Swisher more than he appears
A's slugger paying tribute to grandmother, helping others
Not long ago, a caller to a Bay Area sports-talk radio program got through looking to take a few swipes at A's slugger Nick Swisher.
"What's with this guy and his long hair?" fumed the caller. "He looks ridiculous. Why's he always trying to call attention to himself? And enough with pointing to the sky after a single. The guy's a clown."
It's an easy trap to fall into, judging a book by its cover. And Swisher -- with his long hair and sideburns; his sweatbands and body armor; his cock-of-the-walk strut and grand gestures after big knocks -- certainly leaves the door wide open to the perception that he does indeed, to paraphrase Terrell Owens, love him summa him.
And that perception isn't entirely inaccurate. The son of a former first-round draft pick, Steve Swisher, who played in the big leagues for nine years and was a National League All-Star for the 1976 Cubs, Nick was a first-rounder himself, profiled extensively in the best-selling book "Moneyball," and made it to The Show in his third year as a professional.
"I grew up around this life," says Swisher, a switch-hitting 26-year-old from West Virginia. "And I enjoy the heck out of being where I am and who I am."
But as that caller found out, the book that is Swisher has quite a bit more depth to it than you'd think at first glance.
The long hair? In a roundabout way, it's a tribute to the grandmother who helped raise him by taking him in after his parents split up when he was in eighth grade.
He started growing it out late last year, "just to grow it out," he says. But just when he started tiring of the look and thinking of seeing a barber, he was told about the Pantene Beautiful Lengths campaign.
The first of its kind, it launched in partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) and encourages people to grow, cut and donate their healthy hair to make wigs for women who have lost their hair as a result of cancer treatment. Hair donations are made into real-hair wigs and are distributed for free to cancer patients through the American Cancer Society's wig banks.
Swisher's grandmother, Betty Swisher, whose initials are tattooed above his heart, died after a lengthy battle with cancer on Aug. 14, 2005.
"I was pretty excited when I heard about the thing with Pantene," Swisher says. "It's a great cause, obviously, and anything I can do to make life a little easier or happier for someone who has to go through what my grandma went through, I'm all for it."
As a new ambassador for the EIF and its Women's Cancer Research Fund, Swisher's hoping to bring attention to the campaign and encourage others to follow his example by donating their own hair.
"My grandmother was my inspiration and strength. She always encouraged me to follow my dreams," he said. "It was a difficult time for our entire family as she bravely fought cancer, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think of her.
"She truly was the love of my life, and I know that she would be so proud of my support of the Women's Cancer Research Fund."
Swisher has dedicated his career to Betty, and it's already been quite a career. He hit 35 homers in 2006, his second full season, and with 62 career homers through Tuesday, he's Oakland's all-time home run leader among switch-hitters.
But none of his homers were as meaningful as the one he hit on Aug. 14, 2006.
Before Betty Swisher succumbed to cancer after a long battle, Swisher used to call her before every game to calm his nerves. That day, the first anniversary of her passing, Swisher placed a pregame phone call to Betty's husband, Don.
"I started thinking about her last night, and she was the first thing I thought of this morning, so it just felt right to call my grandpa," Swisher said that day. "It's a rough time for all of us, but he sounded great, and that did me a world of good."
Several hours after the call, Swisher hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning that gave the A's a 5-4 win over the Mariners. And in the bittersweet glow of victory, he insisted that Betty played a hand in it all.
"She pushed it," he said of his line drive, which barely eluded the glove of leaping right fielder Ichiro Suzuki before sneaking over the wall. "She pushed it away from Ichiro. ... I'm 100 percent convinced of that, because I did not hit that ball well at all.
"It was a bad day this morning, but it's a great day tonight. It's just awesome to be able to share something like this with my family. We all needed a little pick-me-up, and this was pretty awesome."
Immediately after rounding the bases, Swisher, who before the game inked the tape wrapping his forearms with Betty's initials, had a brief, poignant conversation with outfielder Milton Bradley, his partner in a detailed dugout celebration after either one of them goes deep.
"Milton and I were talking, wondering if my grandma and his [deceased] grandpa were up there doing the home-run dance," Swisher said.
Swisher thinks they were, just as he thinks Betty is looking down on him when he points up to her after every one of his base hits.
Surprised to hear all this? That sports-talk caller sure was.
"OK, I'm going to hang up now," he said. "I feel about two inches tall, and if I keep listening, I'm going to end up buying a Nick Swisher jersey or something."
Told that story, Swisher laughs his booming laugh.
"That's awesome, man," he said. "Look, I can't change what people think about me. If someone wants to think I'm just a big, dumb knucklehead, I can't help that.
"But there's a little more to it than what you think you see."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.