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Billy Swift’s Road to the Major Leagues

May 29, 1988

Undated (AP) _ The phone rang shortly after 4 a.m., and Herb Swift snapped awake and jumped from bed to answer it. With 14 kids, ″it’s scary when the phone rings at that hour,″ he said.

But this was good news. This was the call Herb Swift had been waiting for much of his life.

It was Billy. ″Dad, they called me up.″

Herb Swift didn’t sleep the rest of the night. He did some shouting, and he walked restlessly around the house in South Portland, Maine. Billy was going to play for the Seattle Mariners.

″If I never see another ballgame, at least I know he made the majors,″ he said, recalling his thoughts. ″I always wanted to, but I was too small.″

Billy was Herb’s last chance to realize the dream. None of his other five sons had the same special combination of skill and desire.

Herb knew it before Billy reached high school. So did Billy’s high school coach and American Legion coach, and so did John Winkin, the coach at the University of Maine, where Billy became a state hero.

But nothing is automatic. Nothing is for sure.

Billy joined the Seattle Mariners in Detroit the day of the phone call in 1985, and two days later won a game in relief. But he lost 10 of his next 15 decisions and the following season won only 2 of 11 decisions before finishing the season with Calgary, 4-4.

Then came the arm injury that sidelined him most of last season and threatened his career. But he’s back for another try this season.

By late-May, he was 4-1 after throwing a three-hitter in Yankee Stadium and beating the Boston Red Sox in two straight complete games.

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Herb Swift likes to say that while other fathers put a rattle in the crib, ″I put a baseball in, and Billy was the only one who threw it back.″

Only kidding. But there were early signs.

″I just knew it from being his father,″ said Herb, 65, who himself got as far Class B minor leagues as a pitcher in the 1940s. ″You see things from playing the sport that others don’t see.

″He’s sincere about the game. A lot of guys joke about it. They don’t pay attention. They don’t get the message.″

Herb’s other sons were good, but they didn’t hunger for it, he said. ″Billy had it.″

Herb coached Billy’s Little League team and his team in the Senior League. By then, Billy was a good-hitting outfielder on days he was not a winning pitcher. But not every day was a good one, and Herb used those off-days, too, to teach his son.

During one of Billy’s few bad days on the mound, Herb left the dugout to take him out of the game. Billy wouldn’t give up the ball.

Herb left him in, and when the other team went on to score 18 runs, Herb refused to take him out.

″He taught me something,″ Billy said when reminded of the game. ″He wanted me to learn how to lose.″

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The Swifts were known for their athletic skills in South Portland well before Billy’s star began to shine. He was the 14th of 15 children, and all of them were athletes. Two were all-state guards in basketball.

″Two of my daughters could have played third base on any boys high school team in the state,″ Herb said.

The Swifts would challege other families in softball games when they weren’t playing against each other. ″It was really competitive,″ Billy recalled.

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Al Bean, who coached Billy’s American Legion team, remembered when Billy came to him as a 16-year-old. He had a great arm, an average fast ball with a lot of movement and no breaking pitches. ″Mechanically, he wasn’t very solid.″ No. 3 pitcher.

At that stage, he probably was a better hitter than pitcher, and Bean said college and pro scouts looked at him as an outfielder. During one Legion tournament, he went 17 for 21.

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