"I was like, 'Who the heck are the Seattle Mariners?'.”
One thing we have learned at BallNine from the multitude of former Major League Players we have interviewed is that there is no definitive path for a young player to realize his dreams.
Another thing we have learned is that when you get your chance, you’d better take advantage of it.
Billy Swift is a great example of both, and he joins us for this week’s installment of Spitballin’.
Swift faced a scenario that many high school players encounter as they hope to continue their baseball career in college: the recruiters just weren’t calling.
Swift grew up in Maine, not exactly a baseball hotbed, but he loved playing sports, especially baseball. He wasn’t being actively recruited as a high schooler, but that all changed when he went on a hitting tear at an American Legion tournament that legendary University of Maine Head Coach John Winkin happened to be attending.
Winkin offered Swift a chance to join the Black Bears as an outfielder/pitcher and once he began progressing as a pitcher, Swift’s rise was meteoric.
Swift’s freshman year at Maine was 1981 and by June 7, 1985, he found himself on a Major League mound hurling five one-hit innings against the Indians.
In between, Swift was drafted by the Twins in the second round of the 1983 draft, won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics with Team USA, was the number two overall pick in the 1984 draft, had himself a 1985 Topps Olympic baseball card and got called up to the Bigs after just seven starts in the minor leagues.
To go from a non-recruit to the Majors in such a short time with all of that in between is incomprehensible.
Swift pitched 13 years in the Major Leagues, capturing an ERA title along the way. He also had a 20-win season, 30-save season and finished second to Greg Maddux in the 1993 Cy Young Award race.
He’s got a great message about his experience, so come along as we go Spitballin’ with Billy Swift.
“Hitters can get in a zone, watching the NBA you see shooters get in that zone. It works for pitchers too. You don’t even think about it; you know you can’t miss and can throw the ball wherever you want.”
Thanks for joining us Mr. Swift. We have a lot of ground to cover from the Olympics to the Majors, so let’s jump right in. I read that you grew up in Maine and had 14 siblings! What was that like from a baseball standpoint as a kid?
I had nine older sisters and they were all tomboys. I had five brothers too and they were all very competitive and loved sports. There was a lot of competition, whether it came to football, basketball or baseball or just eating dinner. It was fun competition growing up with them all. My dad was a pitcher and he taught me everything about pitching. He was a smaller guy, so he taught me how to make the ball move. He threw knuckleballs, sliders, spitters; whatever didn’t go straight was what he threw. He bought me a Pitchback, one of those net things that returned the ball to you, and we put tape on it and made a strike zone. He would tell me to hit this spot or hit that spot.
I read that you were a Red Sox fan growing up. Can you talk about rooting for the Red Sox as a kid?
That came from my dad. I remember getting in the station wagon and sitting backwards on those long trips to Fenway. No seat belts or anything. Walking into Fenway and seeing the Green Monster was great. Still to this day it’s one of my favorite places to go. There aren’t many ballparks where you can walk around outside and enjoy the smell of the hot dogs and the people that are there.
Even Yankee Stadium wasn’t like that. Wrigley was about the only place that had that atmosphere outside the stadium. I grew up watching Fred Lynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Luis Tiant. Fred Lynn was probably my favorite because I was an outfielder too. He was so amazing in the outfield and had that great swing. I played with Ken Griffey, Jr. in Seattle and he reminded me of Fred Lynn, how he’d run around the outfield and crash into walls.
Feb 24, 1998: Bill Swift #5 of the Seattle Mariners poses for a portrait during Spring Training at the Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Arizona. (Credit: Otto Greule Jr. /Allsport)
Was there a time growing up when you thought you had a future as a professional baseball player?
I really didn’t. I was lucky if I was a buck-forty-five in college. I never sat there and thought I was going to the Big Leagues or even to play in college. I was struggling to find a place to play in college when John Winkin, the Head Coach at the University of Maine, saw me play an American Legion game. He gave me a partial scholarship and then my pitching took off my sophomore year at Maine. I got drafted my junior year, but I hadn’t been planning on doing that, it just worked out. I am lucky to be noticed coming from the state of Maine, but we had gone to the College World Series, so that was a good place to get noticed.
What was it like coming out of Maine, a college where not many baseball players come from?
The guys that play here have that gritty way of playing. I think it’s an East Coast thing. You know, “I’m gonna drill you in the back if you do something to my guy.” We had that mentality on our baseball team. The juniors and seniors would take the freshmen under their wings, put us in our place and give us that mentality. They told us that we were here to win baseball games and not to screw it up. They told us to get on track and help us win, and it was like that for our four years. I am still best friends with the guys from those University of Maine teams. We try to get together and play golf. It was great chemistry among baseball guys. Not a lot got drafted or went on to play, but we gave everything we had when we played.
