Yankees' Long a hit with players
Coach helping lineup, top to bottom, get into swing of things
The doors to the Yankees' clubhouse swung open and Alex Rodriguez was already there, standing by his locker, his full attention focused on the words of the day from hitting coach Kevin Long.
It was quite a scene this week: the half-dressed American League MVP watching his stance be mimicked in noticeably more compact, yet accurate, form. Using the carpet as a makeshift batters' box, Long repeatedly picked up his left leg and slapped it with his fingers, emphasizing the kick, and Rodriguez nodded appreciatively.
In Rodriguez, Long has developed a trusting and receptive audience, and he is not alone. Only in his second year as the Yankees' hitting coach, Long has developed a reputation as a go-to guy, and he credits his communication skills as a large reason for his early success.
"There's certain guys you get real close to and say, 'Hey, Alex, your leg kick is getting way too high and you've got to calm it.' He's fine with that," Long said. "Other guys, like [Jorge] Posada, don't want so much in-game stuff. They'd rather let it rest and then maybe come up to them the next day.
"So much of this is on an individual basis, as far as the mechanics of their swing, the psyche, the mental approach. With every hitter, there's constants, but then there's individual things that make a certain guy that don't help another guy."
Standing five feet and change, and now sporting braces after an offseason dental procedure, Long doesn't cut the most imposing figure in the clubhouse, but there are days where he seems to loom largest.
When Jason Giambi mashed two balls onto Eutaw Street at Camden Yards in Baltimore this week, just the 41st and 42nd home runs hit there since the stadium opened in 1992, the 37-year-old slugger lavished praise upon Long's shoulders for helping him get through his tough opening to the season.
Though hits refused to fall for Giambi, Long kept examining his swing and decided that tweaks weren't the answer. Giambi was making hard outs more often than not, keeping his strikeouts in check, and there were no physical adjustments necessary at that time.
"The human nature is that you want to change," Giambi said, "but Kevin Long has taken me in there and told me, 'There's nothing to change. You just keep lining out and hitting line drives. Eventually, over the long course of the year, hopefully, the results will come.'"
In these moments, Long becomes more of a mental coach, standing by to keep his hitters on track and fight the temptation to alter something -- anything -- and dig a deeper hole.
"Moral support is a huge part of it," Long said. "Being positive and being someone to lean on. When you're down and you're struggling, most people are all over you about your average or [that] you're not driving in runs.
|"With every hitter, there's constants, but then there's individual things that make a certain guy that don't help another guy."|
|-- Hitting coach Kevin Long|
Originally a 31st-round pick of the Royals in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft, Long's path to the big leagues changed after eight years as an outfielder in Kansas City's system. Making his professional coaching debut in 1997, Long managed one season and served as a hitting coach for four years in the Royals' system before jumping to become the Yankees' Triple-A hitting coach in 2004.
His experiences instilled in him an importance of substance over style, but perhaps more importantly when dealing with a roster filled by superstar players, MVPs and future Hall of Famers, Long's work ethic is what shines through.
"The thing about K-Long is that he's here for everybody," second baseman Robinson Cano said. "He's not just here for veteran players -- it doesn't matter if you're from Double-A or Triple-A. If you want to work, he'll work with you. That's the key that makes him good. He never says no."
Cano laughs and notes that even when the Yankees complete their on-field batting practice, Long often does not join them when they consume pregame meals in the players' lounge. That's because there's usually a Yankee hitting in the cages inside the stadium, and Long makes it a point to be there for them, whoever it is.
"Whenever they want to get some work done, I'd better be there," Long said.
Long estimates that he spends 60 to 70 percent of his time in the batting cages and only 10 to 15 percent on viewing players in opposing uniforms, the pitchers that are likely to be faced. The tactics of dealing with a more veteran team like the Yankees are of interest.
As Long says, most of his players have already established who they are. From Day 1 of Spring Training, Long expected that Bobby Abreu would work deep in counts, finishing near the leaders in two-strike hits. Johnny Damon would be a threat to pace the league in pitches seen as well, but for a different reason; Damon likes to take a first pitch and fouls off a lot of balls.
Then again, Derek Jeter has enjoyed great success in his playing career by being an aggressive first-pitch hitter. Though Long admits he'd like to bring emerging talents like Cano and Melky Cabrera closer to what Abreu and Damon have become, there is no perfect recipe, and Long is careful not to preach.
|"He's here for everybody. ... If you want to work, he'll work with you. That's the key that makes him good. He never says no."|
|-- second baseman Robinson Cano, on hitting coach Kevin Long|
Long may not tinker, but he also does not mince words with his feedback. It's a trait the Yankees have come to appreciate.
"He gives you a lot of confidence, and that's the best thing," Cano said. "He doesn't change your stance or anything. He'll tell you you're a good hitter, but he doesn't lie to you, either. If he thinks it's a bad pitch, it's a bad pitch."
One common refrain among hitting coaches at all levels is that many hitters don't become completely receptive to suggestions until they have hit rock bottom -- which, in Long's experience, is usually something along the lines of an 0-for-20 or a 2-for-32 slump.
At those times, desperation rules, but Long said, on average, the Yankees -- stars, rookies, journeymen and everyone in between -- have been rather good about incorporating suggestions on a season-long basis.
"They're going to falter at some point in the season, and they're going to get out of whack at some point in the season," Long said. "I'm kind of there to pick up the pieces and try to put them back together."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.