Chris Long’s talent on the baseball diamond was never in doubt — the problem was he was playing the wrong positions. After trying to find his niche at nearly every spot on the field, it wasn’t until he came to Darton that he finally did as a pitcher. By the end of the season, Long emerged as one of the best — if not the best — arms on the team and was rewarded by being selected in the 2013 MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres. (Darton State College)
PEORIA, Ariz. — Chris Long sat in Darton baseball coach Scot Hemmings’ office, desperate for a place on the roster.
The walk-on from Zebulon had tried it all in the fall of 2012 — catching, third base, outfield ...
Hemmings had one more idea.
“I told him his future was on the mound,” Hemmings said. “I told him that if he fully concentrated on pitching that he would get drafted this year. He said, ‘Coach you really believe that?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
It was an unlikely scenario for a kid who had never pitched in his life and had spent his young career developing his swing instead of his arm.
Long left Hemmings’ office with no answers and plenty of doubt, second-guessing his role on the Cavs and his future as a baseball player. But buried beneath the skepticism and hidden within the hesitation, a professional pitcher was born that afternoon.
And Long had no idea how quickly he was about to grow up.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander came back the following day and told Hemmings he would give the idea a chance. Within months he became Darton’s best pitcher, evolving from a shaky flamethrower with no command to a dominating force on the mound.
Then on June 8, Hemmings’ prophecy came true: Long was drafted as a pitcher in the 23rd round by the San Diego Padres, less than a year from the moment he decided to throw his first pitch.
Long signed a five-year deal with the Padres and now is a reliever for the Peoria Padres in the Arizona Rookie League.
It’s been a wild and unexpected ride for Long, who still shakes his head when he thinks about the moment he decided to trust his coach rather than his gut.
“It was hard for me to go along with it because I had worked on hitting my entire life,” Long told The Herald during a telephone interview from Arizona recently. “If I gave that up now, I would have had to start all over again on the mound.”
Long, following the advice of Hemmings, talked with his parents for hours about the position change, teetering between his future and his past.
But his thoughts kept landing back on Hemmings’ vision of his future in Major League Baseball. It was a dream he couldn’t shake — one that seemed to keep pulling him closer to the mound.
“It was hard to believe (Hemmings),” Long admitted. “It was hard to believe that it would be that quick. But I listened to him. He told me that if I honestly concentrated on the mound and put all of my focus there that I would get drafted. So I took the risk and saw what would happen.”
Long’s transformation into the team’s strongest pitcher was quick, but it wasn’t instant.
The first time Hemmings saw him pitch in the fall, Long threw an 87-91 mph fastball, but Long had command issues and began to get frustrated when he stepped on the mound, a foreign place for the freshman.
“I just remember being angry with myself because I couldn’t get it perfect,” he said. “It was hard for me to sit there and just not be doing it right.”
On the inside, Long was secretly unsure of himself and his future as a pitcher, doubting his confidence and command.
“The one thing that was hard for me was calming my nerves, taking a breath and listening to what the coaches wanted me to do,” Long said.
On the outside, however, Long looked exactly like the pitcher Hemmings had envisioned.
The talent was raw, but it was there.
“I was sitting there and I looked at (pitching coach) Boone Webster and told him that was the best arm on the team,” Hemmings said of Long. “He might have been a total train wreck on the inside, but he was in total control on the outside. We call it pitchability.”
As the fall trudged on, Long got more and more comfortable with his new role, and he came back from Christmas break with a 94 mph fastball after working on nothing but pitching during the break.
“The next intrasquad scrimmage a week (after Christmas break), there were five or six (MLB) scouts here to watch him,” Hemmings said.
And the legend of Chris Long took off.
Word was spreading of the pitcher who had a fresh arm and increasing velocity. Long’s fastball is his go-to pitch, but he also throws a curve ball and is developing his change up — the key pitch that Hemmings believes could make or break his professional career.
Scouts continued to follow Long’s progress throughout the spring and flooded to Darton’s Cavalier Field with radar guns every time he took the mound in relief.
“I was like, this is crazy,” Long said. “I got my first call from a pro scout with the Padres, and I don’t think I had even been on the mound for a month. I was like, ‘Woah.’ ”
Early on, however, Long wasn’t exactly impressing the scouts with his command.
