If you’ve been to any Johnson City Cardinals game this season, chances are you’ve seen manager Chris Swauger in action. It’s his third season as coach and second season as the manager of the rookie league club. The Cardinals lifer has had anything but an ordinary journey through the minors. If you ask him, professional baseball seemed out of reach after college.
“I was at home and had quit listening to the draft because I just assumed it wasn’t going to happen. I just happened to be passing through the office. We had left the draft on but weren’t really listening,” Swauger said. “I peeked in and saw my name pop up on the screen and was like hey, that’s me. I was like oh wow. That really just happened. I ran outside where my parents were by the pool screaming I got drafted. They asked who. I said the Cardinals and my mom was like okay, they’re alright.”
Swauger grew up around the Tampa area and said the family was always Rays and Yankees fans but he was excited for the opportunity to continue his baseball career.
“I was happy to be drafted even though all the scouts that I had talked to had said I’d go higher. I now know how the system works and stuff like that but it was great experience. It was very fortuitous that I walked through when I did to hear my name get called.”
The lefty utility player mainly played in the outfield as he worked his way through the Cardinals system.
“Unfortunately I didn’t play at Johnson City. I started with our Penn League affiliate because of more my age than skill level and basically hit every stop along the way,” Swauger said. “I’ve enjoyed everything from the way we do things, the way we approach the game, the way we play. Coming from a military school, the way we pay attention to details and take care of little things appealed to me and helped me in my career.”
One of those stops included a Texas League Championship with the Double-A Springfield Cardinals in 2012.
“Our Triple-A manager Mike Shildt was the manager of that team and every time I joke with him that he wasn’t a very good manager because the entire lineup one through nine made it to the big leagues except me and he batted me fifth,” Swauger said laughing. “But that was a lot of fun. It was a great team not only talent-wise but also because of the people. The Cardinals not only make good ballplayers but also create good quality human beings and I think there were a lot on that team.”
And the Cardinals saw something in Swauger that would allow him to stay in pro baseball even after his playing career was done. However, Swauger wasn’t ready to stop his major league run just yet.
“Coaching was brought to my attention during spring training in 2014. I had just come off of an All-Star year in Double-A and to be quite honest, I just wasn’t ready to do it and still thought I had stuff left in the tank as a player,” Swauger said. “The Cardinals were gracious enough to let me keep playing through to see if any spots opened up.”
When no spots opened up, Swauger decided to ask for his release for the shot to keep playing elsewhere but things didn’t go according to plan.
“I kind of floated out there in no man’s land for about three weeks before the Phillies called me and I was awful,” Swauger said. “I was a terrible player for about two weeks before they released me. But it was a good thing because it helped me to get over myself with that mentality that I was still a player who could make it to the big leagues. I don’t think if I had accepted coaching when they originally asked me that I would have been a very good one because I would still be focusing on me and not the guys I would be coaching.”
Swauger then accepted a position to be the hitting coach for Johnson City in 2014 before becoming the manager in 2015. Since then, Swauger said he has focused on learning as much as he can and imparting wisdom that players can carry with them throughout the minors.
“A lot of our job, all the coaches but mine especially, is to kind of observe. You give them things they will use throughout the Cardinals organization like the fundamentals but at the same time I’ll try to figure out what each individual guy does well and find their weaknesses,” Swauger said. “The biggest thing is to establish a relationship with them, find some common ground, and try to get them to trust you. As you go along, help them as much as you can. A lot of times I stay out of the way and encourage them to be themselves and to do what got them here.”
And while the team has found success in 2016, Swauger said there are still things he wants to improve on as a coach.
“I would definitely say throwing batting practice. I get a little wild every now and then. I get way too many guys thrown out at the plate but that’s okay. That will come with experience,” Swauger said. “The biggest challenge for me as an outfielder is knowing how to position infielders and managing pitchers because I’ve never really had to pay attention before. I would be in the outfield seeing who’s coming in. I never really had to think about why they’re coming in or potential situations and matchups or think three innings ahead. It’s not something I’m awful at but it’s always a challenge to work through these types of things.”
Another challenge is seeing the big picture of the game instead of focusing on your position.
“Seeing the game is tough because when you’re a player, you really only see it with tunnel vision. But when you’re a manager, you have this broad spectrum and you’re always paranoid you’re going to miss something. I do all the time.”
But with another season winding down, Swauger said there’s no place he’d rather be than in the Cardinals organization that gave him his shot on draft day.
“It’s a great honor and it obviously shows a lot of faith on their part. I work as hard as I can to reward that faith,” Swauger said. “They give me great feedback and I learn so much from the staff around me and the staff above me. They guide me and I appreciate how much they’ve helped me.”
And when asked about moving up, he just smiled.
“I guess I’m the youngest manager but it’s by like a month. The guy that’s a month older is like three levels ahead of me so maybe I’m not as advanced. But if I keep working hard, maybe one day I’ll get there.”