Swanson on using basketball as therapy, and his improved season

Published 10:44 pm Friday, May 24, 2019

ATLANTA —It was a December night in 2015 when a former student-athlete entered the basketball court at Vanderbilt University and began putting up shots seemingly with no end in sight. The athlete wasn’t on the basketball team, however, it was Dansby Swanson- the 2014 College World Series MVP and 2015 MLB No. 1 overall draft pick.

“That’s kind of like how it’s been my whole life,” Swanson said. “It’s the sport that I honestly love the most. It’s always been something that’s been able to give me relief. It’s like my meditation almost of just going to shoot and being in the gym.”

Before emerging as the biggest star in college baseball, Swanson was a standout student and two-sport star at Marietta High School. During his senior year, he shot 44 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 14 points per game for the Blue Devils. Swanson, dubbed with the nickname “Three-point Swanson,” finished his three-year varsity career in the top five in school history for the most three-point field goals made with 165 treys.

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“As many throws and swings that he would take in baseball, he’d do in basketball,” Matt Lyons, the Marietta boys head basketball coach from 2009-18, said of the 6-foot-1 Swanson. “He was the guy who was going to shoot before practice, stay to shoot after practice, do all of the intangibles outside of what you ask for in practice. He’s a gym rat. I’ve joked with people that if he was 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, then he’d have a tough decision to make between baseball and basketball because he was that talented as a basketball player.”

In his senior season, Marietta made a run into the state playoffs. The school’s support began to rise around the team as students Jalen McLaurin and Logan Marshall even created a music video for the “Marietta Basketball Anthem,” which has since garnered over 19,000 views online.

The team was severely undersized with 6-foot-3 Brandon Martin playing as the squad’s lone big man coming down the stretch. The team’s go-to scorer Damon Mitchell injured his hand during the regional tournament, and was unable to play for the rest of the season.

Anthony Jennings was another frontcourt starter, but had to end his season early in preparation for football season the following fall. Later that spring, Jennings won the Atlanta Elite 11 regional MVP, which is a competition amongst the best high school quarterbacks in the country. The performance gave Jennings the exposure to become a four-star prospect, and he eventually became the starting quarterback at LSU during the 2014 season.

“The kids had been playing with each other for a long time. They had a good camaraderie, didn’t have any problems,” Lyons said. “When you came to practice, you didn’t have to worry about people not showing up, people being late, they bought into it. The toughness of that crew, even all the way to the end. We fought hard until the end … even with Damon going down if Anthony doesn’t go out, I still think we have one of the best chances in the state. You have two high-Div. I level athletes on the floor with a great group of other kids that are tough as well and hardnosed. We have a chance at it.”

Marietta’s season, and Swanson’s basketball career, ultimately ended at Berkmar High School, however, marking the end of an era in the program.

“Man, I was so sad,” Swanson said. “I remember crying when I was walking off of the court because I knew that was the last true competitive game that I would play in basketball, especially as a part of a team. It was sad. I love the sport, I wish I could play, but I have a little bit of a different calling.”

The athlete’s calling brought him back to Cobb County five years later, this time in a 20-minute drive from Marietta High School to SunTrust Park as the starting shortstop of the Atlanta Braves. Spectators from the upper deck chant “let’s go Dans-by, let’s go!” after the hometown hero settles in the batter’s box, walking up to a playlist featuring Atlanta rappers Jeezy, Big Boi and the late Shawty Lo. In his locker hangs a navy blue Marietta baseball hoodie, and young fans scream his name as loud as any other player’s in hopes to catch his attention if even for just a split moment. Fans pour into the stadium dawning his No. 7 jersey, including Lyons’ sons, the oldest wearing the number himself in his baseball league, urging his father to let Swanson know whenever he completed an exciting play on the field.

While Dansby appreciates the hometown love he receives 81 times a season, he locks in during batting practice. 

In the 2019 season, Swanson has emerged as one of the most improved batters in the majors. Entering Saturday, he’s hit 35 RBIs while carrying a .262 batting average to go with 10 home runs. Philadelphia Phillies superstar Bryce Harper entered Saturday with a .235 batting average, nine home runs and 32 RBIs, just for reference.

He’s tied for third in the majors among all shortstops for owning the most RBIs, only two shy of leading the category by himself.

Swanson’s winning track record and highlight-worthy defensive plays that he’s made on the field are two of the biggest reasons why he was so highly-touted as a prospect, but his inconsistent performance at the plate was where he received the most criticism in his first season-and-a-month as a major leaguer.

It was evident from the first opposite field bomb of his career that he hit in spring training that this season would different for Swanson at the plate. As highlighted by mlb.com’s Mike Petriello, his stance is now more open and his hands are lower as well.

“The biggest thing I think is swinging at the good pitches,” Swanson said. “Being able to swing at strikes and take balls allows you the opportunity to be successful. I’ve also started to learn more about myself as a hitter, as a player and how to apply that each and every day. When you do that consistently at-bat after at-bat, good things are bound to happen.”

On Wednesday night, the Braves shortstop launched a ball in the upper-right corner of the strike zone into left-center field off of San Francisco Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija at the top of the second inning for a three-run blast. Freddie Freeman followed Swanson up with a solo homer into right center. In the seventh inning, Austin Riley, who was called up last week, crushed a three-run home run over the left field wall. It was the fourth home run of the young star’s career. He hit another deep ball in San Francisco on Thursday.

Riley is the latest big name to get called up in the farm system, following the likes of Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuña Jr., Max Fried and Mike Soroka. In his final 18 games in the minors, Riley hit 13 home runs to go along with a .391 batting average. Needless to say, his scorching hot performance in Triple-A came with high expectations in the majors.

“I always tell them the same thing, and that’s just to be them,” Swanson, who’s 25-years-old, said. “You’re here for a reason, and you’re all gifted with special abilities. I think the special thing about this team is that we have an environment that allows guys to do that. It’s a loving environment, it’s one that really is like family so when these kids, I said kids, I’m still young too, when these folks come up here, they’re able to stay in that groove and I think that’s what you’re seeing with [Riley] right now.”

The Braves have been 8-2 since Riley’s call up on May 15 entering Saturday. There are many different lineup combinations for reigning National League Manager of the Year Brian Snitker to draw from, currently inserting Swanson behind the speedy-and-powerful Acuña Jr. at leadoff. Calling up Riley also gives 2015 American League MVP Josh Donaldson more off days to preserve his body going down the stretch.

When it comes to facing the reigning NL East champions on offense, opposing teams have to pick their poison, even with the revamped energetic hometown kid named Swanson.