The Atlanta Braves on Tuesday begin their quest to capture their fourth World Series championship, after knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the National League Championship Series. It’s the next step for a core group of Braves players who have worked for several years to get the storied franchise back to baseball’s biggest stage for the first time since 1999.
For shortstop Dansby Swanson, it’s the next step in a journey both on and off the field that started with a deep internal struggle, one marked by a battle of mental health and spiritual reckoning that he credits for eventually leading him to a deeper faith in God and a stronger sense of identity.
“I really felt this calling that something was going to be different for me in my spiritual life,” Swanson said on the Sports Spectrum Podcast back in March, ahead of the 2021 season.
The Braves entered the 2019 offseason with plenty of excitement after a second straight postseason appearance following a five-year drought. Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2015 out of Vanderbilt, remembers that people were starting to figure out that this Braves team was a force to be reckoned with.
But later that offseason, that excitement was met with anxiety for Swanson. He could tell that something felt off for him mentally, so he started working with renowned mental wellness coach Armando Gonzalez.
One night while walking his dog with his girlfriend, U.S. soccer player Mallory Pugh, he remembers feeling a tidal wave of anxiety rush over him. It was so bad he could hardly breathe, he said.
He didn’t think it was an anxiety attack, but he remembers feeling “paralyzed” by fear.
“I was having a hard time breathing,” Swanson said. “I was having a hard time speaking, moving. I had to think about it to do it. It was all very robotic.”
He knew something needed to change. He worked with Gonzalez to develop a routine to help him stay centered on important things and cope with the anxiety better.
“We started to talk about things that were going to help me grow spiritually and mentally during that time,” he said. “It really started to lead me down to this calling, this spiritual component.”
Swanson and Gonzalez started diving into Scripture every morning and breaking it down to understand it. He and Pugh started a Bible study with Braves team chaplain Terry Evans. Swanson started doing some meditation on top of the Scripture reading in the mornings.
“I really started to feel like I was connecting more with myself, which in turn was connecting me more with God,” Swanson said. “He’s made us all in a certain way and made us to be who we’re supposed to be. I felt like after I started to do that consistently, I really was embracing who He had made me to be.”
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It came down to Swanson simply deciding to trust in God and give his worries to the Lord.
“If anything, the lesson that I’ve learned was that you can’t go wrong trusting and growing closer to God,” Swanson said. “Whatever way that works for you is what works for you. But spend time with God. Legitimately spend time in the words that He wrote through people that were on this earth. Spend time in prayer and meditation and silence. Do these things to grow near to Him.
“I really started to feel His presence more, and I really started to feel more comfortable with the callings and stuff that He’s put on my heart.”
Later that offseason, Swanson attended a service at Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where lead pastor Kevin Queen and well-known author and podcaster Annie Downs, who serves as an associate pastor at the church and is a vocal Braves supporter, prayed over him.
“I just kind of felt this calling and peace that this was going to be a great year for me spiritually,” Swanson said. “[Downs] even said the same thing, like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I just feel like there’s this calling for you to really grow in your spiritual life this year.'”
Around the same time, Swanson reconnected with Brooks Webb, who serves as the general manager and chief of staff for the Vanderbilt baseball team. Webb told Swanson that his best career year would come after his best year spiritually.
“That really stuck with me, because this year was my best year, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it’s because of how much my spiritual life had grown,” he said of his 2020 season.
Swanson finished the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a .274 average, 10 home runs, and 35 RBIs. Stretched out over a full season, it very well could’ve ended up as his best season statistically. He followed that up in 2021 by batting .248 with career highs in home runs (27) and RBIs (88). He also played a career-high 160 games, which was tied for the NL lead along with teammate Austin Riley.
Last season for the Braves ended with a crushing loss in Game 7 of the NLCS to the Dodgers, but Swanson said the team could tell it was ready to break through. That loss felt like the last hurdle this group needed to jump over to get to where they want to go, he said.
Between the young core and veterans like Freddie Freeman, Swanson feels like the time is now for the Braves. The only thing standing in their way is the Houston Astros, an experienced team that won the World Series in 2017 with largely the same core that’s there now.
“We really do have the perfect storm of talent and personality, so it’s just fun thinking about moving forward and continuing to grow and get better,” Swanson said on the podcast before this season. “I think it’s one of the most fulfilling things in the world, is when you set out to do something together and each year you’re continuing to grow and accomplish and get better.”
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