Travis Swaggerty spent five Grapefruit League innings in center field this spring, during which he had his arm tested just once by a bases-loaded fly ball. On Feb. 23, in the sixth inning against the Tigers, he unloaded a maximum-effort throw that convinced the runner on third base to not
Travis Swaggerty spent five Grapefruit League innings in center field this spring, during which he had his arm tested just once by a bases-loaded fly ball. On Feb. 23, in the sixth inning against the Tigers, he unloaded a maximum-effort throw that convinced the runner on third base to not even attempt to beat it to the plate. It was a routine play, one Swaggerty has made countless times and will make countless times again.
But it was an action the 22-year-old hadn't performed since the end of August, and his elbow did not respond well to the nearly six-month layoff. It felt sore. The Pirates medical staff told Swaggerty, the club's No. 6 prospect, to shut down his arm for a short period. Then mid-March arrived, and everything else shut down too.
"By the time we got sent home, I was full-go and throwing normal," Swaggerty said. "My arm was pretty close to season-ready, and I know my bat was ready. I was in good shape. I felt good in the weight room. It just couldn't have come at a worse time."
Putting his career on pause because of the pandemic just as he'd almost reached ideal shape for his second full season as a pro was inconvenient. But Swaggerty since has found perspective through someone whose new reality has been altered far more -- his mom.
Michelle Blackmon has worked in different sectors of health care during her son's life, but earlier this year returned to the Denham Springs, Louisiana, area for a job in the intensive care unit at hospital in Baton Rouge and to be closer to her daughter and three grandchildren, the youngest of whom was born about a month ago.
Blackmon can't hold her newborn granddaughter because she's working directly with patients infected with COVID-19, even with personal protective equipment covering her from head to toe. With more than 34,000 reported cases in Louisiana, where there's a strong concentration in the southeastern part of the state, Blackmon is taking a risk to help others.
"She's putting her life and herself on the line to help others, and that's a huge deal," Swaggerty said. "I know it's stressful for her, but at the same time, that's what she feels like she's been called to do. She gets her job done."
Inspired and informed by his mother's sacrifices, Swaggerty has made more granular adjustments to life with fiancee Peyton in Biloxi, Mississippi. They cook instead of ordering out. They heed the directives of health officials, frequently wash their hands and avoid touching their faces. They disinfect their buggy at the grocery store for essential shopping. They even ordered a basketball hoop for the driveway so outdoor entertainment didn't put them in harm's way.
"Because if push came to shove and I had to go back and play or had to go down to Pirate City and I had not been practicing the safety precautions that I have been, maybe I'm carrying it," Swaggerty said. "And we get into close quarters at Pirate City and we're infected and the whole process starts over. It's imperative that, not just myself, but all of us take the proper precautions to stay safe and hopefully knock this thing down a little bit."
Swaggerty has stayed ready for whenever that return happens. It's easiest to prioritize conditioning; a mile run usually follows breakfast. Resistance bands and bodyweight routines fill the absence of a full weight room. When they're not enough, Swaggerty has held propane tanks during lunges and done squats with his fiancee on his shoulders. A relationship with the local high school coaching staff has given him access to a batting cage. He takes hacks at least five days a week.
"I feel like I'm ready if need be, if baseball returns and we're able to go back to Pirate City and get something going," Swaggerty said. "I'll be full-tilt, ready to go."
The hope is these improvised workouts will help Swaggerty pick up where he left off at the end of 2019, when he compiled a .306/.375/.430 slash line over the second half of a season spent entirely with Class A Advanced Bradenton. The 10th overall pick in the 2018 Draft, he batted .239/.322/383 that summer and .221/.318/.329 in the first half last year before a trip to the Florida State League All-Star Game put him back on track.
It's unclear what comes next. An assignment to Double-A Altoona isn't out of the question. But given the mystery surrounding when that might be, all Swaggerty can do at the moment is accept the challenge presented. An appreciation of his mom's willingness to do the same isn't a bad place to start.
"She's a superstar doing what she does," he said.
Joe Bloss is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.