February 14th, 2021
By Carter Cromwell
Will Swindling’s baseball career hasn’t gone as he originally envisioned, but he never envisioned how it has gone.
A star on his youth teams and an all-state performer in high school in Eugene, Ore., he attracted attention from major league scouts. Unfortunately, shoulder trouble eventually tempered scouts’ enthusiasm, and he opted for college. The shoulder issues continued in college, though, and after a while, it appeared that his time as a player was over.
His story did not end with a fade into the day-to-day grind of the so-called real world. At 28, he’s doing what he wants to do – play and coach baseball – but in places such as Argentina, Slovenia, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. Not at all what he expected.
“Nope. Never,” he said emphatically. “If my career had gone the way I’d wanted then, I’d probably have spent a couple of years in the minors and then come back home and been very content. But it’s unreal how things have turned out.
“I never thought I’d be learning other languages and making all these friends and connections overseas. I can have an off day and go hiking in the Austrian Alps or the Italian Dolomites. It’s the coolest thing, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I have friends playing in the minors who tell me my experience has been so amazing.”
So just how did the road lead to this? Let’s go back a dozen or so years.
As a youth, Swindling both pitched and caught, and he developed significant pain in his shoulder – later diagnosed as a torn labrum – that bothered him during his high school and early college careers.
“I threw a lot since I played both positions, and there were no pitch counts,” he said wryly.
The shoulder pain didn’t keep him from starring in high school, but it lowered his ceiling in the minds of pro scouts. He had some interest from a few teams but, had he been drafted, it would most likely have been in a low round.
“He came to us with a lot of hype, and he turned out even better,” his high school coach, Bill Ferrari, said. “All the scouts liked his bat – he had a really good swing and good natural power. With a bat in his hands, he didn’t look like anyone else. The ball came off his bat differently, and everyone knew it.
“But even though he worked hard to have a quick release and be as efficient a thrower as possible, the question was always whether he’d be able to throw well enough to be a catcher at a higher level. Who knows what might have happened if his arm had been healthier? He was good at all the other things – he had a lot of positive skills defensively.”
Swindling had offers from some Division I college programs, and he chose the University of San Francisco, but the shoulder trouble persisted during his freshman year. Doctors told him he had a long tear – something usually seen in older players – rather than a deep one, and advised that he rehab and strengthen the shoulder as much as possible in lieu of surgery.
Around that time, he also decided that USF was not the proper fit for him, so he transferred to Arizona Western Junior College.
“Things just didn’t line up for me at USF,” Swindling said. “I didn’t enjoy the year and thought I needed new scenery. But I re-aggravated the shoulder during my time at Arizona Western, and the game stopped being fun.”
Ferrari acknowledged the injury problems, but added, “I don’t think he got a full chance at USF or the JC to show all he had. He always performed when he got a chance, but I think he was looked upon as a kid from a small town that was not a baseball hotbed, with the assumption that someone from a place with a greater reputation for generating baseball talent was better.”
Regardless, Swindling felt that his “baseball experience was going in the wrong direction. I needed to be away from the game for a while.”
To do that, he went away to the other side of the country – to Lockhaven University in central Pennsylvania. “They had a great recreation management program, and it was good to go somewhere different from what I’d known. I really got into weight training there, too, which helped with my competitive side.”
Following graduation in 2015, he became a personal trainer, relocated to Texas for a short time, then moved back to Oregon where he again caught the baseball bug.
“I’d given a couple of training sessions to a young kid, and that made things click for me,” Swindling said. “I decided I wanted to give baseball one more shot.”
As his mother, Mary, said, “He was disappointed in how his baseball career had gone, and he’s not the type to say ‘woulda-coulda-shoulda.’ ”
Swindling continued doing personal training – starting as early as 5am and going until early evening – and then going straight to his baseball workouts.
After a while, his arm started coming back, and he solicited the input of a Miami Marlins scout who had followed him during his high school career. The scout, though, told him that his age was against him.
“I was 24 by then and wouldn’t have had a really high ceiling, so I probably had no shot at getting signed by a major league team,” he said.
But he soon learned that he still had a shot at a baseball career, just not the standard one. A friend who had just returned from playing in Sweden put a bug in his ear about playing in Europe.
“My ears perked up when he told me that,” Swindling said. “When you think of guys playing overseas, you think of places like Japan, Korea, Australia or Latin America,” he said, “but my friend said there were a lot more opportunities overseas than people realize.”
He began his foreign odyssey in Germany in 2017 as a player/coach, followed with winter ball in Argentina, returned to Germany as player/coach the following season, spent the 2018-19 winter in Australia, went to Slovenia last year, and then coached youth teams in New Zealand over the past winter. He still has some shoulder pain – always will – but it’s now manageable with regular stretching and strengthening exercises.
Swindling was to have played in Austria in 2020, but Covid-19 upended that, and he’s been working and training in Eugene, where his parents, brother and other family members still live. The plan is to play in Austria this year if things return to something resembling normal.
“I was supposed to be here for nine days, but it’s turned into seven months,” he said with a laugh just prior to the holidays. “All my family still lives here, and they’d like me to be closer, but they’ve been extremely supportive of the path I’ve taken.”
Some of his stops along that path – particularly Slovenia – might seem odd choices for a baseball player, but the more one knows about Swindling, the more logical it seems. Baseball is a passion for him, but so is the rest of life.
“Will loves traveling and baseball, so this is a great fit for him,” Mary Swindling said. “He does well in situations in which he knows nothing and knows no one. He’ll just go out there and start talking to people and learning. Doing what he’s doing is thrilling for him.”
“When I first went to Germany, it was a very low-level league, but I had a great time . . . I was just so happy to be back on a baseball field,” he said. “I loved the region, and I had a great host family that I’m still in regular contact with. I haven’t regretted that decision for a moment. The same was true in Australia and the other places I’ve been. I’ve made so many connections and had opportunities to hike, explore and see many things I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Playing at a high level is great, and that was my focus at first, but the travel aspect makes it a real adventure.”
In fact, he had an offer to play in the top French league in 2019, but a last-minute chance to go to Slovenia – hardly a baseball hotbed – won out.
“As soon as I learned that the league was spread over Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia, Hungary and Croatia, I had to go there. It was such a cool experience.”
Tim Brown, a pitcher and Swindling’s teammate in Slovenia, said, “Will always has a positive outlook. He embraces things and takes them for what they are. We clicked right away as players and adventurers. We might go to a gym in the morning, do some exploring in the afternoon, and then baseball later. Once, we had an off-day in Serbia and spent the whole day walking around Belgrade.
“And, of course, he’s a really good player, too,” Brown said with a chuckle. “As a pitcher, you feel really confident with him behind the plate. And he can really hit. He’d go 4-4 in a game with all doubles, and the Slovenian guys would say, ‘What?? No home runs?!’”
As for the future, at least the near team, Swindling’s plan is to continue doing what he’s doing.
Play maybe three to five more years, and then, well, probably something that will keep him in Europe. Coaching is a possibility, as is personal training, and he and Brown have floated the idea of some day opening a European baseball academy.
In short, who knows?
“I’m in awe of how things have worked out to this point, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds,” he said. “I may not be playing at the highest level, but if I’m happy and having a good time, that’s bigger than baseball in a way.”
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