Dansby Swanson’s rise to become Vanderbilt’s best player

(First appeared in The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Sitting in his first grade classroom, Dansby Swanson’s counselor spoke to his class, talking to them about the importance of school and education. At the end of the talk, the counselor asked one last question so that everyone could leave: Who wants to go to college?

At this point, all of the children got excited, raised their hands, and got up to leave.

Everyone except for a young Swanson.

“What do you mean, you’re not going to college?” Swanson recalls the counselor saying. “I know your family; you’re going to college.”

“I’m going to be the number one draft pick,” replied Swanson.

Such is the life of Dansby Swanson. The man sets goals as high as anyone and to this date has done a stellar job of achieving them. Although he wasn’t drafted first overall out of high school, the Arizona Diamondbacks fulfilled his dream, selecting him with the top pick in June’s MLB Draft.

Vanderbilt baseball head coach Tim Corbin fondly recalls the story of when Swanson walked into his office as a freshman and told the coach that he wanted to be the best player who’s ever played at Vanderbilt.

Even for a program that’s only played at a high level for the past decade, that’s an awfully high bar to set. Pitcher David Price won the Golden Spikes Award in 2007 and was the first overall pick in the MLB First-Year Player Draft. There have been eight other first-round picks since Corbin took over in 2003.

But in his three years in black and gold, Swanson has made a strong case to earn that title.

From a results standpoint alone, he’s been named a Golden Spikes Award finalist and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 College World Series. He led the Commodores in nearly every offensive category in 2015. And perhaps most importantly, he helped lead Vanderbilt to consecutive College World Series Finals, winning the Commodores’ first national championship.

But to become the “greatest player who’s every played at Vanderbilt,” it takes more than just production. Swanson says as much himself:

“To me it’s more than stats,” Swanson said. “It involves a lot of creating your own legacy here. Having this place be forever changed because I was in it. I try to make a great impact on the people most importantly. The program, you just encompass everything. You can hit 1.000, but if you’re not a great person, then you’re not a winner in my book. You have every aspect of life in it: Academics, baseball and put it all together, and I wanted to be the best at each of those.”

The “it” factor

Swanson certainly wasn’t a top name coming out of high school. He was the 138th-ranked draft prospect in 2012, according to Baseball America, which is a large reason he ended up going to college instead of signing with a professional team.

“If we’re being honest here, nobody really thought I was that great in high school,” Swanson said. “But I knew baseball was going to be my career path. I just kept pursuing it, I played well in the summers, which is probably what put me on the map, but luckily Coach Corbin thought that I had a chance.”

The first time Corbin saw Swanson in high school, he saw the athleticism, the quick-twitch fibers, how he made things look easy. But it was also his attitude that became a large reason Corbin recruited Swanson to Vanderbilt in the first place.

Character plays a large role in determining how well a player will adjust to college sports.

We now see how high Swanson’s character is — Corbin has praised him for his servant leadership and how he “does everything top-shelf” — but that’s often hard to gauge during the recruiting period. People, especially parents, love to brag about their players.

“I don’t know from a recruiting standpoint if you can know everything you need to know about a kid mentally,” Corbin said. “I think a lot of it you take on their baggage, and sometimes it’s the bags that are snuck on the airplane –so to speak – that you don’t know exist.”

Corbin has developed his own strategy to evaluate prep players’ character. Foremost, he believes you can tell a lot about a player from his parents. Additionally, seeing how the player interacts with his teammates, talking to the opposition and looking at grades and test scores adds to the player’s portfolio.

But another key factor is trust. Corbin and James Beavers, the head coach of Swanson’s travel team the East Cobb Yankees, have a close relationship, and when Beavers said that Swanson was special from a personality standpoint, Corbin listened and followed up with a visit.

“Dansby’s just special,” said Beavers, who has coached a litany of great shortstops including Stephen Drew and Gordon Beckham. “He’s just a special kid in a lot of ways. We used to talk about (Derek) Jeter having ‘it.’ You don’t know what it is, it’s just ‘it.’ That’s what I’ve always felt Dansby has. You can’t put your finger on everything he does, it’s just ‘it.’ He just makes everything happen right. Good things happen to somebody like him.”

The injury

Swanson arrived at Vanderbilt to a veteran-laden team. Outfielders Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski pushed off signing professional contracts a year to return for their senior seasons, Tony Kemp, Conrad Gregor, Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede were also established contributors, and the team made the College World Series two years previously.

But with all of the established players on the team, shortstop was open after the Miami Marlins drafted Anthony Gomez. Swanson saw this as a golden opportunity.

“Obviously I wanted to play short,” Swanson said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and I take pride in it. And I wanted to play. I wanted to help the team win, I wanted to lead. I wanted all of those things. And just how I play, I compete in everything I do. Just going to go after it, and whatever happened happened. If I was going to play left field, I was going to play left field. I wasn’t just going to say ‘screw this.’”

