A coach who has ‘seen it all’ keeps making the World Series
By Tyler Kepner
Forty-two players have appeared on a World Series roster for three different franchises. The list stretches from Don Baylor to Ben Zobrist, with big names (Roger Clemens), funny names (Stuffy McInnis) and forgotten names (Franklin Morales) in between.
Of that group, only one player, longtime outfielder Lonnie Smith, made it with four teams: Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City and Atlanta, from 1980 through 1992. The coaching equivalent of Smith is in the Phillies’ dugout for this year’s World Series.
He is Kevin Long, the Philadelphia hitting coach, who never reached Major League Baseball as a player. Long, a former outfielder, spent eight seasons in the Royals’ farm system, hitting .273 with 14 home runs from 1989 to 1996. He found his calling by helping other hitters, and everywhere he has gone in the majors, his teams have won a pennant.
Long, 55, coached for the New York Yankees from 2007 through 2014, helping them win the 2009 World Series. Then came a three-year stint with the New York Mets that included a National League pennant in 2015. During Long’s four-year stay in Washington, the Nationals won the title in 2019. Now he has made it with the Phillies.
Long could not pinpoint his secret, but with four World Series appearances in four jobs, he is doing something right.
“I know I care about them more than they’ll ever know,” Long said in the Phillies’ dugout before their Game 3 with the Houston Astros on Tuesday. “I know that I’m fully invested in their career and what they’re doing. What I’ve really talked about is that winning means more to me than anything else. If we can feel a sense of coming together as a team and winning, it’s the most special feeling you’ll ever have. These guys are feeling that.”
In a position of frequent turnover — We’re not hitting? Fire the hitting coach! — Long’s track record has kept him in demand. The Yankees led the majors in home runs and ranked second in runs scored during his tenure. Under Long’s guidance in 2016, the Mets set a franchise home run record. The Nationals had the best on-base percentage in the majors (.342) during Long’s stint there.
“He’s seen it all,” said Bryson Stott, the Phillies’ rookie shortstop. “Just listening to a guy like that is my biggest thing. He’s seen a bunch of swings so he knows what works up here and what doesn’t. All you’ve got to do is listen to the guy and gain some knowledge.”
The Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi in early June, when they were 22-29, but Girardi’s influence is still felt in the presence of Long, whom he inherited as the Yankees’ manager in 2008 and grew to trust. When the Phillies fired Joe Dillon after last season, they turned to Long, whose contract had run out with the rebuilding Nationals.
“I always thought he was one of the best, if not the best, hitting coaches in the game,” said Dave Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, who has also reached the World Series with four teams in his long career in front offices.
“When we decided to change hitting coaches after last season, Joe Girardi really wanted him as his No. 1 choice.”
The Phillies replaced Girardi with his bench coach, Rob Thomson, who led the team to its first postseason appearance since 2011. Thomson had also spent many years with the Yankees and already had a strong bond with Long.
“Kevin is one of my best friends,” Thomson said Monday. “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, and that’s who Kevin is. He’s great at making players feel good about themselves. His energy and his positive outlook just reverberates throughout the entire team.”
The Phillies gave Long a strong lineup to work with, signing Kyle Schwarber (four years, $79 million) and Nick Castellanos (five years, $100 million) just after the lockout ended in March. They joined an established core of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins and Jean Segura.
The Phillies ended up ranking seventh of the 30 teams in runs scored, but it took a while to produce consistently. Thomson has said that the Phillies’ biggest challenge was overcoming the stigma of previous late-season slumps. The team had the longest playoff drought in the National League, but once it was over, there was no questioning whether they belonged.
“There was some doubt, probably, and they needed to understand how good they were,” Long said. “When they got there, they got there as a team and as a unit. I think the coolest thing about this team is how they evolved.”
Harper, the Phillies’ centerpiece, has been a major part of that evolution. After Harper overwhelmed the San Diego Padres in the NL Championship Series, Long, who coached Harper in the slugger’s final season with the Nationals, raved about his growth.
“This is a much different level than I’ve seen him,” Long said. “Every at-bat is phenomenal, every one. He doesn’t take a pitch off. He’ll talk about his last at-bat, he’ll talk about what he can do better, he’ll talk about what this guy’s going to do. He’s ready for the moment.”
So is Stott, who improved his on-base percentage from .255 in the first half to .331 after the All-Star Game. He credited Long with helping him simplify his swing by eliminating an exaggerated toe tap. The extra movement had led to a looping, high-launch-angle swing that made Stott susceptible to strikeouts.
“The less movement, the better chance you have to hit,” Stott said. “So we were looking at how simple some guys’ swings are.”
In Game 1 of the World Series, Stott worked a 10-pitch walk in the fourth inning against Justin Verlander, just after the Phillies had begun their comeback from a 5-0 deficit. Verlander’s pitch count had reached 90 by the end of the fifth inning, when the Phillies tied the score on their way to a 10-inning victory.
That game left Long three wins away from earning another option in World Series championship rings.
“The Nationals one would be the one I wear most now, because it’s the most recent,” he said. “And then hopefully I’ll have a Phillie one I can start sporting for a couple of years.”