October 26, 2014

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Five fathers throw out first pitches to Indians sons

CLEVELAND — The invitations were just the beginning, but the moment was already special. The participants knew how meaningful the reality would be.

“I asked him to do it and as soon as he said yes, the biggest smile came to my face,” said Indians left fielder Michael Brantley, referring to his father, Mickey. “As a kid, you can’t even write this up. It’s going to be one of those days I’ll never forget. I’ll be able to tell my kids about it one day.”

The Brantleys were one of five father-son tandems to participate in the ceremonial first pitch Monday before the home opener, an 11-6 loss to the Yankees. Mickey Brantley, Sandy Alomar Sr., Tito Francona, Steve McAllister and Steve Swisher — all of whom played professionally — stood about 40 feet from home plate and delivered to Michael, Sandy Jr., Terry, Zach and Nick.

In honor of the Opening Day theme of traditions, the Indians orchestrated a short, but memorable, game of catch to kick off a home season they hope will include many more unforgettable moments. Maybe even a playoff trip.

The throws weren’t all strikes, but the huge hugs that followed were right down the middle.

“It’s like playing catch in the backyard again,” Nick Swisher said. “This is something my father and I have shared my whole life. If it wasn’t for a guy like him, I wouldn’t be in here talking to you all.”

Nick is the Tribe’s new first baseman, Alomar Jr. the bench coach, Terry Francona the manager and Zach McAllister the No. 4 starter.

Steve Swisher played from 1973-83 and coached for the next couple of decades, including four as a manager in Cleveland’s minor league system. He has spent too much time with his son to immediately eliminate practical joke.

“When Nick called me and told me it was a possibility, knowing him, I thought he was jacking me around,” he said while relaxing in the clubhouse before the game.

Nick convinced him, and it began to sink in.

“It almost felt like he was a little kid again,” Nick Swisher said. “He’s been out of the game a little bit now. To be able to bring him back into the world for one more day is an amazing thing.”

Steve Swisher coached Nick growing up and said the most important lesson they talked about every day was “striving to be the best you can possibly be.” He doesn’t take credit for Nick’s success — he was an All-Star in 2010 and signed the largest free-agent contract in Indians history — but when he sees Nick’s electric personality and constant smile, he’s confident he did something right.

“I just did the things I should’ve done as a father and as a coach,” said Steve, who also watched batting practice. “I don’t brag about him a lot. People know I love him and I respect him. Not just for baseball, but for the person he is. I’m so proud.”

A pair of Titos — the Franconas — enjoyed the celebration. They were just low-key about it. After all, the original Tito is nearing 80 years old.

“I don’t think he’d ever be gushing,” said Terry, the new manager who caught the toss with a left-handed catcher’s mitt. “He’s thrown a baseball a million times in his life. He’ll be really honored and he’ll be excited, but it wouldn’t be something we talked about.

“We have a job to do, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really honored.”

The Franconas share a nickname, which extends their connection. The elder Francona was always Tito, and Terry picked up the moniker as a youngster.

“It started when I was hanging around the clubhouse,” Terry said. “It was always, ‘Hey, Little Tito, do this.’ They probably didn’t know my name. It just kinda stuck. I got into pro ball and it just kinda happened. I always thought it was pretty cool.

“I love my dad. I think he was the best dad in the world. I believe it’s pretty cool.”

Whether “Field of Dreams” is the greatest baseball movie of all time is debatable, but there’s no denying the pull of the final scene when father and son share a simple game of catch.

The Indians replaced the Iowa cornfield with a bustling ballpark, but the emotions were the same.

“Definitely the greatest,” Steve Swisher said. “It’s an unbelievable experience to share with other people.

“It’s a lot of love between the father and the son. Every father wants to see their son or daughter be successful at the highest level. When they do get to the top of that mountain and you’ve helped them along the way, it makes you feel a little more special.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.