CLEVELAND: Nick Swisher admitted the Indians tugged at his Ohio State heartstrings.
Their courting of the Columbus-born and OSU-bred right fielder from the New York Yankees reached new free-agency heights for the Tribe. For its presentation on the day of Swisher’s visit last month, it called on Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, Thad Matta and baseball coach Greg Beals to help make its pitch.
But for Swisher’s wife JoAnna Garcia, the key was the miniature Indians Swisher jersey that she now has sitting at home on a teddy bear. The Swishers are expecting their first child in May as she takes a break from her acting career, most recently starring in the NBC comedy Animal Practice.
“I told [General Manager] Chris Antonetti, ‘I don’t understand why you guys are going back and forth so much. The baby Swisher jersey sealed the deal for me,’ ” JoAnna said Thursday at a news conference to announce her husband’s signing. “I’m totally blown away by it. It was very sweet.”
The tiny jersey was the brainchild of new Indians manager Terry Francona, although he said he couldn’t have pulled it off alone.
“I’ll take a little credit, but the clubhouse guys worked hard to make it happen,” Francona said. “We wanted to make sure she was included. It was really obvious they came as a team.”
Francona thought the gesture would convey the family atmosphere in the Indians organization. But he also desperately wanted Swisher, who signed a four-year, $56 million contract with a fifth-year vesting option that could make it worth $70 million.
With the Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox and Yankees, Swisher was one of three American Leaguers to hit at least 20 home runs in the past eight seasons. The Indians had traded impending free-agent right fielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Cincinnati Reds in a three-team deal on Dec. 11.
So Antonetti spearheaded a full-court press that would make Ohio State basketball coach Matta proud.
Antonetti had seen Swisher respond to the playing of Hang on Sloopy with OH-IO arms when he came to Cleveland with an opposing team. He knew Swisher had donated $500,000 for an all-turf playing surface at Bill Davis Stadium, which resulted in Ohio State’s recent dedication of Nick Swisher Field.
So Bart Swain, the Indians’ director of baseball information and their self-proclaimed “Mr. Ohio State,” set up time with Matta, Beals and football coach Meyer to record sales pitches to Swisher. Four or five days before the Swisher visit, Swain went to Columbus for the video shoot, assisted by OSU’s facilities staff.
Swain contacted Tressel and invited him to lunch at the Terrace Club with the Swishers, former OSU cornerback Dustin Fox, now on radio on Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan, and Ivan Schwarz, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.
The entire day was choreographed. When the Swishers arrived at Progressive Field, they were taken first to the family room, where the baby Swisher jersey was waiting. Before lunch, Swisher was encouraged to walk onto the field, where he was surprised with the video.
“The mantra they played for me on the scoreboard, I was like, ‘This is unbelievable. What is going on here, man?’ ” Swisher said. “They kind of tricked me. They said, ‘Swish, why don’t you walk out on the field.’ Then it was, ‘Now batting, No. 33…’ ”
The Swishers’ visit culminated with dinner at Lola, Michael Symon’s restaurant on East Fourth Street. Among those in the group were Francona, president Mark Shapiro and his wife Lissa, Antonetti and his wife Sarah, and bullpen coach Kevin Cash, who knows JoAnna from Tampa, Fla., where she was born and raised.
“The food was good, but nobody cared,” Francona said. “[Swisher] was up out of his chair mimicking a swing once. It was obvious he was comfortable.
“I thought we did a good job. I think part of the reason it came across was because it was legit. The stuff with Tressel, that was kind of cool, I even enjoyed that. The dinner part, that was us being us. We didn’t have to fake it. We went out and had fun.”
Still, the Swishers had more free-agent visits to make.
“The hard part for me was letting him go,” Francona said. “I felt good when he left, though. I thought we did everything in our power.”
Francona didn’t know then that the Swishers had been excited about coming to Cleveland before they arrived, JoAnna said. They showed how they felt with the announcement they are donating $400,000 to Cleveland Indians Charities. They will continue their work with their Swish’s Wishes foundation for children with life-threatening illnesses.
“Terry Francona, speaking to Chris during the winter meetings, you could feel the warmth and the vibe,” JoAnna said. “That was what drove us more than anything. Around every corner they made it feel like home.
“There was a lot to consider, but this felt right. To have the stars align and the business part work out with the heart and the head, it was a really special moment for us.”
With their all-out Buckeye blitz, the Indians landed the biggest free agent in their history, luring a star to what was thought to be a baseball wasteland.
On Thursday, the ever-beaming Swisher crowed, “Have you ever seen these guys recruit?” He chuckled over the fact that Bob Todd, his baseball coach at Ohio State, never expected him to be sitting at the microphone at such a big press conference.
“I don’t think he thought I’d end up where I am, period,” Swisher said.
When it comes to Swisher and the Indians, neither did most of America. But Antonetti knew scarlet and gray blood runs deep. Francona provided the perfect personal touch, even though the mini-Swisher jersey does need an alteration or two.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. 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.