Sport

Moneyball’s Nick Swisher: ‘Most players were signing cards, we were signing books’

The 2002 Major League Baseball draft saw a healthy crop of future All-Stars – such as Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder – pen their first professional contracts. It also produced a misguided selection widely regarded as one of the all-time biggest busts, when the Pittsburgh Pirates took pitcher Bryan Bullington with the No 1 overall pick.

But the 2002 class will forever be associated with a book that sent ripples around the sporting world. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball told the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his ground-breaking, analytics-based approach to recruitment during the 2002 draft and MLB season. It was turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt in 2011 and continues to shape thinking across many sports.

And 20 years on, the 16th pick of the Moneyball draft still vividly remembers how Beane, and Lewis’ book, launched his career.

“This was before all the rankings and the systems and the predictors,” says Nick Swisher, the former A’s and New York Yankees outfielder and first-baseman. “A bunch of scouts would come to watch you play – ‘Can the kid play or can you not?’ So I’m glad a bunch of those guys thought I could actually play. The night before [the draft], I received a phone call from Billy Beane telling me, ‘Swish, if you’re there at 16, we’re taking you.’ I got goosebumps.

“Billy Beane was like a father figure to me. I can’t thank him enough for that opportunity. In the grand scheme of things, just to be part of that book and to be part of analytics before analytics were even analytics, that was pretty badass.”

Swisher featured prominently in sections of Moneyball owing to the fact he was a rare example of a player on whom Beane – who prized on-base percentage above intangibles and other statistics more valued by baseball’s conventional wisdom of the time – and the A’s traditional scouts agreed.

“People have always told me that they broke the mould when they made me,” says Swisher, who will be taking part in MLB’s new Home Run Derby X event in London on 9 July. “My personality and my outgoingness is very new-school, but the way I play the game is very blue collar. I didn’t have the Mike Trout talent. I didn’t have the Aaron Judge power. I didn’t have the Yasiel Puig arm. Just because you don’t have all those skills doesn’t mean that you don’t provide value and you’re not able to compete at a high level.

“It was pretty cool to be known as a guy the new-school, analytics scouts were like, ‘Wow, this guy’s numbers really match up.’ I think that was because I was a patient hitter with power. That’s exactly the type of hitter you’re looking for in today’s game. You want someone that gets on base and someone that provides thump, that can put the ball in the seats.”

Although no one could have predicted the cross-over success and widespread influence Moneyball would achieve, Swisher was aware of the project in its infancy, having been interviewed by Lewis alongside fellow rookies while the author’s wife, former MTV reporter Tabitha Soren, snapped photographs. And it wasn’t long after the book’s 2003 release, while he was still playing in the minor leagues, that Swisher began to appreciate the scale of Moneyball’s reach.

“The one time that really stuck out to me was when we were in the minor leagues,” he says. “Most people were signing baseball cards. We were signing books. That was when it really clicked – ‘Wow, this book is very influential.’ It gave such a different perspective of the game. It was kind of the first time that people really got that inside look on how organisations that don’t have all the money have to find talent.”

Swisher spent three seasons with the A’s, but the greatest triumph of his career came after he signed for the Yankees in 2008. Originally brought in to be the starting first-baseman, he found himself rooted to the bench after the Yankees acquired Mark Teixeira.

Displaying the grit and endeavour that once so impressing the old-school A’s scouts, Swisher fought his way into the starting line-up at right-field early in the season and was a key contributor as the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies in six games to win the 2009 World Series.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” he says. “Having the opportunity to play for an iconic organisation like the New York Yankees, you just knew that once you got your opportunity, you better shine, because you know how many people are right there behind you trying to take your spot.

“The first person I ran into [at the World Series celebrations] was Jay-Z. I’m just like, ‘You know this is gonna be a big party!’ But I’ll never forget, we were doing the ticker-tape parade. We were driving down and there are people 10, 20, 30, 40 storeys up, launching paper out the window. It looked like it was snowing in November. It was one of the more magical things that my eyes have ever seen and something that I hold near and dear to my heart.

“It is the God’s honest truth: there’s no better place to win than New York City, baby. I can promise you that.”

Swisher became an All-Star the next season, following in the footsteps of his father, Steve, who played for the Chicago Cubs in the 1970s. Nick Swisher retired in 2017 after a brief second spell with the Yankees, but he will don the famous pin stripes once more for the Home Run Derby X.

“My guys have been all over me,” he says of his preparation for the event that will see teams comprised of former MLB stars, rookies, women’s softball players and “wildcard” celebrities represent the Yankees, Cubs, Boston Red Sox and LA Dodgers. “They’re like, ‘You’ve got to start working out. You’re wearing the Yankee logo. You’ve got to make sure that you post.’ So I’ve been going down to the ballpark. We started hitting a couple times this week, just to start getting back at it.”

Twenty years after it all began, Swisher is able to take stock and reflect on a full and storied baseball career. The only minor regret? That he didn’t feature in the Moneyball movie, which focused on the A’s trades and on-field tactics rather than their prized draft acquisition.

“We all knew it when Brad Pitt was gonna play Billy Beane,” Swisher laughs. “We knew we were out. It wasn’t gonna be us, man.

“If you haven’t seen the movie, see the movie. But if you haven’t read the book, read the book.”