Year removed from pressure of new deal, slugger adjusts spring routine
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It did not take long for Nick Swisher to find his comfort zone this spring. The boisterous first baseman had only been in camp a few days and he was already zipping through the Indians' clubhouse on a motorized scooter.
Swisher grinned as he buzzed through the main entrance, zoomed around the large table in the center of the room and disappeared through a door that leads to a storage room.
"Just making sure this thing still works!" Swisher yelled as he drove off.
This is the Swisher that was introduced to all of Cleveland last spring, when he entered the clubhouse with a fresh four-year contract in hand. There are no introductions needed this year -- not after the 'Harlem Shake" video last spring, the creation of the "Brohio" section at Progressive Field or the endless stream of memorable quotes.
No, all of Cleveland is more than familiar with Swisher now.
Perhaps more importantly, Swisher is now familiar with all of Cleveland.
"Walking in last year, I was super nervous," Swisher said. "Everybody was new -- everybody. The coaching staff. The front office. Bat boys. Clubbies. Cooks. Players. Everything was different. This year, I walked in and it was like, 'I'm at home.' I got my guys around me, man. I missed these guys."
Swisher's nerves a year ago were based on high expectations and a strong desire to try to live up to the large contract handed to him by the Indians. The 33-year-old first baseman will earn $56 million through 2016 and could take in $70 million in all if his option for 2017 vests. Cleveland pulled out all the stops in courting Swisher -- an Ohio State grad -- last winter.
After walking the red carpet, though, Swisher tripped upon reaching the stage. His left shoulder began to nag him during Spring Training and proved to be a persistent foe throughout the season. Swisher never used it as an excuse, but the pressures of performing under the weight of a big contract, and trying to do so while playing hurt, took a toll on his production last year.
Swisher finished with a team-high 22 home runs -- marking his ninth straight season he has belted at least 20 shots -- but his 63 RBIs were his lowest total in a full season in the Majors. The switch-hitter also turned in a .246 average, .341 on-base percentage and .423 slugging percentage, which were his lowest for each category since 2008.
"He knew that was our big signing," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "We went way out of our way to sign him, and he wanted to be a big part of us winning. Sometimes it was to the point where you try too hard or you take too big a swing. You try to do too much. That's human nature."
Swisher is quick to toss out the excuses, but he won't deny that pressure existed.
"Last year was a little different," he said. "I signed the big contract. I wanted to make sure I was out there every single day, and maybe that wasn't the best thing for me. What's great is we have a manager that is very intuitive. He knows what's going on. He knows his players. His communication skills are so great."
During their one-on-one meeting at the onset of camp, Swisher and Francona devised a different plan for this spring.
Rather than be in the lineup for the first game, or even the first handful of games, Swisher and his manager both felt it was best to delay his Cactus League debut. Swisher will be on the field soon, but he is focusing on the morning workouts for now. That approach stems from the belief that the first baseman pushed too hard on the accelerator too soon last year.
"I'll be ready come Opening Day," Swisher said. "It's not really a big deal. Either way, man, the main goal is be ready for Opening Day, be ready to go. Bombs away. ... I just think I got so hot right out of the gates, man. I got hot and then I got super cold at the end of camp.
"I was kind of like, maybe if they push me back two, three, four, or five days, maybe I can continue to keep that gradual approach to getting myself ready."
Beyond trying to return to his previous level of production, Swisher is also getting ready to once again serve as Cleveland's clubhouse energizer.
Indians teammate Mike Aviles was asked if he could share a tale from last season that summed up Swisher's personality.
"That you could write about?" Aviles said with a laugh. "There's so many. You can't even keep up. His batteries are charged every day. He's the only person I know that wakes up fully, fully charged."
That was a welcomed attribute for the Indians, who suffered through a 94-loss season in 2012. Leading into last year, Cleveland overhauled its roster, bringing in Francona and making a long list of transactions that included signing Swisher and Michael Bourn to long-term deals. Aviles said the moment Swisher walked through the door, the players leftover from the previous year had an energetic source of hope.
"It let them see that it's a new era and a new team," Aviles said.
In Swisher, the Tribe had the kind of leader who could maintain his upbeat attitude even in the aftermath of a tough loss or extended losing streak. That helped the Indians avoid the kind of second-half collapses that the team suffered in both the 2011 and '12 campaigns, and Swisher's offensive surge in September played a role in clinching a Wild Card berth.
"The thing that Swish does the best is he's always on," Indians veteran Jason Giambi said. "No matter how good or bad things are going, he's always on. It's not fake. That's why you love him, because he's having a great time and just getting you to remember that this game is fun."
Swisher hopes to get the whole city of Cleveland in on the fun, too.
"Bro, we're leaps and bounds above last year where we were team-wise already," he said. "[The front office is] giving us an opportunity and they're giving the city something to wrap their arms around."