Tribe calls on Francona, Tressel to secure Swisher
Switch-hitting outfielder is Ohio native; praises Indians' recruiting efforts
The Indians had provided Nick Swisher and his wife, actress JoAnna Garcia, a tour of Progressive Field. They had displayed a video on the scoreboard in which a cast of Ohio State coaches offered testimonials as to why the free-agent slugger should return to his home state.
However, one thing -- rather, one person -- was missing.
As Swisher sat down for lunch on Dec. 18 in the ritzy Terrace Club that hovers over the left-field foul line, Garcia, completely unaware of what the team had in store, muttered to her Buckeye-born-and-bred husband: "You know who we haven't seen in a while? Coach [Jim] Tressel. I wonder where he is."
As scripted and preposterous as it sounds, Swisher contends that he and his wife turned around and -- voila -- there stood Tressel, the former Ohio State football coach who directed Swisher's alma mater to a BCS National Championship exactly 10 years to the date that the Indians introduced their new right fielder.
"You talk about perfect timing," Tressel told MLB.com. "That was kind of neat the way it worked out."
Following a 68-94 campaign, the Indians didn't appear to have a whole lot to offer prospective free agents seeking a new home this winter. Then they persuaded Terry Francona to sign on as skipper, a coup that has given the organization instant credibility across the league. His presence played a key role in attracting Swisher, who signed the richest free-agent contract in franchise history, to Cleveland.
"This guy right here," Swisher said of Francona at his introductory news conference on Thursday, "is a great recruiter. He really is."
To reel in one of the biggest fish in the free-agent waters to Lake Erie, however, the Indians had to enlist other proven recruiters. That's where Tressel and a band of other Buckeyes coaches played a part.
Indians director of baseball information Bart Swain ventured down I-71 to Columbus to gather video of OSU basketball coach Thad Matta, football coach Urban Meyer and baseball coach Greg Beals, who all tugged at Swisher's soft spot for scarlet and gray. Swisher was born in Columbus and split his childhood between the state capital and Parkersburg, W.Va.
Swain then called Tressel, now vice president of strategic engagement at the University of Akron, to see if he was free for lunch on the day of Swisher's visit. Tressel welcomed the opportunity, as he and Swisher have kept in touch for a decade, and their wives have also become friends.
"The respect that I have for that man is top-notch," Swisher said. "No one represents The Ohio State University better than that man did."
So exactly who supplied the best recruiting pitch to help steer Swisher to his decision? Even Tressel says Francona's pull cannot be downplayed.
"Terry Francona was really impressive to me," Tressel said. "I talked back and forth with Swish that, hey, when you have a skipper like that, that's a real positive and it's one more thing in the plus column."
That was about the extent of the baseball banter between Swisher and Tressel. The conservative coach didn't need to convince his old friend that the Indians will have a more balanced lineup or deeper pitching staff. His mere presence reminded Swisher why he was virtually set on the Indians the minute he arrived at Progressive Field.
Last season, Swisher's Yankees made their lone trip to Cleveland in late August. In the first contest of the series, Swisher belted a go-ahead home run in the seventh inning. One frame later, he joined the fans in right field in the ballpark's daily rendition of "Hang On Sloopy," motioning O-H-I-O with his arms. Indians general manager Chris Antonetti noted that fans "will certainly appreciate that more [with Swisher] in the home team uniform."
"It's so crazy, that Ohio State bond that I've had," Swisher said. "There are so many people across the country that bleed scarlet and gray. To be back here in my home state ... it's going to be so exciting to come back."
As the scheduling gods would have it, when Swisher trots out to his position for the Indians' home opener on April 8, he'll do so with his former Yankees teammates in the visiting dugout. Swisher, always emitting a radiant smile and a dose of laughter, reached a new level of giddiness upon discussing the scenario.
"How exciting is that?" he shouted.
Only Ohio State and Ohio University pursued Swisher to play college baseball. It was likely a bit easier for then-Buckeyes baseball coach Bob Todd to land Swisher than it was for the Indians to lock in the 32-year-old to a four-year deal with a vesting option for a fifth season, all of which could pay the man upwards of $70 million.
Swisher said he met with other teams following his visit to Cleveland. No alternative, though, could offer the scarlet and gray on top of the green.
For as stunned as Swisher and Garcia were to dine with Tressel, and as shocked as many were when the Indians added the established Francona, few could be surprised by the recruiting efforts of some of sports' most tactical salesmen, who secured one of the most significant free-agent signings in team history.
"The last thing I said to him that day as we were leaving," Tressel said, "was, 'Swish, you know I love you no matter where you go, but you know I want you with the Tribe.'"