GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Too much has been made of Nick Swisher's absence over the first several games of Spring Training for the Cleveland Indians, at least that's what Swisher asserts.
"Four days," he says, dismissively. "I just don't feel like I need to be playing games in February. 11 years in, man, I think I've hung around long enough. We have a manager who treats you like a man. He just says, ‘Hey, let me know what you need to get ready.' I don't need to be playing games. You don't see guys playing 10, 12 years in the game playing games in February. I mean, come on. People are trying to make this a way bigger deal than it really is."
Swisher isn't quite ready to be called ‘old' -- "I don't know if I'm old, yet," he says -- and the bristles of grey that poke through his three-day-old scruff pale in comparison to the wide swaths that adorn the goatee of his locker mate, Jason Giambi, but with age comes wisdom, and that means he knows now that he doesn't need to get the engine revving quite so high, quite so early.
"By ‘easing in,' we mean he's not playing for three, four or five days, but he's getting a lot of work done. He just wants to enter the games maybe four days later," says Indians manager Terry Francona. "He's hitting, lifting, doing agility, taking ground balls. It's just looking like he's trying to delay the game situations because he felt like he got ready a little too quickly last year."
Swisher is scheduled to take the field on Sunday for Francona, he said after Friday's 4-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds, but the layoff hasn't stopped Swisher from being his effervescent self, prancing around the locker room in naught but a glove, boxer briefs and a t-shirt, playing cards and socializing.
"This is the atmosphere we've created here," Swisher says proudly. "We had – what? – 50-some guys last year in camp, and 49 of them played in the big leagues at some point or another with some team. That just goes to show you: An organization like this, we're going to need a lot of help throughout the year, and we want people to come into the locker room and feel invited."
While Francona is loathe to call what gripped last year's 92-win Cleveland locker room a change in culture, it's hard to call it anything else and not have that ring false.
"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that ‘changing of the culture,' term," Francona says. "I think it's a little bit of a shot at whoever was here before. I've gone to new places, I've left old places, but as a staff, you try to do the best you can, and you want your players to do the same thing. He was a big part of that. Everybody has to be on board."
That starts with the youngsters, something that both Swisher and Giambi learned while with the Oakland Athletics – albeit several years apart.
"Well, I think last year, we had 15 new players, a completely different coaching staff, and we were really trying to do something special, over here," Swisher says. "This is the environment we wanted to create. We wanted to create an inviting locker room. We don't have guys with 15, 17 years, like a team like the New York Yankees. We have to get a lot of contributions from a lot of guys, and even talking about G, back when it was him and Stairsy (Matt Stairs), back in Oakland, all of the sudden, this young crop of guys – Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Erik Chavez – these guys are coming up through, and now, I mean, you can't […] why would you treat a young guy badly? You're going to need him at some point."
Both Giambi and Swisher have gone through the locker rooms in Oakland and the Bronx, albeit separately.
"I followed him, I followed him," Swisher laughs. "First, I missed him in Oakland, then I missed him in New York, but I got him in Cleveland."
Giambi has the day off, and is nowhere to be seen, save for his jersey hanging two lockers away from Swisher.
"He's not here to play every day, so we wouldn't do that in spring training either," Francona says of Giambi, going into his 20th season. "There's a little bit of a fine line, trying to get guys ready. It is different."
Despite Giambi's absence, his presence is keenly felt. Early in his minor league career, Swisher idolized the then-A's slugger.
"He was one of those guys, when I was coming up in the Oakland A's organization, he was the icon," says Swisher.. He was the guy everybody looked up to. We were in the Oakland organization, we were young, we were doing our thing, we were trying to be like G."
Now, it's all about learning for Swisher, who, even going into his 11th season, is eager to be as big a sponge as he can be.
"I think the day that I stop learning stuff in this game is going to be when I shut it down," says Swisher. "I just think there are so many new things, especially with this new era of player. The athletes nowadays make guys in the past look like little kids, you know? I think now, the game speed is up, the athletes are getting better, pitchers are throwing harder, better breaking balls, more control, so when you've got a guy like that, who's been around the game since forever -- I mean, this is his 20th year – so I think, just for all of us, it's an honor to have him here in this locker room. He's so great, on and off the field, and we couldn't ask for anything more.
"To have a guy – G's game wasn't really ever defense – but to be able to have a guy who's played all these positions – he's played third, he's played first, he's DH, he's pinch hit – there are a lot of factors in the game that he knows about, just in general, to have that guy around here, especially for all these young Thundercats that we've got. I'm 11 years in, and I look up to this guy. I can't imagine a guy who's trying to break into the big leagues, walks into the locker room and sees Jason Giambi. He must be like, ‘Holy s***, man! That's Jason Giambi!'"
No, Swisher most certainly is not old, just yet.
Ryan Gorcey covers Major League Baseball for Scout.com, and is the publisher of BearTerritory.net and GoldenStatePreps.com.
Not Old Yet
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