In his second game of this spring, Dansby Swanson twice took pitches to the opposite field for singles, cracked a double into the left-center field gap, knocked in a run, scored three times in as many at-bats, cleanly fielded three grounders, did nothing to cool expectations that he is morphing into some form of an X-man, only with far better hair and dreamy eyes, reaffirmed he one day will have schools, libraries and hospitals named in his honor and caused long-suffering Braves fans to scream to unison, “Yay, us!”
“Just doing his thing. He’s not trying to do anything he’s not capable of,” said manager Brian Snitker.
He made no mention of super powers.
So here’s the mandatory caveat (a Latin word that roughly translates to: “Jeff Francoeur/Sports Illustrated/The Natural cover”): It was a spring training game. Swanson has yet to play a full season. It’s going to be difficult for fans, media and even members of the Braves’ organization to duct-tape themselves to their chairs and maintain some perspective during the early days of DansbyMania, at least until we can get a full sense of what his career will look like.
But there’s something we can be fairly certain of when it comes to Swanson and it’s not whether he hits .256 or .298 or how many All-Star Games he goes into. He will be a leader, something they have sorely needed.
“First time I saw him, he looked like a leader,” Bobby Cox said.
He has seen a few. Through the Braves’ winning seasons in the 1990s and thereafter, they had no shortage of clubhouse leaders. Among them: Terry Pendleton, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Ross, Martin Prado, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann.
First baseman Freddie Freeman seemed reticent to accept that role in his first five-plus seasons but he has warmed to it over the past year.
The Braves have been relatively devoid of clubhouse leaders in recent years. That’s not uncommon during extreme roster churns. But leadership isn’t something that comes naturally to every player, no matter what the scouting report or prospect rating says.
Swanson recently turned 23. He has played only 38 major league games so, yeah, branding somebody as relative locker room lieutenant may seem presumptuous.
But he came through that Vanderbilt culture, reads books on leadership and self-improvement, doesn’t obsess over statistics, prefers not to be the center of attention and appears to live in a world bigger than the dimensions of your average Madden video remote control.
Snitker: “Sometimes I find myself lumping him in with the veteran guys. The kid’s way above his years.”
It helped Swanson that he grew up in a family of athletes. Everybody played at the college level — his father and brother in baseball, his mother in basketball, his sister in softball.
“I guess that kind of fueled my competitive spirit and maybe the leadership qualities,” he said.
He found himself naturally drawn to team leaders like Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra (also shortstops). He said watching some of the successful Braves teams during his youth “solidified my obsession with good teams — not just good players but good groups. Teams matter. Individuals don’t win it.”
Does he set goals?
“I’m very process oriented, not results oriented.”
He said that, too. Did I mention he’s 23? And not a general manager?
A lot of athletes echo Swanson’s remarks. But the words tend to be delivered as if they’re reading from a talking points memo. They hit with the wallop of Styrofoam.
Swanson was a member of the “leadership council” when he played at Vanderbilt. In 2014, as a sophomore, he led a team meeting after Vandy got waxed by LSU 11-1 in the SEC tournament, which they were favored to win. He still won’t say what words were spoken to teammates but said, “We laid it out there.”
The Commodores went on to win the College World Series and Swanson was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Pendleton, one of the best on-field leaders the Braves ever had and the leader of the worst-to-first 1991 team, said he has “a special respect for players who can handle the clubhouse the way it should be handled.” He added that Swanson is “unusual for this generation.
“Some of it is just about a willingness to learn. Some guys don’t want to hear it. Some just want to walk through that door and expect that it will be given to them and, frankly, have had it given to them.”
Swanson attended the Super Bowl with a friend. He called the Falcons’ loss “one of the worst things that ever happened to me, or at least it felt like it. I was so depressed.”
What he do? He journaled.
“I’m a pretty good writer,” he said. (Of course he is. Continuing …)
“I started thinking about how good my life is now, not because of baseball but because of everyone else in it. It’s a shame that’s not a common thing. My family is still in town. We’re close. My friends are still at home and still treat me like I was the same high school kid. I just started journaling about this. It was almost like God said, “Dans — listen.’ Amid one of the worst things that ever happened to me, I realized you can still find some good in something else.”
We can’t predict the numbers. But we can feel pretty certain about the person.