CLEVELAND: When Nick Swisher called his father to pass along the Indians’ invitation to throw out a first pitch on Opening Day, Steve Swisher thought his fun-loving son was kidding.
And the elder Swisher considered the opportunity so special, he was not in the mood for any leg-pulling.
“I said, ‘Nick, don’t be joking around. It’s a pretty strong idea,’ ” Steve Swisher said Monday before the Indians fell 11-6 to the New York Yankees at Progressive Field. “I’m a very proud individual and to have an opportunity to do something like this, it’s a great feeling.”
Steve Swisher spent nine years catching in the majors and parts of the next 20 as a coach, including four years managing in the Indians farm system from 1984-88.
The Indians’ home opener was as festive as ever, even if some longed for a second consecutive appearance from the Budweiser Clydesdales. A sellout crowd of 41,567 –— including one who ran into center field in the ninth inning and jubilantly danced before being handcuffed — reveled in the 68 degree game-time temperature.
It was notable for two who traded places. Designated hitter Travis Hafner returned as part of the Yankees after spending 10 years with the Indians, and he hit a three-run homer and drove in four runs. Making his Cleveland debut was first baseman Nick Swisher, the Columbus native and Ohio State product who spent the previous four years with the Bronx Bombers. He embraced members of the New York media in the clubhouse.
But years from now, 10 fathers and sons who participated in the first-pitch ceremony will talk of none of that. It will be the few pregame minutes they shared that will become one of their favorite stories.
Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar didn’t want to leave any memories to chance, getting a young man (perhaps 23-year-old son Marcus) to snap photos from above the Tribe dugout.
“It was an exciting moment for me,” Michael Brantley said. “I wish we could have got a ‘W’ for him.”
The idea was conceived by the Tribe marketing department. Participating were the Swishers, Tito and manager Terry Francona, Sandy Alomar Sr. and Jr., Mickey and left fielder Michael Brantley and Steve and pitcher Zach McAllister.
Tito Francona, 79, played six of his 15 major-league seasons with the Indians. Alomar Sr., 69, spent nearly 50 years in professional baseball, playing from 1960-78 and coaching from 1979-2009. Steve McAllister, 53, lasted six years in the minor leagues with the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates and is now a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks after stints with three other teams. Mickey Brantley, 51, played in parts of four seasons with the Seattle Mariners and coached in the San Francisco Giants, New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays organizations from 1994-2007.
“It’s like playing catch in the backyard again,” Nick Swisher said of his father. “He’s been out of the game a little bit now, back in West Virginia with his hitting school. To be able to bring him back into the world for one day is an amazing thing. I want to thank [the organization] for letting me have this opportunity because [it] doesn’t come around very often.”
Steve Swisher knew Mickey Brantley from his playing days and met Tito Francona during spring training. But he sat in the clubhouse before the game, eager for his big moment with his son.
“There are some things in life you can’t put into words,” Steve Swisher said. “When I walk out there, it will be a great emotional feeling for me. Wow, it’s such a long journey, but what a great dream come true.”
Terry Francona said he had been too busy to discuss the ceremony with Tito, who drove in with his wife from New Brighton, Pa. But they don’t have baseball-heavy conversations, anyway.
“Not strategy,” Terry Francona said. “Baseball’s been our whole life, but he was never my coach. Ever. I think he knew I was always paying attention.”
But the younger Francona can tell how much his father loves following his managing career — from his chair.
“When I went to Boston, his whole day, whether it was dinner or golf or whatever, revolved around watching the games,” Terry Francona said. “I thought it was good for him. I think it’s the same thing now. It gives him something to do. I don’t think he’s dying to sit in the stadium. He loves sitting in his chair.”
Francona goes by the nickname Tito, a moniker used by those closest to him. He said he never considered that he might be encroaching on his father.
“I was too little,” he said. “It started when I was hanging around the clubhouse. It was always, ‘Hey, Little Tito, do this.’ Probably didn’t know my name. Little kid that was probably in the way.
“The only time it’s weird is when he’s around, ’cause his head jerks around. I always thought it was pretty cool.”
Monday added another chapter to the “pretty cool” baseball saga of the Franconas, Alomars, Swishers, McAllisters and Brantleys. But this was more than a big home run or a playoff victory. This was a moment that tugged at the heart.
“I don’t know who is more excited, me or him,” Michael Brantley said before the game. “I want to say me. I asked him to do it and as soon as he said yes, the biggest smile came to my face.
“As a kid, you can’t even write this up. I’ll be able to tell my kids about it one day. It’s going to be one of those days I’ll never forget.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.