Dansby Swanson may be 27 years old, but the Atlanta Braves shortstop is still a kid at heart—he wants to have fun playing baseball with his friends and teammates.
That sentiment is part of the words of wisdom he and USA softball’s Haylie McCleney conveyed to a group of Georgia youth baseball and softball players on a Zoom call where they surprised each player with a $200 gift card to Dick’s Sporting Goods so they were properly equipped ahead of their upcoming season.
“It’s going to be fun to see these kids growing with one another whether it’s on the field or off the field,” Swanson said. “Being able to spend that time together is so important. I still have lifelong friends from sports teams when I was younger. … I’m so grateful for those relationships and it’s great to see these kids have the same opportunity to develop those relationships.”
Swanson felt like a kid again—to an extent—during the 2020 Major League Baseball season, which was played without fans in attendance, though they were later allowed in a limited capacity for postseason games played at neutral sites.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, MLB was forced to not only cut short spring training in March but postpone its regular season. After agreeing on a compressed 60-game season beginning July 23, players and staff reported to “spring training”—rebranded as Summer Camp—on July 1.
“Obviously we love the fans, but there was such a sense of uniqueness and purity to the game of baseball last year because there was nobody there,” said Swanson, who batted .274 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 60 games. “It felt like backyard baseball a little bit. It was our nine versus your nine and let’s fight it out until the end, and I thought that was so cool.
“I felt guys were really able to feel comfortable in their own skin more so last year feeling they could enjoy themselves and goof off and have fun just because there was nothing else going on other than the game and hanging out with your buddies. It was an enjoyable year—a lot different and some things that were really tough—but we were able to get through it and it was a pretty successful year for us.”
Despite the more youthful, grassroots feel of “us vs. them,” there were plenty of obstacles and distractions, particularly those off the field, to constantly overcome due to the pandemic.
Players were tested every other day for COVID-19, per league health and safety protocols. All staff and players were required to wear face coverings at all times in the hotel on the road and at all times in public spaces when traveling. Players were prohibited from gathering in public areas when traveling unless granted permission from the Club’s Compliance Officer. Players and personnel were spread out during meals, flights and bus rides. When at home, players and staff were not permitted to visit bars, lounges, malls, or other places in which larger groups of people gather.
“When you’re on the road, those four walls of the hotel room start closing in on you pretty quick,” Swanson said. “That made it kind of tough just feeling a little bit isolated at times like that. You find a way to get through it whether reading a book, writing in a journal or whatever it may be. That part was tough.
“I think a lot of guys have routines when they go to certain cities whether it’s a coffee place they like to go to or a restaurant, and having all that taken out of your plans can be a little tough. We as athletes are pretty routine-oriented people, so when that gets disrupted that makes it tough.”
Despite a cloud of uncertainty lingering overhead that the season could be postponed or canceled at a moment’s notice—especially following COVID-19 outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals and positive tests with the Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants that resulted in 40 games being postponed—the season marched forward.
Atlanta went 35-25 en route to its third consecutive NL East crown. The second-seeded Braves swept the No. 7 Reds 2-0 in the NL Wild Card Series at Truist Park before cruising past the Marlins 3-0 in the NL Division Series played at the neutral Minute Maid Park.
Up next was a highly touted matchup against the top-seeded Los Angeles Dodgers, whose 43-17 record was the best in baseball. Atlanta jumped out to a 3-1 series advantage, but Los Angeles rallied to become just the 14th team in MLB history to come back from such a deficit en route to its third NL pennant in four seasons. The Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-2 in the World Series to win their third crown in four seasons.
“People ask, ‘Have you gotten over it?’ and I think the answer is simple: you don’t ever really get over it to an extent, you have to push through it,” Swanson said. “When you get over it, you’re kind of getting by it without getting through it. Going through it and really trying to learn from that series and what can take us to the next level, that self-reflection piece not only individually but as a team, is really important.
“I know that details come into that. When you get into those moments, you only have a few moments to capitalize on and I feel we didn’t do as good a job capitalizing on certain opportunities as we could have. It’s nothing that nobody doesn’t know. We’ll have to be better in those moments and we will. That’s the makeup of this team—we’re a young, resilient bunch that cares a lot about each other so we’re willing to do the things that it takes to get to that point.”
Not only is Swanson and his teammates looking to erase last season’s disappointing ending, they’re ready to play baseball in front of fans again.
The Braves, who open their 2021 season April 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies, will permit approximately 13,500 (33% capacity) at Truist Field for their home-opening series on April 9 against the Phillies. The organization will re-evaluate capacity for each following homestand.
“It’s going to be great, I know we’re all gearing up for it,” Swanson said. “I’m definitely excited to get rolling. … I know a lot of guys aren’t satisfied with what happened last year. It’s obviously something to build off of, but we’re looking forward to having a great year in 2021 by continuing to put our heads down and work. I feel that’s what makes us so successful as a team—we all work, do it together and care about one another. Usually that’s a pretty good formula for success.”