‘He’s our leader’: How leadoff slugger Kyle Schwarber became an October staple

    Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers MLB for ESPN.com.

Kyle Schwarber’s home runs this postseason have been nothing short of majestic.

One traveled 488 feet in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the San Diego Padres last week, the longest home run in Petco Park history. Another — 429 feet this time — got lost in the trees behind the center-field fence in Citizens Bank Park in Game 4.

In all, the Philadelphia Phillies slugger has hit 49 home runs this year, an NL-leading 46 during the regular season and three so far in these playoffs. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he added to that total in his second career trip to the World Series, which begins Friday against the Houston Astros.

Schwarber, though, has always hit long home runs. And if he always seems to be playing in the postseason, it’s because he usually is. Schwarber has now appeared in five league championship series in his eight-year career, for three different teams. But he brings something else to October, something his Phillies teammates want you to know has been even more valuable than his bat: his leadership.

“I compare him to Steph Curry,” rookie teammate Bryson Stott said recently. “You never hear about Steph Curry yelling at his teammates or showing anyone up on the court. And they follow his lead. He picks you up when you’re down. I don’t know what it is, honestly. Just a nice person and wants the best for everybody.

“Plus, he can crush the ball like Steph can drain 3s.”

From his days growing up in Ohio, to playing baseball at Indiana University, to his four stops in the major leagues, Schwarber has left an impression. Those close to him say he has a special touch — and it’s not just with his teammates, but even with his coaches.

“It’s hard to put a finger on what he does or how he does it but he was the one guy in my career — and I hate to admit this because I was the coach — when I had anxiety before a big game, he was the one player I could talk to who gave me confidence going into that game,” said Tracy Smith, Schwarber’s college coach at Indiana, in a phone interview this week. “I can’t say that about any other players in my career. It’s usually the reverse.

“He relaxed me.”

That indefinable quality didn’t just appear one day. It’s in Schwarber’s DNA

“I think it was a combination of everything,” said Schwarber, who’s from the Cincinnati suburb of Middletown. “It was a combination of Mom and Dad. They were blue collar, a police officer and a nurse. They worked their butts off to make sure I could do the baseball thing and travel around and my sister could ride her horses.

“Then in high school … being on the football team, where we were winning and learning how to win, also helped. In football, you have to work as one unit. Baseball is different, obviously, but I try to take that same mentality into the game and this team.”

But the road from Middletown to where Schwarber is now — an integral member of a Phillies team contending for a World Series title — wasn’t as smooth as his postseason résumé might suggest.

Smith is the first to admit his former star player wasn’t a high profile performer coming out of high school — he hit .408 with 18 home runs over the four years. He first opened eyes at Indiana, where he smashed 40 home runs and hit .342 over three seasons. That led to the Chicago Cubs drafting him No. 4 overall in 2014.

Even then, Cubs’ brass believed it could be getting a special player in the clubhouse. Team president Theo Epstein compared Schwarber’s makeup to that of Dustin Pedroia, the beloved leader of his Boston Red Sox teams, which won two World Series. Pedroia was “the straw that stirred the drink in Boston,” according to his former manager John Farrell. The Cubs envisioned Schwarber the same way.

But a terrible knee injury at the beginning of the 2016 season derailed Schwarber’s growth as a player. Even so, he earned the respect of his teammates when he admittedly worked “harder than [he] had in [his] entire life” in order to return for the World Series that season as a designated hitter against Cleveland, not yet cleared to play the field. He forever became a folk hero in Chicago, hitting .412 in four games, as the team won its first title since 1908.

The next season, the Cubs moved Schwarber to the leadoff spot, and he hit just .171 over his first 64 games. He hit rock bottom when he was demoted to the minor leagues for two weeks. Over the entire season, he hit .191 with a .312 on-base percentage while batting first.

“I was a really bad baseball player in 2017,” Schwarber said. “I mean, really bad.”

It was around that time in his life that Schwarber developed a key quality that he would take with him to other teams: self-deprecation. In a sport where failure is a constant, it might be the best attribute to possess.

“He’ll say great one-liners,” Stott said. “If you’re struggling a bit or whatever, he’ll be on the dugout rail and say ‘Hey, you’re the best out there, I’m the worst in here.’ “It just makes you smile.”

Laughing at himself was even a theme of Schwarber’s wedding day, thanks to his father. It was in December 2019, not that long after Schwarber’s struggles batting first with the Cubs, and his dad, Greg, was the first to give a toast. He hemmed and hawed and seemed flustered to those in attendance before delivering the punch line: “Us Schwarbers aren’t very good at leading off.”

The place erupted in laughter.

A couple years later, then-Cubs pitching great Jon Lester was getting ready to leave the team via free agency following the 2020 season. As the Cubs prepared for a playoff game, the team brought Lester out onto the field for what was presented to him as an emotional video tribute.

Instead, it was a montage of all of Schwarber’s fielding blunders in left field while Lester was pitching. Schwarber’s sarcastic narration under Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You,” brought down the house.

Most recently, while playing for the Red Sox in the ALDS last year, Schwarber made an error on a throw to pitcher Nathan Eovaldi while he covered first. In the next inning, when he easily connected with Eovaldi for the out, his animated celebration for the easy play got him a standing ovation.

“I think I got a laugh out of pretty much almost everyone,” Schwarber said. “I’ll be the first one to come in here and say I stink. If we can make a joke out of it, you might make yourself laugh and make someone else laugh that isn’t having a good day.”

“I’ve never seen a guy with that mentality, the way he has it,” Phillies second baseman Jean Segura said. “He’s our leader. The way he supports teammates whether he’s going good or bad. He’s just the same person.”

Almost a decade into his big league career, Schwarber also has taken it upon himself to be a resource for inexperienced players. Many of his Philadelphia teammates are playing in their first postseason, while this Fall Classic will be Schwarber’s 15th playoff series.

“He’ll take the young guys out every day and get them on the curveball machine,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He makes them feel comfortable. He makes them feel wanted. Helps them out.

“This is a guy who goes through his own slumps and while he’s going through his, he’s still helping others. That’s a rare commodity.”

Third baseman Alec Bohm, who’s gone through his own trials and tribulations this year, has felt the impact of the Schwarber touch.

“He’s the guy that will come up to you while you’re struggling and be like, ‘Hey, I’ve been there,'” Bohm said. “This is just who he is. He’s just a winner.”

Phillies players want it to be known as they prepare for the World Series that the home runs are great, of course, but their teammate is much, much more than a home run hitter. Schwarber has that touch, and even if they can’t always fully explain it, they can feel it. And it’s one thing that’s driving their improbable playoff run.

“Unless you’re actually in his physical presence, you’ll never understand it,” Smith, his college coach, said.

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto added: “As good of a player he is, he’s so much better in the clubhouse.

“He’s someone that everyone flocks to.”

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