Getting to know Erik Swanson, the Blue Jays ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

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With Erik Swanson making his triumphant return from injury to the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen, now seems like a good time to mention …

Erik Swanson is from Fargo, North Dakota.

I know what you’re thinking – so what? But stick with me here.

A big league ballplayer from North Dakota is actually an astonishingly rare occurrence. In fact, in the entire history of Major League Baseball, there have been only 20 players from the state. Twenty, in 150 years! For comparison, that’s less than the number of players from Ireland, Australia, Panama, Germany, and a whole host of other places not exactly known as baseball hotbeds.

Think about it like this: when Liam Hendriks pitched for the Jays, the fact that he was from Australia was mentioned essentially every time he took to the mound, and indeed, countless words were expended telling his story in meticulous detail. And yet, Australia has had nearly twice as many big leaguers as North Dakota.

With Swanson set to be pitching some of the most important innings of the season in the coming days and weeks, it’s time that Jays fans knew his story.

Erik Swanson: Homecoming

Erik Swanson and his family left North Dakota when he was just a kid, eventually settling in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Swanson would become a standout pitcher and hitter on his Mariemont High School baseball team.

After being selected in the 8th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft by the Texas Rangers, Swanson made the unusual decision to move back to Fargo, establishing a home base there as he set off climbing the ladder to the Majors.

As anyone from a small town in a sparsely populated area can tell you – people leave all the time; it’s the coming back that’s rare.

Of course, it might be that Swanson was always destined to return.

His grandfather, Dwaine Hoberg, was something of an area legend – a three-term Mayor of Moorhead (Fargo’s adjoining twin city), head football coach at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and a well-known professional wrestling promoter for Verne Gagne’s AWA. Meanwhile, both of Swanson’s parents were born and raised in the area, each graduating from North Dakota State University, where his father Mark was a football player.

Sometimes there is no avoiding family roots buried deep in the earth.

But really, Swanson has not just returned, he is doubling down, moving with his wife and two young children to the even-more-remote Roseau, Minnesota, a town of 2,700 people mere minutes from the Canadian border where his wife is from.

For any hockey fans out there, Roseau is the hometown of Winnipeg Jets legend Dustin Byfuglien. Perhaps Swanson will meet ‘Big Buff’ this offseason on one of the area’s snowmobile trails, or in one of its hunting camps.

Speaking of which …

Erik Swanson: Outdoorsman

On November 16, 2022, Erik Swanson was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Toronto Blue Jays. The last person to find out about the trade might have been Swanson himself, since at the time, he was on a hunting trip in the Montana wilderness, so far from civilization that cell service was virtually nonexistent.

Personally, I like to picture some tall forehead from the Blue Jays front office stumbling out of the woods into Swanson’s camp to tell him the news, twigs sticking out of tussled hair, suit rumpled, expensive shoes ruined.

In reality, when Swanson realized he had missed messages from Seattle’s GM, he set off driving until he found a spot with adequate reception and called him back.

Ok, so this isn’t quite as dramatic, but the story reveals a fundamental truth – Erik Swanson is an avid outdoorsman, a hunter, snowmobiler, fisherman, and in fact, probably a little bit of a good old boy, in the most positive of ways.

Indeed, Blue Jays fans can probably thank Swanson’s propensity for redneckery for much of his success at the back end of the team’s bullpen this year.

As a rookie breaking into the big leagues with Seattle in 2019, Swanson was just another failed starter with a mediocre changeup trying to make the transition to relief, when then-bullpen coach Jim Brower suggested he start throwing a splitter.

Swanson liked the idea, but there was only one problem – Swanson’s “really small hands” meant that he could not hold the ball in a splitter grip without pain.

The solution? Swanson spent the offseason driving the North Dakota backroads in his pickup truck with a baseball wedged between his fingers, slowly increasing their flexibility and forming the foundation of what would become one of the most dominant pitches in baseball.

It might all make sense now when Swanson enters a game to Hillbilly Deluxe by Brooks and Dunn.

Erik Swanson: Quasi-Canadian

As Swanson begins his life in tiny Roseau, Minnesota, he does so in place where, to paraphrase the infamous quote attributed to Sarah Palin, he can see Canada from his house.

That’s the thing though; both literally and figuratively, he’s about as close to Canadian as you can get without being one.

Seriously. His family has a cottage in Buffalo Point on Lake of the Woods, where he spent this year’s All-Star break partaking in summer activities next to Canadian neighbors. Back at home, his three-year-old son is already skating, not totally a surprise in a town with only four stop lights but three hockey rinks.

I could go on, but if you want to know everything there is to know about Swanson’s Canadian credentials, all you have to do is take a look at this beauty:

All I’m saying is this: when Dustin Byfuglien played for the Winnipeg Jets, he was considered a beloved local by fans in Manitoba, despite being born across the American border. Perhaps it’s time Jays fans do the same with Erik Swanson.

But in either case, as Swanson takes the mound down the stretch with the game, and the season, on the line, fans can relish in the fact that they are witnessing a unique occurrence in Major League Baseball – a North Dakota kid under the bright lights in downtown Toronto.

Ever been driving on the North Dakota backroads, or tossed around the ol' horsehide in the snow? Let me know about it on the platform formerly known as Twitter – @WriteFieldDeep.