Tears in his eyes, Dansby Swanson brings hope

The call came at 5:30 p.m. CDT on Tuesday. It was from Luis Salazar, the Mississippi Braves’ manager, though Dansby Swanson didn’t know that until he answered, which he almost didn’t because he didn’t recognize the number. Swanson and teammate Jake Schrader were spending an off-day in their room at the Holiday Inn in Pearl, Miss., watching the bad movie “Battleship” — 34 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — and pondering a run to Red Box.

Having decided to answer his phone, Swanson was informed he should get in his truck and make for Atlanta. While Swanson was listening to Salazar, Schrader was doing as pals do — trying to find out what was what. “Getting called up?” Schrader mouthed. Swanson nodded. “To Triple A?” Swanson shook his head.

And Schrader’s mouth scrunched itself into an “O.”

Not 15 months after being drafted No. 1 overall by Arizona, Swanson had been summoned to the major leagues by a different team, and not just any team — the team he grew up watching. He packed his clothes, retrieved his gear from ballpark across the street and headed east, pausing at Wendy’s for the No. 5 combo. “First time I’ve had Wendy’s in eight months,” Swanson said, but can there be real jubilation without a Son of Baconator?

In the six hours it took him to make it from Mississippi to his parents’ home in Kennesaw, Swanson heard from everybody, thought about everything. He arrived at 2:30 a.m. EDT to find his waiting dad stretched out on the couch — “Like it was prom night,” Swanson said — and the dog barking and his mom waking and crying some more. After a half-hour of Family Time, Swanson went into his old room and tried to sleep, mostly failing.

The morning felt weird. (“How many players sleep in their parents’ home the night before their major-league debut?” he asked.) He got up and headed to work. (“Like the first day of school. Take a picture.”) On the drive downtown, he heard from so many Vanderbilt cronies — the famous David Price checked in — that it became overload. He turned on music. “My personal jam session.”

He arrived at Turner Field, met with bigwigs John Hart and John Coppolella, hung out in the clubhouse and did two rounds of interviews. (He teared up over a question about his parents driving him to travel-ball games.) All this and Swanson’s first big-league game was still 3 1/2 hours away.

Here we, admittedly in a roundabout way, cut to the chase: For all the standard I’m-going-to-the-Show giddiness, this was no generic debut. This was Game 1 for the Face of the New Braves.

Yes, that realization flashed through Swanson’s mind. How could it not? He didn’t ask to be the Face, but if he’s not, why did a dozen cameras whir as he trotted up the dugout steps? “I’m aware of it,” he said of his stature, and then he swatted the notion aside. “I really don’t know what I thought about (on the drive from Pearl). I’m not trying to have expectations. I’m trying to let things happen.”

Not since Jason Heyward hoisted his home run on Opening Day 2010 has this franchise welcomed such a heralded prospect, and Heyward joined a team that included Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Tim Hudson. Swanson is the biggest name acquired in the New Braves’ tear-down-to-build-up, and he’s among the very few reasons to watch a team that has clung to baseball’s worst record like grim death.

It’s unfair to thrust this burden on any rookie’s shoulders, but here it is: If the Braves don’t need Swanson to be great, they can’t afford for him not to be good. “We’re not looking for a savior,” Coppolella said. “We just want him to be the best Dansby. We believe he’ll be a winning player.”

Swanson would line to center in his first at-bat. That the out was cheered lustily showed how starved this audience is for excellence. He’s the new Face, and this can be his place.

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