CLEVELAND (CBSNewYork/AP) — Nick Swisher’s smile was broader and brighter than the Chief Wahoo logo on his new cap.
He was back in Ohio, back at home, back where it all started.
“This is the place for me to be,” he said. “All roads led to Cleveland.”
He hopes some of that Bronx magic will follow him to the Buckeye State.
Swisher, who spent the past four seasons wearing Yankees pinstripes, was introduced Thursday by the Indians, who managed to land the free-agent outfielder by playing to his deep Buckeye roots and giving him a four-year, $56 million contract that includes a vesting option for a fifth year.
“I had an awesome time,” Swisher said of his time in New York. “To be part of an organization like that with the winning tradition, it rubs off on you and hopefully that can be something that I can bring over here and maybe be more of a leader in the clubhouse than I ever have been before.”
With New York concerned about avoiding the luxury tax in the future, the Yankees did not go after Swisher after he turned down a qualifying offer from them. A fan favorite, Swisher complained publicly in October of the treatment he received during the 2012 postseason.
Not long after passing a physical and signing the richest free-agent deal in Indians history, Swisher was handed a new No. 33 jersey.
He might wear it to bed.
From the moment he walked into the media room at Progressive Field with a large group of family and friends, Swisher couldn’t stop smiling and laughing.
“I can’t help it, man,” he said, shaking his head. “This is unbelievable. I never in a million years thought I would be in this position. As a little kid you dream about playing in the big leagues, but I don’t know if I ever dreamed about being in a situation like this. It’s an amazing time for my family and I.”
The 32-year-old Swisher, who was born in Columbus and attended Ohio State, didn’t try to hide his enthusiasm in joining the Indians, who convinced him that he could help their lineup and maybe get them back to the days when they were contending for AL Central titles on a yearly basis.
After trading Shin-Soo Choo last month, the Indians were desperate for a proven right fielder. They pursued Shane Victorino at the winter meetings, but after he signed with Boston, the Indians turned their attention to Swisher, who batted .272 with 24 homers and 93 RBIs last season — his fourth with the New York Yankees.
A switch-hitter, Swisher provides power and versatility to new manager Terry Francona’s lineup. The Indians only hit 136 homers last season, second-fewest in the AL.
“This is a big deal,” said Francona. “I don’t think there is any reason for us to be cool about this. I can’t tell you how excited I am to have him. There were a lot of other teams that wanted this guy real bad. This is a big day for us.”
Swisher acknowledged that when free agency began, he didn’t expect the Indians to be one of the teams interested him. He had several multiyear offers from others, but the Indians were the most aggressive suitor and they used his Ohio connections to convince him to come to Cleveland.
When Swisher and his wife, actress JoAnna Garcia Swisher, visited Progressive Field last month, the club rolled out the scarlet-and-gray — Ohio State’s colors — carpet to impress them. Upon arrival, they were presented with a tiny Indians jersey, sized for a baby. The couple is expecting their first child, a girl, in May.
“That definitely helped,” Swisher said.
The Indians took Swisher on the field and had him walk to home plate. As he made his way onto the diamond, the public address system announced his name and the Indians played recorded messages from current Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer as well as Buckeyes basketball coach Thad Matta on the giant scoreboard, urging him to come “home.”
Afterward, the couple went to lunch and the Indians surprised Swisher by bringing in former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel.
The recruiting push overwhelmed Swisher.
“We were walking out of here like, ‘Man, these guys did it right,'” Swisher said. “They tugged on the right strings. They went Ohio State on me. They brought my idol Jim Tressel back. They did it right. Even with all the other places I visited, there was nothing compared to this. I have never felt love like this before.”
Francona’s arrival in Cleveland also had an impact on Swisher, whose father, Steve, managed the two-time World Series winner in the minor leagues. Swisher said Francona’s hiring played a major role in him signing with the Indians.
“You don’t bring a guy like this over here if you don’t plan on winning,” Swisher said. “To have that captain of your ship, a proven guy who knows how to manage the game the right way, that made it an easier decision for me.”
An All-Star in 2010, Swisher is just one of three American Leaguers to hit at least 20 homers in each of the last eight seasons.
Swisher’s signing is among many offseason moves by general manager Chris Antonetti as he tries to rebuild a team which collapsed in August — going 5-24 — and finished 68-94. In addition to hiring Francona, the Indians signed free agent first baseman Mark Reynolds and acquired center fielder Drew Stubbs and prized pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in a three-team trade.
Swisher believes the Indians can win, and as he left the podium, he let everyone know it.
“Roll Tribe,” he yelled, pumping his fist.
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