Friday, November 9, 2012

Maybe If I'd Been a Cage Rat...

When I was 11, I was selected to play for the Niskayuna Rotary Little League team.  I'd hit pretty well at the A and AA levels, and I could catch a fly ball in left field.  I'd been too sick to attend four out of five weeknights of major league tryouts, so unlike my more qualified peers, I had the crucial advantage of not yet having demonstrated my incompetence to the coaches.  I got the call!

(Similar logic by Internet analysts -- buy anything that hasn't publicly failed yet -- explains in large part the NASDAQ tech bubble of the late 1990's.)

That first year in the majors, I batted two hundred points below the Mendoza Line.  (You might say, I had a NASDAQ crash of my own.)  Needless to say, Kevin Long was not my hitting coach.

Fortunately for the New York Yankees, Kevin Long is their hitting coach.  Even better, he's a good coach, the 2012 postseason notwithstanding.  He's written a book, Cage Rat, describing his years as a minor league player and coach, ultimately getting the call to join the Yankees and serve as a second pair of eyes for All-Stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixara, Robinson Cano, and the rest of the Bronx Bombers.

Even more fortunately for Little Leaguers, Cage Rat presents Coach Long's instructions, with photos, on how to stand in, balance, stride, sit "dead red" (assume a fastball is coming), and keep your head still so you can see the pitch without distortion.  For the professional ballplayers, Long spends hours upon hours in the video room and the batting cage (his "office") analyzing, deconstructing, and reconstructing the mechanics of each player's swing.

Imagine a book by an auto mechanic who absolutely loves being an auto mechanic.  He may be a bit shallow, personally, but he knows absolutely everything there is to know about steering linkages.  He also knows how to sweet-talk and persuade the especially balky steering linkages into yielding willingly to his wrench.  The steering linkages love him for it.  That's the tone of this book.

Mostly, however, this is Long's personal and professional story.  He struggled as a minor league player for eight years in the Kansas City organization, never quite achieving a promotion to the majors (maybe he should have feigned illness during tryouts?).  He restarted his career as a minor league coach, working his way up and eventually shifting to the Yankees' organization.  As minor league salaries are less than table scraps, he was supported financially for more than a decade by his wife Marcie, who worked crazy hours at restaurants and bars to support their three children.  The wisest move K-Long made in writing this book (with the assistance of sportswriter Glen Waggoner) was to hand Marcie the pen for a chapter plus several more passages.  The lady more than earned the right to tell her story, and to sport her Yankees-blue playoff scarf proudly.

The behind-the-scenes views of the Yankees' clubhouse and batting cages are limited to various stars' pregame routines.  The limited look through the peephole in the fence that we're allowed isn't nearly as salacious as a true clubhouse exposé -- this is no Ball Four, despite a few personality and work habit descriptions -- but it should satisfy fans who are truly interested in the mechanical aspects of hitting and the detailed work that goes into daily game preparation.

It also serves as an excellent cover letter and resume for one Kevin Long, Professional Hitting Coach, should the need ever arise.

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