Phil Swimley anticipated a stop-over job, a stepping stone.
Then something profound happened. The man best known as “Swim” never sought greener outfields or swifter currents to the big time. Swimley grew fond of Davis, and Davis of him, and he became an Aggies lifer.
Swimley coached baseball at UC Davis for 37 seasons, retiring in 2002, a searing and towering presence defined beyond his 903 victories and myriad playoff appearances. When people speak of reverence of a man, that’s all you need to know.
“I don’t remember the wins or losses as much as I remember the people,” Swimley said Friday morning. “People talk about the rivalry we had with Sac State over the years, a good one. (One-time Hornets coach) Cal Boyes and I had a deal. They guy who won would have the other coach’s family over for dinner. We did that for years.
That’s the Swim influence. He could be as gregarious as he could be game-time fierce.
And Swimley draws a loyal crowd. For years, Swimley and friends – alums, players, neighbors, UCD professors – would roll up their sleeves and work on improving the baseball field, transforming Dobbins Stadium into the gem that it is today. A crew on their own time and dollar would drive shoves into the dirt, pour cement, and plant grass and seats.
On April 15, that field will be named after Swimley in a ceremony sure to be equal bits humor and reflection. Typical Swimley, he wonders what the fuss is about and if there’s something better on TV to watch.
Swimley will be flanked by family, including his wife of 56 years, Marilyn.
It wasn’t exactly a 3-ring circus of characters that helped get that field built, but close.
“There were about seven of us really involved in it, and we had hats made – Ring-a-Ding-a-Ling Construction,” said Ralph Rago with a laugh.
Rago has known Swimley since the early 1960s and coached with him for years at UCD, adding, “Phil deserves this honor. He built that field and that program.”
Swimley tapped into any resource he could. Someone located rows of seats that had been yanked out of the Kingdome in Seattle. They were purchased for $8 each and hauled to Yolo County.
The field honor is fitting. UCD embraces its tradition and famed coaches. Bob Hamilton Court at The Pavilion was named after the famously fuming yet lovable men’s basketball coach. Jim Sochor Field at Aggie Stadium is in honor of the Hall of Fame mentor known for his cerebral style and scarf.
“Great coach, great man,” said Dan Ariola, the Davis High coach who played for Swimley in the early 1980s. “I wanted him to get 1,000 wins!
Swimley grew up in Stockton, emerging as a star pitcher/outfielder/slugger for the Washington Huskies, landing on their All-Century team. He reached Double A in the Yankees organization at a time when the New York outfield included Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Swimley became the UCD coach in 1965 at 25, doubling as defensive coordinator under Sochor for nine seasons.
It was Swimley who raced onto the football field to argue with officials in the famed 1971 “Miracle Game” against Hayward that the game could not end on a penalty. UCD had another shot to win it, and did, igniting a run of 20 consecutive seasons when the Aggies won a conference championship.
“That game changed us as a football program, and Phil was a great coach,” the late Sochor said years ago.
Swimley so enjoyed football that he nearly landed the Sac State football post in 1978. The gig went to Bob Mattos, and things worked out well for both sides. Mattos jump-started the Hornets and Swimley focused solely on baseball, elevating the Aggies into a national brand.
“I don’t know if I was disappointed I didn’t get that job or relieved,” Swimley said. “It would’ve been a huge change for my family, my direction.”
The following spring, John Smith met Swimley, and a friendship was formed. Smith was in his first season coaching the Hornets, his alma mater.
“We were playing Davis, and they’re kicking the dog out of us,” said Smith, now the special assistant to the athletic director at Sac State by morning and the athletic director for the Sacramento City Unified School District by night. “After the game, I’m in the dugout, looking like I lost my best friend or someone shot my dog, and here comes Phil. He tells me I can’t take this so hard. Give it time. He was right. We got better. He consoled me. He’s that classy, that sort of high-character individual, and he coached all those years the right way, above board. I learned that from him, and I tried to model our program after what he did.”
Smith jokes that a good many of Swimley’s 903 wins came at his expense. Swimley won his 500th against the Hornets in 1990 and his 800th against the Hornets in 1999. Swimley is retired, but not really.
When he isn’t helping former player such as Rob Rinaldi at Pleasant Grove with the pitchers, he is tracking the progress of his grandson, Danny Hayes, the former Jesuit and Oregon State star now in Triple A in the White Sox organization.
Hayes’ father, Dan, played for Swimley in the early 1980s, a family tree that continues to grow.
Said Swimley of his career and that field, “When I look back, it looks like an irrational idea. There’s no way I could’ve predicted all of this happening.”