By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Still on his Feet: Sam Swenson: The Grizzlies' spirit animal

Rockne Roll/News-Register##When he doesn’t play first base for the McMinnville baseball team, senior Sam Swenson has been known to throw a few relief innings – 16 1/3, to be precise, including a start. Swenson has posted a 1.29 earned-run average and accumulated two saves in 2016.
Rockne Roll/News-Register##When he doesn’t play first base for the McMinnville baseball team, senior Sam Swenson has been known to throw a few relief innings – 16 1/3, to be precise, including a start. Swenson has posted a 1.29 earned-run average and accumulated two saves in 2016.

Sam Swenson takes pride in his defense.
Being a first baseman seems so easy, right? See ball, catch ball. Field grounder, step to the left. Sabermetrics at the Major League Baseball level have been unkind to the first baseman, he of the few balls in play received and, thus, limited importance on strong defense. Recent vintages of the Seattle Mariners have showcased scores of first basemen fitting a similar physical profile: tall, barrel-chested and more limited in turning radius than a tractor semi-trailer. The names have changed – Richie Sexson, Ben Broussard, Justin Smoak – but the defensive profile remains the same.
“I think that first base can kind of get overlooked at times,” McMinnville baseball coach Jordan Harlow said in March. “I think people take for granted how much athleticism it takes to play the position. It’s nice to have him.”
Swenson takes a swashbuckler’s approach to defense. He throws his 6-foot-3 body to and fro as the situation calls for it, with a foot always judiciously applied to the bag. (And if he must step off to stave off a major catastrophe, so be it.) The 2016 season has proven that the Grizzlies’ infielders – Cedric Agcaoili-Ostrom, Kade Mechals, Jesse Ehrhart, Brad Hessel and Wyatt Smith, among others – do a good job of fielding ground balls and throwing them to first base where Swenson can catch it.
Nevertheless, if the situation calls for it, Swenson is ready to dig deep.
“That’s the thing with him: he kind of defies that stereotype,” Harlow said. “He knows the game, he knows where he’s supposed to go with the baseball and he can kind of be that vocal leader with kind of your more traditional, shortstop, catchers, that know where to go with it, so that’s nice to have.”
No doubt, McMinnville baseball is back in the OSAA Class 6A state quarterfinals because of the team effort involved. The Grizzlies have not allowed more than three runs to an opponent since May 6. They are among the top seven teams in Class 6A in run prevention (91 allowed in 29 games); five of the seven remain in the playoff hunt. With a team batting average of .294 and an on-base percentage of .409, the Grizzlies have executed their small-ball offensive game plan consistently, with occasionally brilliant results.
Still, let’s spare a thought for Swenson, the dynamic person and athlete in an unglamorous position, the kid who looks the part of a baseball player but doesn’t always behave like one.
Three-sport athletes are, indeed, more rare these days, but Swenson pulled off a rare triple for his senior year. He played tight end on McMinnville’s football team and swam on the Grizzlies’ state runner-up boys swimming team before returning to baseball in the spring.
“I remember telling him when he was a sophomore that I thought it was great that we had a couple of guys that swam and played baseball,” Harlow said. “I knew it was good for their shoulders and good for their endurance. I tell the guys all the time, my mom was a high-level swimmer, so I always joke around with them, ‘Hey, I have swimming in my gene pool.’”
He performs his feats of athleticism with an unseen ailment. Swenson’s left kidney is “the size of a golf ball.”
“I was born with two healthy kidneys. One shriveled up (to) half the size and the other one’s twice as big,” Swenson said. “I had kidney stones when I was two – I don’t remember it, fortunately. Eight years old, I felt I was having appendicitis. It was on the wrong side.
“I have one kidney and an enlarged bladder, so I can hold more pee and hold when I go. I thought that was pretty cool at the age of eight years old and the doctor said, ‘No, this is bad.’
“It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because I can’t drink when I get older, so I can stay away from that. It gives me a good excuse to get out of situations I don’t want to be in. It doesn’t bother me at all. I embrace it.
“Also, if I get shot, which I doubt it, and it goes through my left kidney – heeeey, it missed!”
It can be ascertained that Swenson has both a positive and thoroughly original outlook on life. He is grounded in his faith – it partly influenced his decision to play baseball at George Fox in college; Swenson was offered a walk-on position at Oregon State and failed a physical for Army West Point because of the kidney – but zany in his antics, so much so that Harlow occasionally has to calm him down.
What all can agree on: Swenson locks in when it’s time for the first pitch.
“He definitely understands, guys like he and Kade and Wyatt, they know what it takes,” Harlow said. “They’ve been a part of this thing before.”
Without Swenson, McMinnville baseball would still be a force. With Swenson, the Grizzlies maintain their sweetness and light.

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