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Dansby Swanson’s fast start a product of a very serious mind

The Braves' Dansby Swanson scores in the 10th inning vs. the New York Mets last week. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
The Braves' Dansby Swanson scores in the 10th inning vs. the New York Mets last week. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Credit: Adam Hunger

Credit: Adam Hunger

He may not have sought the distinction, but the Braves’ Dansby Swanson is emerging as a handbook for how to succeed in the age of COVID-19.

That the Braves shortstop Friday was tied for the National League lead in RBI (9), second in the NL in hits (10) and was batting .370 after just the first week of baseball’s restart is initial proof that his approach to the challenge of our times is working.

Perhaps it is in part because of an almost fanatical attention to the details of trying to keep himself and those around him healthy. The Braves’ most renowned hometown player now, Swanson grew up in Marietta and there his family – mother, father, older brother, sister – are still rooted. But the closeness has been interrupted by the coronavirus as Swanson has taken the need to distance with him pretty much wherever he goes. That can be trying for a mother who can’t remember exactly the last time she hugged her 26-year-old son.

“It’s been a while,” Nancy Swanson said. “That’s a tough one because I’m a hugger, I would hug everybody. That’s been real hard especially when you don’t even think you can hug your own child. But I understand. Maybe November.”

“He knows his body is his livelihood. He knows he needs to stay healthy. He’s doing what he can to limit exposure to anybody,” she said.

When Nancy cooked for the July Fourth holiday, she wrapped some and took it to Dansby’s house, delivered it like the world’s most devoted DoorDash, a Swanson’s Hungry-Man dinner, literally. The Braves had resumed training by then, and her son was especially sensitive about close contact. He picked up the food outside his door. It wasn’t the only meal his mother would pack up for him that month.

Meat loaf – the secret ingredient to a hot start.

No doubt, the fact that Swanson hit the ground at full speed following baseball’s long shutdown and the rushed summer camp also has been because of the way he adapted these past four months. There’s a family element here, too.

When he returned home after the Braves shut down spring training in mid-March, Swanson wasted little time cobbling together his own training regimen. The weight work he could do at his own home. But keeping his swing sharpened was proving difficult.

So, his father, Cooter Swanson, set to work. Once the hub of family activity as all three kids cut their teeth on baseball and softball, the batting cage in the Swanson back yard had fallen into disrepair. Time for some major home improvement.

“I called him, and said, OK, I’m going to buy a new net and an L-screen. I’ll get the cage fixed up,” Cooter said.

“I got the cage set up so he would come over three or four days a week, and I would throw to him. After about a month of that, it gets old. Those guys like to compete. Then a few things started to open up a bit where he could go hit inside and hit with some other people a little bit.”

For a month the Swansons turned back the clock, father throwing BP to son. Don’t believe for a second that the old man doesn’t miss it. This is a family after all that has moved to the rhythms of summer sport, camping out at baseball and softball fields all around the South with their three kids. Now they’re not even a cardboard cutout at Truist Park. At Christmas, Dansby gifts his parents a trip to watch the Braves on the road in the coming season – this year’s to Seattle obviously was scratched. Same with plans to visit Truist Park a dozen or so times. So, Cooter appreciated any kind of shared baseball experience he could get, even if that meant taking the arm out of mothballs to throw to his son, now an established major leaguer.

“It did bring back good memories, except he hits it a lot harder than he did back then,” Cooter said. “I’m glad I got a new L-screen.”

It didn’t seem to catch dad at all by surprise then when Dansby turned around a 98-mph fastball by Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow for a 424-foot homer to straightaway center in an otherwise forgettable game for the Braves on Monday.

“He’s worked really, really hard,” Cooter said. “I’m not saying nobody else did. He’s just a very thoughtful person who has to understand why things work the way they work and how they need to happen. He’s evolved, and I think he’s going to keep evolving. I think he understands now what he’s trying to do.”

So, then, to summarize, it would seem that at least one man’s secret to raking during a pandemic is based on some pretty obvious fundamentals: Discipline; commitment to a strict course of trying to stay at arm’s length from the virus. And throw in a kind of inner peace and strength that for Swanson has been hard-won since his ballyhooed trade to the Braves in December 2015.

As Swanson spoke recently about how he is going about his business, he displayed just how little room a serious-minded man has for nonsense: “I’ve been really good about getting on a good routine before I even get to the park to kind of set myself up to conquer the day. It’s always been a big piece for me to take care of myself mentally, spiritually, emotionally – all those things.”

When the Braves called up Swanson late in the 2016 season and he hit .302 in 38 games, the stage was set for almost farcical expectation. Before his time, the hometown shortstop was elevated to the position of a billboard beacon for the Braves. His likeness was everywhere. Then 23, no way he was ready for all that.

What followed were some seismic ups and downs, inconsistencies that also were fed by a rash of injuries. Through it all, his career batting average has hovered just under .250.

“We bring these guys up and want them to be a finished product; it doesn’t work that way,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

“The longer (Swanson) plays and the more he learns the league, himself and about hitting, the more at-bats he gets, the better he’s going to be. He can turn around anyone’s fastball. He’s becoming a very confident, dangerous hitter,” Snitker added.

Healthy now of body and mind, Swanson has had at least one hit in each of the first seven games of this season and been a force in the lower reaches of the Braves’ lineup.

Those who know him best will tell you that he is in the perfect place in a most imperfect time to succeed.

“He really is in tune with who he is and what he’s here for,” his father said.

“I think for the first two or three years it was a real struggle for him trying to be what he thought he was supposed to be here. The whole circumstance of him getting traded and coming home, all that stuff was pretty hard on him. It took a toll on him. He told me the other day that, ‘It’s been so good, I’m just able to be myself.’ I can see it in his face.”

Along the way, Swanson also has shown the spiritual side that has served him well.

“That’s what we know and that’s where all the peace comes from,” his mother said. “He knows that God gives you all the things you need to do what he wants you to do. You keep trying to find that part, and I think that he’s there. He’s at peace with what he’s doing. Plus, he works real hard.”

Certainly that deserves a hug from her boy, right?