Knowing that background, it’s pretty incredible you became a member of the 1984 Olympic team too. How did that opportunity come about?
I had a chance to be on the Team USA pre-tournament teams that traveled through Korea and Taiwan. We toured around; played in every Major League stadium and those guys were watching us play. That gave me a chance to show what I could do against guys from USC or Cal State Fullerton guys. I was supposed to go play with the Yarmouth-Dennis team in the Cape Cod League, but I ended up playing for Team USA in the Olympics.
What was it like to be just a young kid out there representing the United States at the Olympics?
The exposure that we got helped us as far as playing the game but being in the Olympics and hanging out in the dorms was incredible. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were there as young college guys. I miss that, by the way. It was great when it was amateurs and college guys who had to play in the Olympics. It needs to get back to that. You used to work your butt off to get there as a college kid, but that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all the pros now. The baseball team we had was great. We could practically just throw our gloves out there on the field and win. Unfortunately, we ran into a nasty pitcher from Japan in the final game, but before that we were breezing through. It was a fun group to be with all summer.
I also read that coming out onto the field, you were the one to hold the flag for Team USA baseball. Is that right?
Yes, it is. We were in the tunnel out in left field and Mark McGwire was the tallest, so they gave it to him. He didn’t want to do it and I happened to be standing right behind him, so I said I would do it. They ended up putting me right in the front and I have a great picture of it. You’re representing your country and even though it was an exhibition sport, you’re still representing your country. It was phenomenal. I met some great people like Greg Louganis and Mary Lou Retton. Man, 1984 was a good year for the Olympics.
Mar 4, 1998: Pitcher Bill Swift of the Seattle Mariners in action during a spring training game against the Anaheim Angels at the Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Arizona. The Mariners defeated the Angels 7-5.(Credit: Brian Bahr /Allsport)
You were the second overall pick in the 1984 draft. Were you expecting to be drafted that high?
It’s so weird looking back now. I wouldn’t be sniffing the top half of the first round in today’s draft. I was touching 90, but these guys throw 95-97 now. I had good movement though and threw strikes and competed. I think they saw that and the experience of playing in the Olympics helped. The Cubs called me right before the draft and said they were going to pick me with the third pick, but then the Mariners drafted me with the second pick. I was like, “Who the heck are the Seattle Mariners?” It ended up being a godsend. I went into Spring Training in 1985, and they told me I was going to AA no matter how my Spring Training went.
You didn’t last long in AA though! Only seven games total before you were up.
Mark Langston got hurt and then Mike Moore and Mike Morgan too. The Mariners had all these injuries to pitchers and I got a callup from AA. So, if I didn’t get drafted by Seattle, I don’t know if that would have happened that fast for me. I made my debut in Cleveland in the old stadium that held like 75,000 and there were maybe 5,000 people there. [The starter had blisters] and I came in in relief and got the win.
You started your career in Seattle when they were still a young franchise in 1984 and came back for your last year in 1998. What was your experience with the Mariners like and what changes did you see in the franchise?
It was special playing there. There were some tough years, and it was difficult pitching in the Kingdome. That carpet was paper-thin. My last years there I did well closing and had a good amount of saves. I had started and pitched out of the bullpen, so that versatility helped me extend my career.
I missed Safeco by one year at the end of my career. I was in Spring Training the year it was opening but got released. I wish I could have pitched there on that grass. The Kingdome was like pitching on cement. Very tough place to pitch. My last year in Seattle we had three Hall of Famers in Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey and Randy Johnson. Maybe A-Rod makes it one day too. I still see Randy around at Starbucks or here and there. It was fun to be part of that to see them turn the franchise around. My career started in Seattle and ended there, so I was happy with that. I went to the Dodgers that offseason and threw for them, but then I called Rick Griffin who was the trainer for Seattle and asked if he could get me to throw for Lou Piniella who was the Seattle manager. They were able to set it up, so I threw for them and they signed me. I was real happy about that.
Apr 26 1992: Pitcher Bill Swift of the San Francisco Giants throws a pitch during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. (Credit: Otto Greule /Allsport)
You mentioned being a big Red Sox fan and going to games as a kid. What was it like to go back there and step on the mound at Fenway for the first time?
