Long's unique path from EMT classes to Royals

March 3rd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Sam Long's journey in professional baseball includes an unexpected release, emergency medical technician (EMT) classes and a potential new career, a viral video that helped him get back into the game, a Major League debut with his hometown team and more adversity along the way.

Now he’s working to make it back to the Majors again, this time as a non-roster invitee with the Royals this spring.

“Everyone has their own journey, and I’m proud of mine,” Long said. “I wouldn’t be who I am if it hadn’t happened. It shows people can take different routes to get to where you want to be, whether you recognize it at the time or not.”

Drafted in the 18th round out of Sacramento State in 2016 by the Rays, the now 28-year-old Long had a hard transition to professional baseball. By 2017, his velocity was down, and he had dropped his arm slot to sidearm in hopes of turning things around. By spring of 2018, he was released and had no job.

At that point, he was done with baseball.

“And Plan B was always firefighting,” Long said, explaining that he has an uncle who is a firefighter. “And I knew I liked to help people.”

First, Long wanted to finish his degree at Sacramento State, but it was too late to enroll in the spring semester by the time he returned home from Florida. So he spent the summer earning his EMT certification during a nine-week accelerated program.

Twice a week, Long had a six-hour lecture in the morning and six hours of skills practice in the afternoon. He went on two ambulance ride-alongs, one with a private service and one with the Sacramento Fire Department.

“You’re going to see some stuff on the job that’s going to suck, and I definitely did,” Long said. “But I needed to learn and see if I could handle it. It moves so fast, but those guys are professionals.”

In between classes, Long gave pitching lessons and coached youth baseball.

“Being completely away from the game isn’t completely true,” Long said. “I needed to be there for those kids and help them fall in love with the game, like I had. It was a funny dynamic, especially with me trying to figure out my next chapter and move on. My mind was made up that I wasn’t going to play, so I probably didn’t pay attention to the feeling of missing the game.”

In hindsight, he did miss it. But Long was so busy with work and passing the EMT class that he didn’t watch baseball that summer or even pick up a baseball beyond coaching. He was done -- and he was OK with it. But in October, when he was back in classes at Sacramento State, Long watched postseason baseball.

“That’s when the wheels started turning,” Long said. “Just the thought in the back of my mind that if I do what I’m capable of doing, I can play with these guys. A lot of guys learn at some point that it’s not going to happen. But that door didn’t close for me. I never felt like I wasn’t good enough. I was in a stage of my career where I wasn’t good enough, but I knew that wasn’t who I was as a pitcher. That determination got me back into it.”

His mind made up, Long began training at Optimum Athletes in Sacramento. He ate better and got stronger. His stuff got better. His velo ticked up. He was recovering faster. And he was throwing from his natural overhead slot again.

In January 2019, Optimum posted a video of Long pitching to X (Twitter at the time), and the post took off thanks to a repost from Flatground App, an account started by Rob Friedman, known as Pitching Ninja on social media.

Four days later, Long signed a Minor League contract with the White Sox.

“I didn’t think the video would help as much as it did,” Long said, laughing.

Long posted a 3.06 ERA in full-season A-ball in 2019, throwing 97 innings in 30 appearances (15 starts). When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, he was back to square one as one of the many Minor Leaguers released that year. This time, he stuck with the game.

“With what I had learned from my time away, it was a good opportunity for me to get even better and show up even more ready,” Long said.

That offseason, the Giants called. In spring 2021, Long was pitching for the team he grew up rooting for and making a name for himself. He started the season in Double-A -- where current Royals infield coach Jose Alguacil was his manager -- and made it to the Majors by June. Long returned the next season and had a 3.61 ERA in 42 1/3 innings for the Giants, but they designated him for assignment in 2023 and traded him to the A’s. Long posted a 5.60 ERA in 45 innings for Oakland last year and was outrighted at the end of the season, electing free agency.

“Now it’s sort of back to needing to prove myself again, showing the team that I can be valuable to them,” Long said. “I put in as much work as I could this offseason because I’m hungry. I still have plenty of baseball to play, but a lot to prove still.”

Long has thrown four scoreless innings this spring with seven strikeouts and one walk. His low-to-mid 90s fastball, gyro slider and curveball have impressed, along with his ability to pitch in any role.

“He’s not overpowering, but there’s carry on the ball, and his breaking balls look really good, which is unusual being in Arizona with the thin air,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “He’s attacked hitters right from the get-go.”

Long’s EMT certification has expired, but the skills he learned have stuck with him. As of now, he’s all-in on baseball and getting back to the Majors, but he has a passion for what he learned and potentially may still pursue firefighting someday. He’s already talked to Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney about his work as a volunteer firefighter in the offseason.

Long’s journey has taught him perspective -- about baseball, about saving lives and about learning to handle anything that comes at him when the pressure is high and adrenaline is pumping.

“Baseball is very important to me, but you hear guys talk about pressure and say, ‘There’s no such thing as pressure. There are people fighting for their lives,’” Long said. “It helps to have perspective like that. But when [stuff happens], you’ve got to perform. …

“It helps me a lot just knowing what I’ve had to go through. On the days where I need to get [stuff] done, it’s an easy reminder that it can be taken away very quickly. None of it is going to be handed to me.”