At 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday night, Nick Swisher is in his element. More specifically, he's in Allentown, Pennsylvania, shirtless at a table in the Lehigh Valley IronPigs' cramped visitors' clubhouse. He ate dinner, smiling and talking the whole time, as Mystikal's "Danger" blared over the loudspeakers. This is where Nick Swisher belongs, except for the fact that, after 12 seasons in the majors, he's presently plying his trade in Triple-A. If he regrets that decision, it's impossible to tell; none of his teammates on the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders seemed happier than Swisher after the team's 10-1 victory over the IronPigs.
Swisher has been a household name in baseball circles since Michael Lewis' Moneyball was published in 2003, and has been the same gregarious, outspoken bro's bro throughout a career that has had its ups and downs. The last year-plus would seem like a "down" stretch, although with Swisher it's always hard to tell. After struggling through parts of three seasons in Cleveland, the Indians dealt him to Atlanta at the deadline last season. The rebuilding Braves released Swisher on March 28, and after searching everywhere for major league opportunities and finding no interest, he finally settled on a minor league deal on April 14 with the New York Yankees, the organization he played for from 2009 to 2012 during the best stretch of his career.
"I didn't really have an opportunity to go somewhere else," Swisher told VICE Sports. "It's kind of like a blind side. But I think for myself, it's all a journey. It's just a different chapter. If I've got to come down here and hang out with these guys, bro, kick some ass while we're down here, have a little fun—hey, I'm down to do that."
Although he's earned more than $90 million, married, become a father, and played for five franchises, Swisher's personality hasn't changed much from the brash kid depicted in Moneyball. Author Michael Lewis wrote about the time Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro saw Swisher play in college at Ohio State. Afterward, Swisher approached Shapiro and asked about Indians pitcher Chuck Finley, who had recently filed assault charges against his wife, Tawny Kitaen.
"So what the hell's up with Finley's old lady?" Swisher asked.
Swisher's attitude and talent appealed to Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. Before the 2002 draft, the organization devised a plan called "Operation Shutdown" to keep Beane from showing up to Swisher's Ohio State games. Oakland didn't want other teams to know Beane held Swisher in such high regard.
That year, the A's had seven of the first 39 selections in the draft, and used their first pick, 16th overall, on Swisher, who turned out to be the best of the group. Even now, 14 years later, people still bring up Moneyball when talking to Swisher. "All the time," he said. "It's something that I think is just gonna be tagged along with me for my entire life. I'm cool with that."
While he'll always be identified with the Moneyball A's, Swisher made plenty of friends over his tenure in New York. During Swisher's first season with the Yankees, in 2009, the team won its 27th World Series. The next year, he made his first All-Star game appearance and had a career-high 129 OPS+.
Swisher signed a four-year, $56 million deal in January 2013 with the Indians, the team he rooted for growing up in Ohio. Except for a late surge in his first season, though, Swisher never lived up to expectations in Cleveland. Swisher scuffled when he wasn't hurt, and after surgery on both knees in August 2014, he missed the first month of last season and never recovered. He hit .198/.261/.297 in 30 games before the Indians traded him to the Braves in August. He wasn't much better in Atlanta, hitting .195/.349/.339 in 46 games.
When the Braves released Swisher a week before this season started, he was in a precarious spot. Most rosters were already set. He admits he was upset at first, but Swisher said his mood has changed now. "Being released by the Braves in the long run is gonna be the best thing that ever happened to me, man," Swisher said. "I'm actually happy that it did happen because after seeing what's going on over there, I don't know if that's where I would want to be right now."
Swisher said he "hasn't had one issue" with his knees recently. Still, the Yankees are being cautious. Through Wednesday, Swisher had played in 22 games, mostly at first base and designated hitter, and a few times in the outfield. He typically sits out day games after night games, too. Swisher's hitting .258/.280/.382 after a recent slump, but has made his usual impact in the clubhouse.
"You can tell that he has a lot of passion for the game, a lot of love," Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Al Pedrique said. "He's always talking, screaming, singing. I mean, he does everything to keep everybody ready and loose."
Swisher, who turns 36 in November, is the oldest player on the RailRiders' roster by more than four years. He and his wife, the actress JoAnna Garcia, are expecting their second child in July. By then, Swisher is hoping he'll be back in the majors, with the Yankees or another organization.
Beyond that, Swisher doesn't know how much longer he'll play or what he'll be doing when his playing career ends. He's living in the moment, just as he has for all of his life in the game. "We'll see," Swisher said. "I've gotta cross that bridge when we come to it, man. It's a little bit away right now. I think for myself, man, I'm just gonna continue to keep rockin,' man, ride this thing 'til the wheels fall off, bro."