“It’s a challenge,” Michael Harris said. “I like a challenge.”
Professional athletes — those with the strength to hit baseballs 450 feet and throw them at least 95 mph — aim to find the answers to “10-Across” or “6-Down” in peaceful moments before moving on to study the opponent. pitchers and hitters. It serves as a calm start to the day, a prelude to the pressure-filled spots and tense moments to come later that day or night.
Braves players do crossword puzzles at home and on the road. When they visit clubs, they can sit on a sofa with a coffee table in front of it, or at a larger table with chairs around it. They can even go to the kitchen area and use the tables there. This depends on the configuration of a particular visiting club.
“It’s like your ‘me time,'” Swanson said. “It’s just a good way to keep your brain active and fired up, rather than sitting on your phone watching whatever stupid video is on the Internet.”
The crossword puzzle’s origins in the Braves clubhouse, at least in recent years, can be traced to Tyler Flowers, the former catcher who is a special assistant in major league operations for the Braves. In 2018, in Wright’s first spring practice, he always saw Flowers doing crossword puzzles. “He was crazy smart and would crush them in five, 10 minutes,” Wright said. “It would take me forever.” That’s when Wright got into them, and that’s why he takes credit for their proliferation in the club these days.
But Swanson, Wright said, deserves credit for increasing their popularity among players. “It’s just kind of spreading like wildfire,” Wright said. Now, the Braves have a solid lineup of guys who want to hammer out crossword puzzles. Among that group: Wright, Swanson, Matt Olson, Max Fried, Travis d’Arnaud, Vaughn Grissom and Harris. Wright said Collin McHugh joins them from time to time, “but I think they’re a little too easy for him because he crushes them.”
Swanson said some of his teammates — like d’Arnaud, AJ Minter, Austin Riley and Mike Ford (when he was with the big league team) — like Sudoku puzzles. They work the brain in a similar way.
Crossword puzzles, which vary in difficulty, give players a way out of a long and grueling season. Baseball is such a mental scramble, and crossword puzzles offer players a way to have fun while they relax.
“All we do is play sports and be athletes, so to do something different like challenge the brain and feel a sense of accomplishment other than the score on the field, I think it’s just fun,” Wright said. “We’re here, we’re on the field most of the day, so to do something besides baseball, I think that’s where it’s at. It’s just something different. It kind of makes the day a little different because it’s a new (puzzle) every day. It just adds a little variety to our normal routine that is almost the same every day. At the end of the day, it’s just fun and it’s different.”
“It just became a thing where, like, guys just started doing them together,” said Swanson, who started doing crossword puzzles consistently this season. “Not necessarily in terms like ‘together’, like we’re working on them together, we just sit down together and do them. We don’t really share answers because we’re all trying to do our own thing. But yeah, it’s definitely kind of become part of a set of our routines, just to start the day when we get here.”
After the Braves called Harris in late May, Harris noticed something. He doesn’t know why everyone grabs a piece of paper and goes to the kitchen and finishes it. As it turned out, his teammates were doing crossword puzzles.
Harris realized he might get into them one day. Well, at the series in Miami earlier this month, he sat down and did a crossword puzzle for the first time in his life. Swanson helped Harris, who eventually completed the puzzle, solve it.
“It’s good to get your brain working, moving on to other things,” Harris said. “It just takes away from the game or how your day was or whatever. It’s good. It’s good to do every day.”
At home, Jeff Pink, a member of the Braves’ major league clubhouse staff, prints out crossword puzzles. On the way, one of the employees of the visiting club does this.
Sometimes there are too many options, although players seem to prefer the USA Today version over others. For example, the visiting club at Citi Field in New York often has five or six options – and some are extremely difficult. Wright will often grab one and, if it seems impossible, put it down and say, “No, we’re just going to throw this away, try again tomorrow.”
“I think (USA Today crossword puzzles) are most of our speed because they’re doable,” Wright said. “Many of the others — like if you work with the New York Times, none of us have a chance. But USA Today, they do a good job of keeping it pretty up to date, so it’s more important, I think, for someone who just wants to try it out. The New York Times and there are a few others I haven’t shot.”
Wright and Swanson both went to Vanderbilt, a prestigious academic university. Is it a coincidence that the two boys from that school are the ones running this brain exercise?
“It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think,” Wright said. “Probably the two smartest guys in the locker room.”
“I don’t really believe in coincidences, so no,” Swanson added.
The Braves don’t necessarily race each other to see who can complete the puzzles the fastest, but there is a competitive spirit involved. “I think whenever there are some tough ones, you can hold it against another guy’s head,” Wright said. When the boys struggle, their teammates try to help them. Completing crossword puzzles seems to be popular around baseball, Wright said, but the Braves are probably more collectively interested in it than other clubs.
These days, many people default to using their phones when they have a few minutes to spare. They find themselves on social media or elsewhere online. The Braves’ love of crosswords feels like a blast from the past.
After the Braves finish a game, they go to the clubhouse, shower and get dressed to leave. Everyone leaves at their own pace and goes home or back to the hotel.
When they arrive the next day, the latest crossword will be waiting for them.
“It’s just a good way to get your brain working and fired up in a different way that doesn’t have to do with baseball,” Swanson said. “It’s almost like your time. You’re like on the field, but you’re not quite 100% just all baseball. It’s like, ‘I’m going to sit down, I’m going to eat, I’m going to have a coffee and I’m going to do this crossword.’
“Once that’s done, my day begins.”