“His first eight or nine outings I had to go get him out of the game in the middle of the inning,” Hemmings said. “He was throwing the ball off the backstop. He couldn’t control it. He couldn’t hold runners.
“At any time when he was throwing the ball off the backstop, he could have said, ‘I’m tired of this. I am out of here.’ But he never blew up or questioned me taking him out of the game. He said, ‘Yes sir,’ and went back to work the next day.”
Eventually Long’s command started to match his velocity, and both Long and Hemmings credit Webster, a former coach at East Georgia who was hired by Hemmings two years ago.
“(Webster) backed him down and told him to try to throw at 88 mph, and then he started to get confidence,” Hemmings said. “We played South Georgia in our first conference weekend, and he finished off the last four innings and got the win. Each outing since then he got better and better.”
Then Long and the Cavs visited Gordon College in Barnesville, just 10 miles from his hometown of Zebulon where he stared at the plate for Pike County High School and hit 19 home runs as a senior.
He didn’t pick up a bat this time.
“He was unhittable,” Hemmings said. “He went six-up, six-down and struck out four. I told our coaches that night that he looked like a big-time pitcher. The control and the velocity weren’t there until that moment.”
Long remained in the bullpen for the nationally-ranked Darton team until the Cavs ran out of pitching in the Region XVII tournament and needed an emergency starter for the championship game against Middle Georgia.
In his first start in his short career, Long threw six hitless innings and finished the game with four hits, four earned runs and two strikeouts in seven innings.
The Cavs lost the game, 5-4 — however, Middle Georgia later had to forfeit the win because of an ineligible player — and Darton finished the season with a program-best 43-13 record and ended the year ranked No. 9 in the country, also a program record.
And a lot of that success came on the shoulders of Long, who rebounded from his rough start to finish with a 4.38 ERA, 23 strikeouts and a 4-1 record in 37 innings pitched.
His numbers weren’t eye-popping, but his potential was, and whispers began swirling that he could get drafted as high as the 12th round.
So on a Saturday night in early June, Long gathered around the live stream of the MLB draft with his parents and sister and waited for the phone to ring.
“I got the call in the 16th round, and (the Padres) asked me if I would go for a certain amount of money, and I said yes,” Long said. “They said they were going to take me in the next couple of rounds, and I waited. I ended up waiting until the 23rd round, but that’s fine because you can’t put a price tag on living a dream.”
Long became the first baseball player from Darton to be chosen in the MLB Draft since starting pitcher Taylor Whitenton was selected in the 39th round by the New York Mets in 2009.
Long called it a “dream come true” to hear his name taken off the draft board.
“We were sitting there waiting, and the moment I heard my name was surreal,” he said. “It was like I couldn’t even process it. It was just awesome. Every little kid wants to be in the big leagues. You dream of it your whole life. Once I heard my name called, it was a dream come true.”
He arrived in Arizona two days later, was introduced to the rest of his rookie league teammates and learned why the Padres took a chance on such an inexperienced pitcher.
“They told me that since I had only been on the mound since January, that I had come such a long way,” he said. “They said they haven’t really seen many kids jump on the mound and then in five months get drafted. They told me I have a really live arm and had good arm action.”
Long had to sit out the first month of the rookie league season to rehab tendinitis in his elbow that flared up, but he rejoined the bullpen this week and will work as a middle reliever.
And the potential is there for a promising professional career.
“No. 1, I haven’t been on the mound for a whole year yet, and No. 2, I am always going to work hard at anything I do,” said Long when asked why he thinks he has potential to make it to the majors. “I don’t really know how quickly I will move up or even if I will move up. I am just going to try my hardest to put myself in the best situations. I feel like if I work hard and it’s meant to be, it will happen.”
Hemmings said much of Long’s success depends on the development of his change-up.
“He has a very good fastball, and if he can believe in his change up and stay healthy then he can be a very good professional pitcher,” Hemmings said. “If he wants to be in the big leagues, he has to maintain his velocity and develop the change up.”
Nobody develops faster than Long, who discovered his destiny in Hemmings’ office less than a year ago and never let go.
And he believes the ride is far from over.
“If I could tell anybody anything about what’s happened in the past year, it’s that when you put your mind to something you never give up,” he said. “Never.”