Long staying connected to his hitters during shutdown

Don Long took his seat on one of the buses parked at the Ed Smith Stadium complex on March 12, assuming that he wouldn’t rise again until arriving in Fort Myers for a night game against the Twins.

The trip lasted about as long as it takes to fill out a lineup card.

The bus made four left turns and was back in camp. The Orioles were on the verge of a sports-wide shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We left and literally got around the corner and somebody got a call and they turned us back around,” Long said earlier this week in a phone conversation. “That was probably just after 1:15 when the bus was supposed to leave and we stayed there until MLB made their announcement sometime after 4 o’clock.”

long-don-squinting-spring-sidebar.jpgLong, in his second season as Orioles hitting coach, returned to his Seattle-area home two days later. A much larger U-turn than he first anticipated.

“I know they obviously canceled our game that day and we kind of got put in a holding pattern for the next day,” Long said. “We were supposed to work out and then we got a text late that night saying, ‘Tomorrow’s going to be a day off and then we’ll be in touch.’ And then we heard that Friday afternoon that we could disperse, I guess.

“I figured that once they kind of shut down spring training it was going to be a while because by canceling the rest of the games at that point, there was probably less than two weeks left. And if it were a two-week delay, you’d certainly have to have some startup time again. It just felt like with the cancellation of the rest of spring and sending people home, it’s a big task to get everybody back, even if it’s a shorter delay. So I figured it might be a while.

“I knew nothing, but my sense was that it was going to take a while.”

It’s been two months and counting.

Technology allows for more teaching, or at least staying in touch. Long has been able to remain connected to his players, manager Brandon Hyde and the rest of the coaching staff. Phone calls, emails and text messages no longer are the only sources of communication. Zoom video conference calls are all the rage in 2020.

“We’ve done that at least twice as a group and with all the coaches and Brandon,” Long said. “And then I created a text chain with all the hitters and then I created another one for the hitting coaches in development, the guys in the minor leagues. And we actually did a Zoom call a while back.

“I’ve actually talked to quite a few of the players just to kind of check in with them and see how their workouts are going and what they’re doing and all that. And periodically they’ll send me video of them hitting in some random cage somewhere, just to check in and keep that going. And on my own I’ve been doing a lot of research on our guys from last year and trying to find ways they can improve and communicate that with them. Even though we’re not actually able to work on it, I know that they’re doing things.

“I’m able to communicate where they were really strong last year, what I think they can improve on. So just trying to make the best of the situation.”

There’s no substitute for facing live pitching in a competitive environment. It can’t be replicated in an indoor batting cage. But players are doing the best they can under the circumstances.

Long seems comfortable with where the hitters are in terms of their readiness for a second opening of camp, whether it’s in Sarasota or Baltimore. The groundwork was laid at a complex that no longer grants access.

“In the spring we really tried to not necessarily change, but we really tried to enhance the way we practiced, so there’s a lot of research out there now about block versus random practice,” he said. “A blocked practice would be kind of doing the same thing every day, doing the same routine every day, whereas a random practice would be more like mixing it up and having different variables. Making it harder, in a sense.

“The biggest challenge in hitting is where these guys are at now. You don’t get the opportunity to face live pitching in practice like you do in a game. If you think about most other sports, whether it’s hockey or football or basketball, you can scrimmage. You can actually play the game in practice. Where that becomes a lot more difficult in terms of hitting and facing live pitching in baseball. So we’ve been doing a lot of that stuff. That’s what I’ve been encouraging guys to try to do. And a lot of them don’t have access to even a machine.

“It might be with somebody throwing to them or a couple of them might be paired up still in Florida and working out together. So we’ve tried to come up with some things they can do to try to challenge themselves to work a little bit differently, try to work a little bit more game-like. And I feel good that they’re still working and doing everything they can to try to stay as sharp as they can.”

For a season that is only an assumption.

Optimism is on the rise within the industry, though there are plenty of hurdles to clear before an actual report date can be set.

It isn’t just about scheduling, ballparks and divisions. There’s also the available testing for the coronavirus. The health risks that must be erased in order for a season, even in its stunted state, to be plausible.

The sport will survive if put on hold until 2021, though the lost revenue is going to hurt. Fans will come back. They’re starving for it and will attack the buffet. But can the reunion be held later this summer?

“It’s hard to say. I mean, what do I know? I know as much as anybody else,” Long said.

“I’m very hopeful of that, for sure. Obviously, baseball is trying to do it in a way, if you believe what you read, that’s the right way and do it safely. But certainly we want to stay optimistic and hopeful that we’re able to have some semblance of the season.”

* My first experience as a full-time Orioles beat reporter for The Baltimore Sun came in the spring of 1997, after lead writer Buster Olney put in his two-week notice to accept a job covering the Yankees for The New York Times. His backup, Jason La Canfora, did the same in order to cover the NHL’s Red Wings in Detroit.

