Monday, March 23, 2015

Interview Part 2: Chad Swanson, Midwest Kid

Chad Swanson dumps Gatorade on Kenosha Twins manager Ron Gardenhire as the team celebrates their 1988 playoff birth. (Photo Provided)
Part 1: Good Pitches | Part 2: Midwest Kid

For Chad Swanson, the transition in June 1987 was a big one.

The Moorhead, Minn.,-native was a minor leaguer on his first assignment: the single-A Kenosha Twins. He was also wearing basically the same uniforms as the big league club he grew up watching on television.

"I was just in awe," Swanson recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days. "People wanting to see you. People were asking for autographs. It was just kind of weird being a Midwest kid and not being used to anything like that.

"Playing in front of 1,500 people was outstanding," Swanson added. "That beat your parents and 30 other fans at a Legion game."

Swanson eventually got settled in and, the next year, that Midwest kid was making The Chicago Tribune for pranking two umpires with a teammate, locking the umpires in their hotel room with nothing but pennies.

Swanson spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from his Minnesota home. He covered his life in baseball from his days as a youth growing up across from the main baseball field in town to his successful tryout for the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome, beating out many others for a shot at the pros.

He also covered his brief career where he saw time at Kenosha and in the high-A California League at Visalia. A pinched nerve in his back, one he tried to hide from the team, ultimately led to the end of his career.
Chad Swanson, left, with Kenosha teammate Pat Bangtson in the Kenosha locker room. The life preserver was a dubious honor bestowed after a blown save. Swanson blew a save this night in a Bangtson start. (Photo Provided)
Swanson signed his free agent contract and he was off on a plane to Milwaukee. The contract, he recalled, reflected his undrafted status.

"I like to say I didn't even get the pen that I signed with," Swanson said.  "There was no bonus money. I just basically got the opportunity to play."

Swanson took that opportunity to 13 appearances that first season, starting in eight of those. He went 4-3, with a 3.93 ERA.

He returned to Kenosha for 1988, getting into 41 games that year, pitching mostly in relief. He picked up six wins, one save, a 2.74 ERA and a $25 fine for the umpire prank.

The prank came as Kenosha late after a game at Springfield at the team's hotel. After going out for cocktails after the game, Swanson and his roommate Pat Bangtson returned to the hotel for the night.

They arrived simultaneous to the umpires, Swanson recalled, everyone getting onto the same elevator. Everyone also went in the same direction to their rooms, the umpires' room came before the Swanson and Bangtson's.

"Without saying a word to each other," Swanson recalled, "we both went to our money bags and grabbed all the pennies we could."

The players returned and they jammed the pennies in. The prank works by forcing the door inward, putting stress on the door latch.
Chad Swanson more recently in a 35-and-over league in Minnesota. (Photo Provided)
"It probably took 20 seconds and we had them locked in," Swanson recalled, "and we were in our rooms."

The way Swanson tells it they almost forgot all about it until they went down for breakfast the next morning. They encountered a sweating maintenance man who recounted the ordeal of getting the door unstuck, though Swanson recalled pushing on the door from the outside would dislodge the pennies.

"The umpires were pretty mad the next day," Swanson recalled.

Word also quickly got around as to who was responsible, Swanson said. Somebody had to fess up. Kenosha manager Ron Gardenhire knew it was Swanson and Bangtson, Swanson recalled.

When word got back to Minnesota, something had to be done. That ended up being a fine. Swanson's portion was $25, a comparably decent sum for someone making what the minor leaguers made. That prank - and others by Swanson and the Kenosha Twins - served as the basis for the Tribune article that July.

Swanson played his 1989 season between Kenosha and single-A Visalia. He got into 30 games for Visalia, spot starting in four. He also got 11 outings at Kenosha. Between them, he had a 2.75 ERA.

It was Visalia again for 1990 and he started out well. He recalled his numbers the first few months were great. Then he pinched a nerve in his back.
Chad Swanson in traction after suffering a pinched nerve in his back in 1990. (Photo Provided)
He tried to keep it between him and the trainer, fearing making the injury known might jeopardize a shot at AA Orlando. As it turned out, it did anyway. He began overcompensating and his numbers suffered anyway.

"I was a different pitcher then," Swanson said. "I wasn't getting guys out regularly."

Noticing his injury immediately was the man who had helped sign Swanson, Twins scouting director Terry Ryan, Swanson recalled. His manager and pitching coach didn't see it.

Ryan was visiting Visalia and saw Swanson pitch. The next night in the bullpen Ryan asked straight out: Was Swanson hurt?

"The guy who sees me throw once a month or once every two months, he knows right away," Swanson said. "He knows when something's different."

By then it was too late. His numbers had gotten away from him. It also left him in traction for a time. He ended the season with a 4.99 ERA, not the ERA a guy who wasn't drafted needs.

The next January, he was released.
Chad Swanson now fixes gloves on the side, calling his business Mitt Mender. Photo is of a Mitt Mender booth. (Photo Provided)
"They just didn't have a spot for me anymore," Swanson said. "The guys that they have money tied up in are going to get every opportunity in the world. They're the ones that have to be pushed through the system. And guys like us, who sign out of tryout camps, we're a dime a dozen."

His playing career over, Swanson returned home to Minnesota. He worked at a sporting goods store and helped manage a bar. More recently, he works as a pattern maker for foundries, a job he said he's learned that has fewer positions nationwide than major league baseball players.

He's also stayed involved in sports. After returning to Minnesota, he returned to coaching his other sport, youth hockey. He'd seen himself as an NHL player at one time, but settled on baseball as the most realistic sport for him to advance in.

His 8th and 9th graders that spring went on to the state championship. On that team, he recalled was Matt Cullen, who's had a long NHL career and is with Nashville in 2015.

He plays in an over-35 baseball league. He's also started his own glove repair and conditioning business called Mitt Mender.

He has two children. He has a son who's in college at North Dakota State. He played baseball when he was younger. He also has a daughter who is 11. She plays basketball and baseball with the boys.

Swanson recalled digging out an old video he has from his playing days. It was of him pitching in a start in Kenosha against Rockford. Kenosha and Swanson won.

The young baseball player's reaction, Swanson said: "She thought it was kind of neat to see me pitch in a Twins uniform."

More info on Chad Swanson's Mitt Mender:

Part 1: Good Pitches | Part 2: Midwest Kid

Be sure and read Part 1: Chad Swanson, Good Pitches

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