SAN FRANCISCO (CBS13) -- Sam Long's major league moment came in an empty Oracle Park.
There were no fans, no organ playing, no one standing 60 feet, 6 inches away from him digging into the batter's box. The AAA call-up had arrived on an off day and just needed to throw the ball around before his Major League Baseball debut with the San Francisco Giants.
"I showed up to the field on the off day, about two hours before our flight to Texas, and Alex Wood comes up to me and asks if I want to play catch," he remembers. "I said 'yeah, let's go' just because I wanted to see the field."
"So I walk down the tunnel and Mike Murphy was down there doing something, and for some reason this sticks out in my head but once you hit the bottom of the staircase you're at sea level," he continues. "And so, when he told me that that's when it sunk in like 'Oh wow. This is gonna be special.' So I get out there to play catch in left field with Alex Wood and I'm just lost for words."
For the first time, there was no pressure. The 27-year-old pitcher from Fair Oaks stood in the outfield at peace. His long journey, one that nearly ended just four years prior, had finally taken him to the place he always dreamed of.
In the Sacramento baseball world, Sam Long is something of a favorite son. He won a CIF Section Championship and was a league MVP with Del Campo High School. When colleges came calling he decided to stay home. His first season with Sacramento State was nothing short of storybook. Long was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, WAC Freshman of the Year and started the Hornets' first-ever NCAA Tournament Regional game.
After his time in Sac, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 18th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Two years later, as spring training was wrapping up, Long's dream shattered. Sam's father Trent had come down to Florida to see his son pitch and was about to walk out the door and head to the park when his phone rang.
"He called me and said 'I've been released' and I thought 'oh ha-ha very funny. April fool's, right?'" says Trent.
But it wasn't a prank. It was April 1st, 2018. The day Sammy Long's minor league career had ended. He packed up his belongings and returned home to the capital region looking to figure out his next steps. Within weeks, a new life as an EMT and firefighter began.
"We had the connection in Tahoe through my brother and thought that was a good Plan B throughout and always," Trent explains.
Sam chugged along each day but the daydreams persisted. He wasn't too old to get back in the game and felt there was unfinished business left in baseball. On his 25th birthday, he went to his first game since being released.
"I was sitting in the stands and watching the guys get warmed up for the game and I was like man I miss this a lot," says Sam.
It wasn't just the camaraderie and play he missed. While away from the game he saw contemporaries advance in the minor league system and to the pros. Players he had struck out looking. Who he had fanned in three pitches. Guys he knew he could compete against.
"That side of it will probably never go away," he mentions.
After that game, something clicked in Long's head. He wanted to give it another shot and, with the benefit of hindsight, he knew he could do it right this time. He talked with his Dad, his high school coach and others in his support system to tell them it was time to run it back. The training was sometimes unconventional -- makeshift squat racks built with 2x4's and concrete -- but it spoke to a renewed sense of purpose. It was in this period that Long started working with ex-MLBer Ryan Mattheus, who runs Optimum Athletes in Sacramento.
"I told him get up every day, treat every day like it's your last and don't let anybody outwork you," says Mattheus. "I think he kind of took that approach, kind of looked at it like 'man, I've been on the other side of this thing doing EMT classes and I think I wanna be a big leaguer.' He has an unwavering work ethic."
Long changed his diet and his approach. He began to work on his mental game to think more in the present and be where his feet were. Soon, doors began to open. In 2019, several MLB scouts came to Sacramento to see him throw. Mattheus took a video and tweeted it out. Rob Friedman, an MLB analyst who goes by PitchingNinja, shared it to his 395,000 Twitter followers. Four days later, the Chicago White Sox called.
"So we [saw] this thing getting thousands on thousands on thousands of views and were like wow this is about to take off," Mattheus says with a smile. "It was funny because the White Sox signed him from that video and they weren't even in house. They saw the video, they had seen enough and he was in spring training the next year."
His second chance arrived. After a season in Single-A, the pandemic hit and Long elected to enter free agency armed with a 95 mph fastball and a firm belief that there was a place for him in the majors. In November of that same year, the Giants signed him to a minor league contract. One of Sacramento's favorite sons would return home, pitching for the AAA club that he idolized growing up.
"When I was getting into baseball, the River Cats were the big leagues to me," Long says. " I was probably just as nervous for my big league debut [as I was] for that one."
Which brings it all back to Sam Long's walk through the Oracle Park tunnels and solitary moment in left field. After some reflection, he stepped on a plane and made his Major League debut against the Texas Rangers. Now he's a mainstay with the Giants pitching rotation despite still living out of a suitcase in a hotel just a stone's throw from the ballpark.
"The process of being a rookie and to stay up here, it's the same feeling every time I get called back up," he says.
And the conclusion is easy to draw now that Long's longest road has led him to his childhood dream.
"Everything has a funny way of working out."
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