But almost as soon as his collegiate campaign began, it came to a sudden halt.

Playing against Monmouth in the seventh game of the season, Swanson reached first base on a walk in his first plate appearance. Chris Harvey tripled down the right field line, but Swanson took a sharp angle around second base and stepped on the bag completely wrong.

Although he ended up scoring on the play, Swanson knew there was something wrong, and he left the game. He had sprained an ankle before playing basketball, but this was worse. When he went to the trainer’s room the next day, he couldn’t put any weight on it.

A quick trip to the hospital confirmed his fears: He had fractured the base of his fifth metatarsal — the outside bone of the foot.

“I saw the X-ray at the hospital, and I knew,” Swanson said. “I didn’t really know what to think. I was just like I guess this is how it’s going to be. My mom was probably more upset than I was because I just accepted it. You can’t get mad at it; it’s in the past. You just have to move forward and try to be back out as quick as I could.”

The original prognosis for Swanson was six weeks until a full recovery, but after four, six and eight weeks, he still wasn’t feeling right. Although he did come back to play four more games in April, his non-dominant shoulder, which had bothered him going back to high school, was re-aggravated during batting practice at Louisville.

Knowing he wouldn’t be back to 100 percent that season, Swanson decided to have surgery on the torn ligament in his left shoulder so that he could be in top condition by the next fall.

Still, that left the coaching staff wondering what could have been in a lost 2013 season.

“I think he would have taken over (starting at shortstop) within a month,” Corbin said. “We had some older guys there, but I just thought it was a matter of time. But at the same time, I wanted him to play his way into it. I just didn’t want to give him the spot right away, but you could tell that within a couple weeks, that he was going to have the position if he was going to continue to play the way he did.”

Although he only hit .188 in 11 games his freshman season, there were signs of a much better player, including a .435 on-base percentage and baseball intellect beyond his years.

“The baserunning in itself was so much different than anyone else,” Corbin said. It was the awareness factor that he had that you could tell was very mature and very good. It would have been very interesting to see what he would have done with that ball club. Because you’re talking about a special player on that 2013 team that would have really added to it.”

The ascent

Swanson’s rise has been even more remarkable considering all the time he’s missed. He only played 11 games between the end of the senior year of high school and the start of his sophomore season, missing chances to play in the Cape Cod League during the summers.

But with how recently he committed to playing baseball exclusively, the quick improvement was also expected — just not to this level.

“He played basketball, so it wasn’t like he was a full-time baseball player,” Corbin said. “So I did think once he got playing baseball full-time, I thought there was a lot of progression, almost like recruiting a Midwest or Northeast kid. It just took some time because he just had been playing so many things.”

Although Vince Conde took over the shortstop job following Swanson’s injury, Swanson grabbed hold of the second base job at the beginning of the 2014 season and instantly became Vanderbilt’s best hitter.

In his first full season, Swanson led Vanderbilt in on-base percentage, runs, and steals from the leadoff position. He was named first team All-SEC, and after hitting .323 with five runs, two RBIs, three doubles, and four steals, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series.

A natural shortstop, Swanson shifted back to his regular position in 2015 after the New York Yankees drafted Vince Conde in the MLB Draft, and he continued to rake.

The list is hard to believe at times. First on the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, home runs, doubles, triples, and walks hitting in the middle of the lineup. Oh, and he was second in RBIs and third in steals.

“What did it for me in terms of me thinking he was elite was how he handled himself in the postseason last year,” Corbin said. “And then coming out here (this season) and playing like he did. It was like he took this experience on as if it was his. And he played so well, he’s so on point, and at that point, I figured this kid has special intangibles, special skills that you don’t see in a lot of kids.”

Reaching the top

Swanson is clearly in the conversation for the greatest player who’s ever played at Vanderbilt, neck-and-neck with David Price.

While he doesn’t have nearly the trophy case Price does — Golden Spikes Award, Dick Howser Award, SEC Pitcher of the Year, SEC Male Athlete of the Year, No. 1 overall draft pick, etc. — Swanson does have one notable edge on Price: winning.

Price led the Commodores to the top overall seed in the 2007 NCAA Tournament, but Vanderbilt did not make it out of its own regional. Vanderbilt also lost in the Atlanta Regional in 2006 and did not make the NCAA Tournament in 2005.

Swanson mentioned that being Vanderbilt’s greatest player means changing the program forever, creating your own legacy, making a great impact on the people. And with consecutive trips to the College World Series Finals and a national championship, Swanson has put the program in a much better place than when he arrived.

Although he doesn’t like to compare himself to other people, the last two years have launched Swanson to the pantheon of Vanderbilt athletes, effectively fulfilling his goal of becoming the greatest player who’s ever played at Vanderbilt.

“He’s up there,” Corbin said with a knowing smile. “I wouldn’t want to say anything in his presence right now.”

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