CHICAGO – The Dirty Cat Salon is open. Most of the Chicago White Sox know better than to get anywhere near it, for fear that their facial hair might turn out like that of the main proprietor.
It's always something with Nick Swisher, to whom the spotlight gravitates as though magnetized, and his something this year is the goatee that covers the length of his jaw. It looks like Swisher went bobbing for apples in peroxide, and with a few of his other teammates on the whisker bandwagon, Swisher thought it might be fun to start a fake styling place. He calls himself "Dirty Thirty," the marriage of his number and unlaundered uniform, and closer Bobby Jenks is, in Swisher parlance, "Jenksy Cat," so he combined them to the pleasure of everyone searching for the perfect insight into the Tao of Swish.
"We should have T-shirts made," Swisher said Monday night, and surely he was thinking of the "Member of the Dirty Thirty" ones he had fashioned for his new teammates during spring training. It wasn't even a month into Swisher's stay with the White Sox after spending the first three years of his career in Oakland, and he already had taken over the clubhouse with the sheer force of his personality.
Which made Monday so interesting: The A's were in town and, for the first time, witnessed Swisher in another uniform. They're used to it, of course, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito and Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson and Jason Isringhausen and also, this year, Dan Haren all casualties of the economic shell game Oakland must play to stay competitive and solvent.
"Now I am that guy," said Swisher, still only 27. "It didn't feel, really, any different than any other game. It's not like I had any added aggression. Hey, it was nice to see a bunch of the guys."
Feelings were mutual until Swisher kept getting on base, three times in all, and nearly a fourth when a potential tying home run suffered an untimely death on the warning track in the eighth inning. The A's held on for a 2-1 victory, pushing their American League-best record to 9-5 in spite of fielding a roster with only eight players from last season's opening-day roster.
"When you play here, you get used to it," said Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki, one of the new breed, and hitting .370. "I became pretty close with Swish here. He was a great dude, a great teammate. He took care of me when I came up. It's business, though. They make their moves so the team can get better, and sometimes that means getting rid of guys."
With how well the A's have built the organization, it affords them some benefit of the doubt. Still, the surprise this offseason, when the A's traded Swisher and Haren, was palpable – Swisher because he had spent only three seasons in the major leagues and signed a fiscally reasonable long-term extension before the 2007 season, and Haren because he represented Oakland's first second-generation trade, where it flipped someone acquired in an earlier deal (Haren came over in the Mulder swap).
Oakland, more than anything, wants to build for its future, and it's how Swisher ended up here in the first place.
After whiffing on Torii Hunter, Kosuke Fukudome and Aaron Rowand, the White Sox needed a power-hitting center fielder. Swisher’s name surfaced, and general manager Ken Williams sent the A’s his two best prospects, pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Fautino De los Santos, along with outfielder Ryan Sweeney.
Chicago had its center fielder, at least when he trimmed 15 pounds. And it also inherited a new leadoff hitter, seemingly a bizarre position for Swisher, who for his whole life had batted in the middle of lineups and could threaten 40 home runs at hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.
And yet the rationale makes sense: Manager Ozzie Guillen wants to load the top of his lineup with players who get on base, and Swisher walked 100 times last season and posted an on-base percentage of .381. This year he's been even better, a .460 on-base percentage and 11 runs in 12 games.
"When the team gets hot, I think this guy is going to carry this ballclub," Guillen said.
First he's got to get used to the whole leading-off thing, particularly at home, which Swisher still doesn't exactly take well. After the third out in the top of the first, Swisher runs to the bench from center field, which seems like a mile compared to his other position, first base, takes off his hat, places it on the bench with his glove, walks across the dugout, grabs his bat in the tunnel, puts on his helmet, attaches his shin guard, steps into the on-deck circle, smears pine tar on his bat, takes one, two, three swings and steps in.
All within less than two minutes.
"This has been beautiful," Swisher said. "I have no hard feelings at all. I've got a lot of respect for those guys. Hey, they're playing well, we're playing well."
The two-game series concludes this afternoon, and no matter what Swisher says, he wants to beat his former teammates. At least the ones he knows.
"We'll have to get after – what's his name? – Eveland," Swisher said.
He was talking about Dana Eveland, one of the pitchers brought over in the Haren deal, and Swisher called him Eh-vuh-land instead of EVE-e-land. Someone corrected him.
"I don't know anyone anymore," he said.
So goes the life of successful Oakland A's: You almost inevitably end up elsewhere, which, in this instance, is working out quite well for Swisher. Chicago loves him. He loves Chicago. And now, with a salon to run? He isn't going anywhere.