‘It’s fun’: Before games, Braves players share a love of crossword puzzles

Kyle Wright and Dansby Swanson are among the Braves passionate about crossword puzzles. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Kyle Wright and Dansby Swanson are among the Braves passionate about crossword puzzles. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

You walk into the Braves’ clubhouse on the road about three hours before that day’s game. Some players are at their lockers, some are off doing something else. And then you begin to notice a familiar theme.

You see Dansby Swanson grab a piece of paper and a pen, then mosey over to a table in the middle of the clubhouse. You then spot Kyle Wright, with his own piece of paper and pen, do the same. Suddenly, there are three or four guys at the table. They might stay there, but sometimes they head into the kitchen area to gather and put those pens to paper, and their brains to work.

They are doing crossword puzzles.

“It’s fun,” Swanson said. “It really is.”

“It’s simple and almost stupid,” Wright said to preface what he is about to say, “but it’s just kind of a sense of accomplishment.”

“It’s a challenge,” Michael Harris said. “I like a challenge.”

The professional athletes – the ones with the strength to hit baseballs 450 feet and throw them at least 95 mph – are intent on finding the answers to “10-Across” or “6-Down” in the peaceful moments before they continue studying the opposing pitchers and hitters. It serves as a calm start to the day, a prelude to the pressure-filled spots and tense moments that will come later that day or night.

The Braves’ players do crossword puzzles at home and on the road. In visiting clubhouses, they might sit on a couch with a coffee table in front, or at a bigger table with chairs around it. They may even head into the kitchen area and use the tables there. It depends on the setup of a particular visiting clubhouse.

“It’s like your own ‘me’ time,” Swanson said. “It’s just a good way to keep your brain activated and on, and not like just sit there on your phone watching whatever stupid videos are online.”

The lineage for crossword puzzles in the Braves’ clubhouse, at least in recent years, can be traced to Tyler Flowers, the former catcher who is a special assistant in major-league operations for the Braves. In 2018, Wright’s first spring training, he always saw Flowers doing crossword puzzles. “He was crazy smart, and he would crush them in five, 10 minutes,” Wright said. “It would take me forever.” That’s when Wright got into them, and it’s why he takes credit for their prevalence in the clubhouse these days.

“It's like your own ‘me' time. It's just a good way to keep your brain activated and on, and not like just sit there on your phone watching whatever stupid videos are online."

- Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, on doing crossword puzzles

But Swanson, Wright said, deserves credit for their increased popularity among the players. “It’s just kind of spread like wildfire,” Wright said. Now the Braves have a solid squad of guys who like to hammer out the crossword puzzles. Among that group: Wright, Swanson, Matt Olson, Max Fried, Travis d’Arnaud, Vaughn Grissom and Harris. Wright said Collin McHugh joins them every now and then, “but I think they’re a little bit too easy for him because he crushes them.”

Swanson said some of his teammates – including d’Arnaud, A.J. Minter, Austin Riley and Mike Ford (when he was with the big-league team) – like Sudoku puzzles. They work the brain in a similar way.

Crossword puzzles, which vary in difficulty, give players an outlet during a long and grueling season. Baseball is such a mental grind, and the crosswords provide players a way to have fun while relaxing.

“All we do is play sports and be athletes, so to do something different like challenge the brain and feel a sense of accomplishment different from the result on the field, I think, is just fun,” Wright said. “We’re here, we’re at the field for most of the day, too, so to do something besides baseball, I think that’s where it is. It’s just something different. It kind of makes the day a little bit different because it’s a new (puzzle) each day. It just kind of adds a little bit of variety to our normal pretty-much-same routine every day. Ultimately, it’s just fun and it’s different.”

“It just kind of became a thing where, like, guys just started doing them together,” said Swanson, who began doing crosswords consistently this season. “Not even necessarily in terms like ‘together,’ as in like we’re working on them together, we just sit down together and do them. We don’t really share answers because we’re all trying to do our own. But, yeah, it’s definitely kind of become kind of a part of a bunch of our routines, just to kind of start the day when we get here.”

After the Braves called up Harris in late May, Harris noticed something. He didn’t know why everybody was grabbing a piece of paper and going into the kitchen and finishing it. As it turned out, his teammates were doing crossword puzzles.

Harris figured he might get into them one day. Well, in the series in Miami earlier this month, he sat down and did a crossword puzzle for the first time in his life. Swanson helped Harris, who eventually completed the puzzle, work through it.

“It’s good to get your brain working, moving on other things,” Harris said. “It just takes away from the game or how your day’s been or something. It’s good. It’s good to do every day.”

At home, Jeff Pink, a member of the Braves’ major-league clubhouse staff, prints out the crossword puzzles. On the road, one of the visiting clubhouse staffers does it.

Sometimes there are multiple options, though players seem to prefer the USA Today version to others. For example, the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field in New York often has five or six options – and a few are unreasonably difficult. Wright often will grab one and, if it looks impossible, put it down and say, “Nah, we’ll just throw this one away, try again tomorrow.”

“I think (the USA Today crossword puzzles) are most of our speed because they’re doable,” Wright said. “A lot of the other ones – like if you do New York Times, none of us have a chance. But USA Today, they do a good job of keeping it pretty up to date so it’s more relevant, I think, for someone who just wants to try it. New York Times and there’s a couple other ones that I have no shot.”

Wright and Swanson both went to Vanderbilt, a prestigious academic university. Is it a coincidence that the two guys from that school are the ones leading this brain exercise?

“It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think,” Wright said. “Probably the two smartest guys in the locker room.”

“I don’t really believe in coincidences, so no,” Swanson added.

The Braves do not necessarily race one another to see who can complete the puzzles the fastest, but there’s some competitive spirit involved. “I think whenever there’s some tough ones, you can kind of hold it against another guy’s head,” Wright said. When guys struggle, their teammates try to help them out. Filling out crossword puzzles seems to be popular around baseball, Wright said, but the Braves are probably more collectively interested in it than other clubs.

These days, many people default to using their phones when they have a couple of free minutes. They find themselves on social media or elsewhere on the internet. The Braves’ love for crossword puzzles feels like a blast from the past.

After the Braves finish a game, they head into the clubhouse, shower and dress to leave. They all leave at their own pace and go home or back to the hotel.

When they arrive the next day, the latest crossword puzzle will be waiting for them.

“It’s just a good way to kind of get your brain to work and turn on in a different way that’s not baseball-related,” Swanson said. “It’s almost like your own time. You’re just kind of like at the field, but you’re not fully 100% just all baseball. It’s like, ‘I’m going to sit down, I’m going to eat, I’m going to enjoy a coffee and do this crossword.’

“Once that’s done, my day gets going.”