Olney’s replacement, Joe Strauss, wouldn’t arrive from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution until the workout at Camden Yards prior to opening day. Meanwhile, I was told by my editors that I’d no longer be responsible for the small colleges at the paper. Could I hustle down to Fort Lauderdale and handle the Orioles?

Of course, I accepted the offer. I showed up at camp, clueless about pretty much everything related to spring training. Olney was the first to offer advice - a guy who started making phone calls as soon as his eyes opened in the morning. An intense reporter who told me to always be the last guy out of the clubhouse. “Sweep it out,” was the term used. The best way to avoid getting beat on a story.

Olney left and Peter Schmuck, the veteran Sun columnist who retired yesterday, pulled me aside and said something that always stuck with me.

“It’s baseball. Have fun.”

They were both right. Olney’s methods and talent earned him a truckload of scoops and respect, which led to his gig at ESPN. Schmuck concluded a four-decade career that included stacks of awards, more than his share of scoops and a reputation developed as one of the most easy-going and lovable guys in the business.

That’s what I’ll miss most about “Schmucker,” as he so often was called with great affection. In fact, I rarely address him as “Pete” or “Peter.” The majority of his peers call him “Schmuck” or, yes, “Schmucker.” To use his actual first name feels weird. Like you’re outside the circle.

(We’re big on nicknames around here. I’ll always be “Rocco,” though I feel like I was born with a nickname. How many Rochs do you know?)

This is my long-winded way of saying that I’m going to miss Schmuck, though it’s comforting that he isn’t leaving the state. He’s going to be around and we’ll stay in contact. Though perhaps not as much as promised, because you know how these things work. But I certainly hope so.

I’ve got hundreds of great Schmuck stories, far too many to share here. We had hilarious moments on the beat and in real life. And one of the main things I’ll always love about him is how he was there for me in both cases.

He could be a wonderful mentor or sounding board on the job. A voice of reason. A calming influence for my Type-A personality. He also could deliver a needed kick in the butt.

Schmuck was the first person to tell me that starting a blog at The Sun rather than being the lead beat guy following the 2005 season was the best thing to happen and I’d grow to absolutely love it.

I really had to be convinced because I was the first person in sports to do it, but my editor, Randy Harvey, had his reasons. I only agreed with a few of them, but I’d say it’s worked out exactly as Schmuck told me.

Schmuck also got me through some of the most difficult times of my life away from baseball. Like a big brother, which is how he came across to pretty much everyone. Never judging me or losing respect, no matter how many stupid choices were made. And we were quick to forgive each other after the inevitable blowups - the ones that can’t be avoided when you spend so much time together as colleagues and competitors. Also like brothers, we never held a grudge.

Again, this is where Schmuck excelled. He can let stuff roll off his back better than anyone I’ve ever known. It’s just how he’s wired. He forgives and forgets so easily, just wanting everyone to get along. Because this is baseball and it’s supposed to be fun.

Put down your phones and enjoy dinner. Stop acting like you have it so bad when, in fact, you’re lucky to be doing this for a living.

You can be really good at your job, and Schmuck was one of the kings for a very long time, and continue to laugh and get along. Separating competition and friendship shouldn’t be so hard. He made it look effortless.

Schmuck is always going to retell the story of how we shared a hotel suite at my first spring training and I freaked him out by “removing a large container of Vaseline from my bag and putting it on the table next to the couch.” As if he had to sleep with one eye open. It was, in fact, a plastic bottle of Vaseline lotion, with a pump, that I needed for dry skin. But his version is so much funnier.

I’ll always picture him, with tears practically rolling down his cheeks, unable to share the punchline to the old Neil Armstrong/Michael Jackson joke - which can’t be told here - before a game in Vero Beach because he was laughing so hard.

I shared a bathroom with Schmuck for more spring trainings than I can count. I once remarked that you haven’t lived until you stumbled into it at 4 a.m. and saw a white towel hanging on the shower rod with a streak longer than Cal Ripken’s. Not true at all, but we loved to embellish. And I’m not above going for the cheap laugh.

We spoke at each other’s “celebrity roasts” for charity. I told the audience that Schmuck had only two real loves in his life before meeting his future wife - Sara Lee and Little Debbie. I also noted how you haven’t lived until you’ve seen “shirtless Schmuck,” and how I spent six weeks every year in Lauderdale and the biggest breasts I saw were his.

No one was more amused by it than Schmucker. He can dish it out and he sure as heck can take it.

He came back at me when it was his turn, and no one is funnier.

The man always had my back, even if I was making fun of his front. He stood up for me, and got me out of some jams with editors, including the time that I accidentally ran up a huge cell phone bill in spring training and initially was told that I’d have to pay for it.

It was Schmuck who insisted on riding with me to Port Charlotte the morning that Monica Barlow passed away. He didn’t need a lift. He was worried about me. He just didn’t say it.

Schmuck called when my father was living out his final days and he was among the first to contact me after we ran out of miracles. He also was at his best when not going for laughs.

It is baseball, Schmuck ... Peter ... and we should have fun. But it’s going to be a lot harder to do it without you.

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