Dansby Swanson did not sneak in through the back door. That’s not possible when baseball operations sees a player as tomorrow’s promise, but marketing views at him as today’s gold — a product to be pitched, like the way a circus barker hawks the singing monkey or the tap-dancing elephant.
“He’s a brand,” Freddie Freeman said.
“It’s hard to come in under the radar when you’re on billboards,” Brian Snitker said.
Therein lies the problem. While Swanson has the potential to turn into the Braves’ franchise centerpiece for a decade-plus, the talented and charismatic shortstop from down the street who makes all the girls swoon, the Derek Jeter from this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, he isn’t there yet. He shouldn’t be expected to be there yet. He’s 23 years old. He has played 62 major league games (24 this season). He’s just over a season’s worth of games as a pro, minor league ones included, from the time he stepped off the Vanderbilt campus less than two years ago.
And yet, there is Dansby Swanson on billboards. And buses. And TV commercials. And assorted promotional materials. And June 16, prepare for the, “Dansby ‘The Flow’ Bobblehead” giveaway. (Via promotions: “Bobblehead will feature Dansby Swanson with life-like locks.”)
Never mind that the kid is still trying to figure things out, and will for a while. After a good night — 1-for-2 with a single, walk and sacrifice fly — Swanson was hitting .158 with a team-high 25 strikeouts in 25 games. But let’s not let that get in the way of planning a bobblehead night.
I asked Swanson if jump-starting his career would be easier if he wasn’t from Marietta and horns weren’t blaring when he walked through the front door.
“Maybe,” he said. “But that wasn’t God’s plan. You can find the beauty in that, too. This is how my life’s supposed to be.”
The answer was so Dansby, not just because he’s grounded and selfless, but because he appreciates all that has come his way and he’s at the early point of his career when he wants to make people happy. But, as Freeman suggested, it might be time to mix in a few nos. Let him be a baseball player first and a commodity second.
“I think it was unfair for the media and promotional (demands) with only 38 games under his belt (last season),” Freeman said. “It’s not fair to the kid. Let him become that, don’t force it on someone.”
Freeman saw his friend Jason Heyward go through in his early years before, “He started saying no.” He also heard the stories from former teammate Jeff Francoeur, another homegrown talent.
Freeman and Swanson have the same agent, “So I know Dansby has said no to a few things. But I think ‘no’ needs to come into his vocabulary a little more.
“You can’t do a million things off the field and still expect the guy to be fully, mentally ready to go at 7:30 every night. I’m not making excuses for him, and he won’t make excuses for himself. But I’ve learned to say no. I mean, I get it. He’s the homegrown kid. He’s from Marietta. He’s 23. He’s the shortstop. First overall pick. I get it and he gets it, too. But it’s not fair to him.”
Teammate Matt Kemp, overhearing part of this conversation in the Braves’ clubhouse, said, “Promotion? Oh, that’s my favorite word.”
The words were dipped in sarcasm.
“You want me to do some promotional stuff or you want me to hit?” Kemp said. “When you’re young they make you feel like you have to do all that stuff. Sure, then I’ll come to the park and try to hit off somebody throwing 99 miles an hour.”
In the underworld of social media, some are wondering if it’s time to send Swanson down to the minors.
Please. Can we stop the stupid talk? It has been a month. Let’s go through June before we pull a Thelma-and-Louise off the cliff.
Swanson is doing a smart thing. He’s spending less time in Panic Central, also known as Twitter.
“I find myself on it less and less,” he said. “I still go on to watch funny videos, stuff to stay entertained. But nobody like’s seeing the negative things.”
Swanson said he lost something in his swing in spring training and he has been fighting to get it back. “Something got tweaked,” he said.
He also said he doesn’t feel pressure, beyond what’s self-inflicted: “It’s competitiveness. I just need to control that. I’m a pretty positive person, and I’m surrounded by positive people. Personally, I feel fine. Baseball-wise, obviously, statistically I’m not where I want to be. But with the progress I’m making, I feel I’m getting closer.”
Put aside the bad start for a moment. Put aside the stat line and the four errors and that so many seemed to expect immediate greatness after the organization’s No. 1 prospect hit .302 in 38 games last season. If Swanson seemed overwhelmed by it all, there would be a greater reason for concern. But that’s not the case.
“If there’s one person in the room who can handle of this, it’s him,” Freeman said.
Snitker agreed. But then why did he drop Swanson from second to eighth in the batting order after only 14 games, saying the move would put less pressure on the rookie? Why not allow Swanson some time to fail?
Snitker himself recalled the first time Swanson walked into his office last year: “I told him, ‘Well, I passed a billboard on (Interstate) 85. You’re already up there.’”
Baseball is a business. But if the business drives this train, it’s doing Swanson a disservice.