By Sweeny Murti
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In 1998, 31-year-old Kevin Long was the hitting coach and interim manager of the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Class-A Carolina League) in the Kansas City Royals farm system. His center fielder was 21-year-old Carlos Beltran.
Sixteen years later, they are together again with the New York Yankees.
“I’m glad he’s here,” Beltran said. “To have a guy I’ve known for a long time, a guy that knew me when I was (only) a right-handed hitter, and we worked together to become a switch-hitter my second professional year.”
That’s a move that helped turn Beltran into one of the best major league hitters of his era. With 358 career home runs, only four switch-hitters in MLB history have hit more — Mickey Mantle (536), Eddie Murray (504), Chipper Jones (468) and Lance Berkman (366).
“So for me, he’s a special person,” Beltran said.
Beltran had been switch-hitting for little more than a year when the ’98 season began. And he was struggling with it.
“We were getting to the field really early for night games in Wilmington,” Long said. “And there were times, to be truthful with you, he wanted to stop doing it.”
With Long’s guidance, Beltran stuck with it.
“I just kept reassuring him that he was getting there, and he was getting closer,” Long said. “With his work ethic and the way he goes about it, I said, ‘You have a chance to be something very, very special from the left side of the plate.’ So he stayed at it, and through that time, because we spent so much time together we became really good friends.”
“He was willing to be patient with me,” Beltran said, remembering the days when things weren’t going so well and Long was there to give him the push that he needed.
“There were days where I came to the cage and I felt terrible,” Beltran recalled. “And just by listening to him — ‘Atta boy, yeah! That’s the way to go! I like it, I like it!’ — I left the cage going, ‘Man I feel great!’ All of a sudden my mental process changed. Because hitting is being positive and he does a good job with that.”
“There was just so much to cover, and you couldn’t do it in one day or one week or one month,” Long said. “You needed the full season to kind of grasp it. The days when he felt like he was going backwards or he couldn’t do it, those were the days he needed me to push him and say ‘We’re close, we’re really close. You just need to stay at it and stay on course.’”
Beltran grasped it fairly quickly, in hindsight, as he rocketed through the Royals system in ’98 and made his major league debut in September of that season. One year later, in 1999, Beltran was the American League Rookie of the Year, a 22-year-old switch-hitting, five-tool talent who batted .298/.341/.443 in 530 at-bats from the left side and compiled the first of his seven 20 HR-20 SB seasons.
Long believes that Beltran’s strong commitment is behind all his success.
“You’ve got to understand this guy’s work ethic,” Long said this week in Tampa. “It’s phenomenal. (Monday) I saw him take 300 swings left-handed and 300 right-handed — off the curveball machine! And he talked about how during the offseason he takes 1,100 swings a day! I don’t know there’s anybody around that does that. And when you see a player and what he’s become and how he’s done it, the preparation and work has to factor into it.”
Long has had the good fortune of working with many great players in his career. He puts Beltran right near the top of that list.
“I’m proud of him. I look at what he’s done and what he’s accomplished in his career. And there’s a very satisfying feeling knowing where he came from and where he is today. And (what) he’s accomplished — playoff baseball and just his career alone — if he puts up three good years here (Beltran signed a three-year, $45 million dollar contract in the offseason) you’ve got to start considering him for the Hall of Fame. That’s how special of a player he is.”
Beltran is impressed with Long’s resume, too. His former minor league manager is entering his eighth season as Yankees hitting coach.
“I was so happy when he got the job with the Yankees (in 2007),” Beltran said. “I was like, ‘Man, look at this guy. He might have hit three homers his whole career (actually 14 in eight minor league seasons), not the typical hitting coach … but he has so much passion for hitting. The way he explains things, he has a gift. He makes things look simple. That’s what it’s all about. And he’s positive. He just feeds you with positive feelings and positive words, and that’s baseball. Baseball is about staying positive and he’s a guy that does a very good job with that.”
And even though it has been a decade since they last worked in the same organization, Beltran and Long have stayed close to each other.
“Every year during the season I try to reach out to him,” Beltran said. “He texted me when I was playing with the Mets … we would go out to eat. He’s a good friend. In life you have to appreciate things when people do good things for you, you have to be able to reach back to them.”
Long stayed away from recruiting Beltran this offseason when the Yankees pursued him as a free agent, knowing he didn’t have to sell the former Met on the idea of coming to New York.
But once Beltran signed with the Yanks, Long was excited to have his former star pupil back.
“I just feel blessed and fortunate to be with a guy I have so much respect for,” Long said. “And when we saw each other and talked this offseason we couldn’t wait for the opportunity to get to work.
“He told me the other day, ‘Papi, I’m going to make you proud.’ I said, ‘Carlos there’s nothing you can do to make me more proud of who you are, the person you are, and what you’ve become as a baseball player.’”
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