A SPRING THING: Post 21 coach recalls annual trips to spring training

A SPRING THING: Post 21 coach recalls annual trips to spring training

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VALDESE — Ron Swink has spent his entire life around sports, most notably around the baseball diamond.

A current assistant coach for the Burke County Post 21 American Legion baseball team, Swink was the club’s head coach for nearly 30 years, and afterward, was N.C. Area IV commissioner in legion ball for several years.

The former multi-sport athlete at Salem also was heavily involved in fastpitch softball as a young adult and has been an assistant coach or helped in some capacity at three of the four current high school baseball programs in Burke County. (Swink also officiated high school basketball for over 25 years until giving up the whistle nearly a decade ago.)

As many in the sport become, Swink is a baseball lifer and recounts becoming an avid Braves fan while they were still in Milwaukee. He remembers how teams would travel together and play in different towns across the country, and an early thrill of his was getting to see the Braves play in 1957 when they were traveling with the St. Louis Cardinals and played against them in Columbia, S.C.

In 2009, Swink and his wife, Lisa, made the decision to mark one big bullet point off their “bucket list” by taking yearly trips to spring training in Florida.

The Swinks rode Ron’s motorcycle down and back each year from 2009-18. They made the trip by themselves the first three or four years, “then Tim Rhoney and Laura Baird started going with us and we’d share the cost,” Swink said.

“We started out staying in Kissimmee, that’s where the Braves were and the Astros,” Swink recalls. “Braves were on the west side of Kissimmee at Disney World, and the Astros were on the east side of Kissimmee. Lakeland, where the Tigers were, was only 20 miles south. Then we’d ride down to Tampa and see the Yankees or ride down to Bradenton and see the Pirates or go to Sarasota to see the Orioles.”

Swink spoke of the intensity of watching major-league stars like Justin Verlander pitch in person and how unhittable he was at that time. He also talked about seeing up-and-coming prospects like Jason Heyward prove that they belonged on the big stage.

“I knew he wasn’t going back to the minors.” Swink said of Heyward.

However, his favorite memories from spring training came from seeing former players that he coached get their shot with the big clubs.

“The most fun Lisa and I had was going to see Steven Stewart, he was with the Nationals,” Swink said. “Then going to see Aaron Attaway, who did a couple summers of spring training with Toronto.”

Swink said one moment with a former player of his ultimately led to a face-to-face conversation with a Hall of Famer.

“The most successful player I’ve had as far as big leagues is Allen Thomas.” Swink begins, speaking of the Morganton native who won a World Series ring with the Chicago White Sox in 2005 as the strength and conditioning coach for the club.

“We went to Arizona just one time, four years ago, to see teams we hadn’t seen. I didn’t get any tickets for the White Sox, hadn’t even planned on going to see them. As it worked out, we usually take one day off. I called Allen and left him a message telling him we don’t have anything to do tomorrow so after you’re through let’s get something to eat and sit around and talk. He called back and said can you be here at 11 o’clock tomorrow?”

Swink agreed to meet Thomas at the spring training facility at that time.

“We pulled up. I went up right to that gate and said ‘We’re here to see Allen Thomas,’” Swink recalls. “He said ‘Yes sir, Mr. Swink, come right on in.’ We go to Allen’s door, and he’s not in his office and this big 6-foot-7 guy come walking through there and said, ‘Just sit down, Allen will be back in a minute.’ Allen came back and took us in the back and showed us the practice fields and everything was really sharp. As we was walking out there was a guy out there with a little boy and Allen says ‘That’s Jim Thome and his son.’”

Swink was impressed but had seen major leaguers, even Hall of Famers on the field before, so he didn’t consider it out of the ordinary. Swink said Thomas then left them to tend to one his players before coming back moments later.

“He said ‘Coach, I want to introduce you.’ I got up and started walking toward him. It was Jim Thome,” Swink said, adding that he became star-struck for the first time in his baseball life.

“He came and sat down between me and Lisa and we talked like we had been friends for years. Just the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. Hall of Fame player, Hall of Fame person. I mean, he didn’t know us from Adam and he sat there and talked and talked and signed a ball, and I was so awe-struck.”

The moment did not go by without Swink having to educate his grandson.

“I called my grandson and said I got an autograph from Jim Thome. He said, ‘Who is that?’ I said, ‘Look him up.’” Swink laughed.

That same grandson, Mason Mozeley, now plays baseball for Freedom High School, which has compelled the Swinks to put their annual trips to spring training on hold for the time being so they can watch their grandson play.

Whether more spring training is in Swink’s future plans or not, one thing is for certain. Baseball is in the plans and always will be.

 

Corey Carroll can be reached at sports@morganton.com.

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