PHILADELPHIA (AP)Kevin Long was summoned to George Steinbrenner’s office.
”You want to tell me what’s going on with Jason Giambi?” the New York Yankees owner thundered.
”I said, `Boss, I like his swings.”’
”He’s hitting .180,” Steinbrenner snapped at the rookie coach, Long recalled. ”If you don’t get his average above .200 in the next two weeks, you’re out of here.”
Fifteen years later, Long has become Major League Baseball’s most successful hitting coach. He’s reached the World Series with a fourth team at age 55, pursuing a third title with the Philadelphia Phillies after earning rings with the Yankees in 2009 and Washington in 2019.
”I don’t wear them very often,” he said. ”I’ll wear them out to dinner once in a while or to a nice family function or something like that. But they’re gaudy and I’m always afraid I’ll lose one.”
With big league batting averages at a half-century low, a hitting coach’s job keeps getting more grueling: A night after hitting five home runs in five innings against Houston, the Phillies became the second team to be no-hit in the World Series, keeping Long two wins from another ring.
A second-team All-America outfielder at Arizona, Long spent eight years in the Kansas City farm system and rose as high as Triple-A, a career .273 hitter with 14 homers and 241 RBIs.
Rather than go back to the minors in 1997, Long asked Royals minor league operations head Bob Hegman if he could coach, and Long started at extended spring training – the bottom of the professional pyramid.
”I was a little disappointed in the fact that I wasn’t coached and I needed coaching. I wasn’t talented enough to get by and I felt with maybe a little more coaching, I might have been able to make it,” Long said. ”I felt a strong desire to help players that were in my situation try to get better.”
A month into his new job, he was dispatched to Delaware.
”They said: ‘We have a major project for you. We have a kid named Carlos Beltran in Wilmington. We want you to teach him how to switch hit,” Long recalled.
”We started from scratch, we started with basically just his hands and his path. We did a lot of short bat work, top and bottom hand drills, just anything that I could do to simplify it at first. And then we added on to his swing from there.”
A natural right-hander, Beltran hit 435 homers from 1998-2007 – including 311 left-handed – fourth-most among switch-hitters behind Mickey Mantle (536), Eddie Murray (504) and Chipper Jones (468).
Long moved up to Double-A Wichita and Triple-A Omaha. When he didn’t get an interview to become Kansas City’s hitting coach for 2004, he asked Bucky Dent, Omaha’s manager in 2002, to add him to his staff with the Yankees’ Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Long worked there for three seasons and was promoted to manager Joe Torre’s major league staff in 2007. He held the job through 2014, working alongside Rob Thomson under both Torre and Joe Girardi.
Long was let go after the 2014 season, then became hitting coach of the Mets from 2015-17 – reaching the World Series in his first season – and the Nationals from 2018-21 before joining the Phillies this year under Girardi.
Girardi was fired June 3 with Philadelphia at 21-29, and Thomson was promoted from bench coach to first-time major league manager.
”Kevin is one of my best friends,” Thomson said. ”He’s a guy that I really rely on, I really trust. He is the best hitting coach I’ve been around, not just mechanically and game planning, but also the fact that when a player leaves the cage to go into the game, he thinks he can really hit. … He’s great at making players feel good about themselves. His energy and his positive outlook just reverberates throughout the entire team.”
Success in baseball comes with hiccups. Cristian Javier and three relievers shut the Phillies down in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Kyle Schwarber already was thinking about the task for Game 5. He worked with Long on last year’s Nationals and this year led the National League with 46 homers, plus four more in the postseason.
”I didn’t come off a good year in 2020. And we worked on a lot of things, we worked getting back my legs, using my legs, getting back to staying right and trying not to get away from my body,” Schwarber said. ”He’s always upbeat. That’s kind of the biggest thing. He’s a guy that when you go into the cage and you don’t feel good and you have a bad cage session, you’re going to walk away feeling like you’re still going to get two hits.”
Philadelphia was sixth in homers, up from 15th, and seventh in scoring, up from 13th.
In an age where analytics are omnipresent, Long is old school.
”I’ve been granted the freedom to work and do what I do, and that’s been the best part about it,” he said. ”I think some people are micromanaged and they’re told to do this or do that or we’re going to fall on this analytical program. I don’t have devices. I don’t have TrackMan. I don’t look at launch angles. I don’t look at exit velo after every swing. Most teams do now. I just know if the ball is hit, I know if it’s coming off right. I know the mechanics of the swing. So I feel very comfortable doing what I’ve been doing for pretty much my whole life.”
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