It’s different when you’re in the stands. The fence looks so big and tall. But when you’re out there shagging balls and the guys are blistering balls off the Green Monster, it creates such a mind game when you’re pitching. I used to try to work away to lefties, but with the Monster there, it’s tough to do at Fenway. I remember Wade Boggs just peppering balls off the wall. When we went there, I wouldn’t get in my uniform right away. I would go walk around the stadium and get a hot dog and just see the stadium from a different angle. I used to go out and run the city too. I loved the city of Boston and still do today.
Those last two years in Seattle you did well, pitching 218 innings with a 2.23 ERA and 23 saves. Then you went to San Francisco and almost won the Cy Young Award as a starter. You won the ERA title and then won 20 games the next season. Was it satisfying to go back to being a starter and having that kind of success?
The first thing Roger Craig told me when I went to San Francisco was that they needed starters and I was going to be a starting pitcher. We had such a gritty team there, great guys. Players like Matt Williams, Will Clark, Barry Bonds, Willie McGee. Gritty guys that just wanted to play ball and win. Every time I went to the mound, it seemed like I had a three or four run lead. We scored a lot of runs. It was like a blur pitching there. I won 21 games in 1993 and someone asked me how I did that and I said, “I don’t know!” It was just one of those things where you get on a roll. John Burkett and I were going back and forth winning just about every time we went out there. He won 22 that year. Hitters can get in a zone, watching the NBA you see shooters get in that zone. It works for pitchers too. You don’t even think about it; you know you can’t miss and can throw the ball wherever you want.
July 2, 1995: Pitcher Bill Swift of the Colorado Rockies throws a pitch during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The Rockies won the game 10-1. (Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport)
OK, we’re at the point in the interview where we get to talk about your hitting. You had one home run in your career, so the floor is yours to talk about it!
I had started that game against Hideo Nomo. There were two guys on base, and I was waiting for Don Baylor to give me the bunt sign, but he never did. I guess he just wanted me to hit, but I wasn’t sure why. I guess it was Coors Field, so you could score a million runs. Nomo threw two balls to me and we put on a hit-and-run. Nomo hung a slider and I just put a good swing on it. I had enough backspin on it that it went into the bleachers. I was running around the bases thinking it was gonna be a double, but it went over the fence. It was pretty exciting, and I still have the bat and ball. The next time the Dodgers came to Coors, I started against Nomo again and he threw a no-hitter! It’s still the only no-hitter at Coors Field.
What do you think about the way the game is played today?
I really have a hard time watching it. It’s so slow. The replays, the fake umpires with the auto strike zones and things like that. Think about Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine trying to pitch with an electronic strike zone. They were getting five inches off the plate every pitch. That’s baseball though, that’s how I look at it. Even the steroid thing. I knew a few guys who did it. Some did it for their health and some did it to stay in the game a little longer and others did it to get strong. But you still had to hit the ball. I thought about that when I was teammates with Barry. I saw the way the guy worked out in the offseason pre-steroids. He worked hard and he could absolutely rake. It’s unfortunate what he did though. I think he was trying to stay in the game and keep up with the whole McGwire and Sosa home run thing. He got caught up in it.
The pace of the game is a problem though. I worked fast, Greg Maddux worked fast and so many others did too. We got the ball and threw the ball. It has gotten a lot slower, and I just don’t understand. I’ll watch the Red Sox when I can. I’m still a fan and still love the game.
DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER, 1995: Bill Swift #20 of the Colorado Rockies slides into home plate as Jeff Reed #52 of the San Francisco Giants waits for the ball during a MLB game at Coors Field on September 30, 1995 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)
This has been great talking with you, and I appreciate the time. I have just one last question for you. Could you just give us some final reflections on your baseball life?
I think I was fortunate. Even getting to the University of Maine was fortunate for me. Nobody was even recruiting me. Coach Winkin saw me at that Legion tournament, and I happened to go off hitting that weekend. He had me come on the team as an outfielder and pitcher. Not signing with the Twins my junior year was fortunate too. Not that I knew it was gonna happen, but the Mariners picked me the next year and I got to the Majors after just seven minor league starts. If I signed with the Twins, who knows if that happens. I was in the right place at the right time. God put me in the right places for a reason.
Even after playing, I coached high school for 12 years and college for five. I look back at Coach Winkin and what he taught me. I look at what Don Baylor, Dusty Baker and Roger Craig taught me. The trade to San Francisco was huge for me. I was upset about it at first, but I had my best years there and loved pitching at Candlestick because it was cold, and the hitters hated hitting in the cold. I came from the University of Maine, so I was used to it. It was fun, my career was great, and I was blessed to have a right arm that was able to get batters out.