-ball Cardinals in his first full year as a coach.
In this exclusive interview, Swauger discusses his experiences with that 2012 Springfield team along with the impact Shildt had on his career and his progress in coaching.
Derek Shore: You played parts of four seasons for the Springfield Cardinals, including an integral role in their run to their first-ever Texas League Title in 2012 and your perseverance paid off with an All-Star appearance the following season, a first for your career. What were those experiences like for you as a player?
Chris Swauger: "The Springfield team from 2012 was the best team I have ever played on. Not just the talent, but the chemistry that we had. Not surprisingly, most of those guys are in, or have made it to the big leagues and many are contributing to the Cardinals right now. I always joke with our manager that year, Mike Shildt, that he had no idea what he was doing because he batted me fifth in a lineup full of big leaguers.
“The beauty of that season was that everyone bought into the team concept, and then when we all looked at our numbers at the end of the year, everyone had personal success as well. Minor League Team of the Year was an absolutely deserved award. To follow that up the next year with an All-Star experience was great and a truly enjoyable time, but I will always remember the experiences in 2012 more fondly."
DS: That 2012 Springfield club possessed considerable young raw talent with a good mix of veteran players like yourself. On a day-to-day basis how did that clubhouse jell from day one to the final pitch of the Texas League Championship series?
CS: "I was in Memphis for the first month of the season. When I arrived in Springfield, the team had just gone through a 12-game losing streak. I feel that was the most important stretch of the season, because only in losing do you learn to appreciate winning, and truly learn HOW to win.
“The team had already started moving in the right direction when I arrived, then we added a couple more guys who had played at high levels and been through playoff races (Jermaine Curtis and Jamie Romak), and we took off."
DS: The Cardinals have often rewarded minor leaguers, in particular, your former teammate Jermaine Curtis made his big-league debut in 2013. Like you, Curtis performed despite a lack of clear MLB opportunity. Did that ever cause you to press or motivate you to produce?
CS: "Honestly I never needed any motivation to produce. As a 26th round senior sign, the day I stopped producing was the day I went home. However, seeing guys like Jermaine get rewarded with a chance gave me encouragement that I was not working in vain. He was proof that if you have a jersey, and the opportunity presents itself, you can make it to the big leagues regardless of what the majority of people say."
DS: How much impact did your former skipper Mike Shildt have in your decision to give coaching a shot last year?
CS: “Mike (Shildt) has had a huge impact on me in many ways. I truly enjoyed every minute I played for him, and much of how I coach comes from him. As we have transitioned to contemporaries, he has continued to have an influence on me and is a great resource. Many people impacted my decision, but I know Mike helped shape me even before I made it.”
DS: Shildt described you as an example of “The Cardinal Way” during your playing career. How does that philosophy differ from a coach's perspective in player development?
CS: "I think “The Cardinal Way” is uniform throughout the Cardinal organization, top to bottom, owners to front office to coaches to players. It just comes down to doing the right thing, doing it the right way, all the time no matter the circumstances. The beauty of that is nothing changes that regardless of where you are in the organization. Player or player development, the philosophy and the integrity remain the same."
DS: How do you feel about your transition to in-game management?
CS: "As a player, I tried to pay attention to the game and thought I had a pretty good handle on things. As I've transitioned to a manager, I've realized I knew next to nothing. Learning to manage an entire team as opposed to just yourself or a group of hitters has been a great challenge and I have loved every minute of it.
“I still have a long way to go and I know I will get better as I experience more in-game situations, but it has been an eye-opening opportunity to say the least. People complain that it's a slow game, but when you are running it, things can move very quickly. I've learned that preparation is key, and expecting the unexpected is required."
DS: How has hitting coach George Greer, a man with decades of baseball knowledge, helped in your first managing season?
CS: "I’m not sure I have enough room to praise George enough for the help he has given me this season. The best thing about George is he is a teacher. Sitting next to him all year has given me a rare opportunity to learn the game from a truly brilliant mind. That being said, he has allowed me to make my own mistakes and learn on my own.
“He has been a guiding hand in my development as a manager. I still have a long way to go and much to learn in this game, but George has exponentially increased my baseball IQ. I may be the manager of this team and therefore captain of the ship, but George is most definitely the rudder."
CS: "My overall impression is that they have gotten better this season. That is the most important thing. Their growth from Spring Training, through Extended Spring, and then during this season in JC has been truly remarkable.
“It is a credit to their willingness to work and learn, then their ability perform. Their talent is evident, and their production has been noticed, but I am most proud of their maturity as men and ballplayers. All three are young kids that ooze potential. If they continue the growth they started this year, the sky's the limit for all of them."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
© 2015 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.