In a lot of ways, Sam Long was meant to be a Giant.
The left-hander grew up rooting for the team, occasionally driving down from Sacramento to see his favorite player, Barry Bonds, in action. He played on travel teams with and against Logan Webb, and he spent a summer in high school playing in tournaments with Mauricio Dubon. Long pitched at Sacramento State and lives about a 10-minute drive from the home of the River Cats.
When he put on the orange and black this spring and started opening eyes in bullpen sessions, Long immediately felt a sense of comfort. Buster Posey and Joey Bart are among those who have helped him early on.
"They've really made me feel like I'm at home," Long said over the phone Monday.
He finally is with his hometown team, but the journey was a long and fascinating one. It included two other organizations, a surprise release, two unexpected summers off, a round of EMT classes and a bullpen session that went semi-viral. After all that, the 25-year-old is making up for lost time.
"Sam Long really stood out today," manager Gabe Kapler said on the second day of camp. "He was kinda lighting it up, throwing strikes all over the place."
A few days later, Bart also shouted out Long.
"He's kinda been turning some heads in just a few bullpens, and I heard Buster speaking highly of him" he said. "He brought some stuff in there we're excited about."
That hasn't always been the case for Long, which is part of how the Giants were able to bring him back home. Long was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, and with a fastball in the mid-to-high 80s at the time, he found himself being tweaked. The Rays asked Long to change to a sidearm delivery and he pitched well in Rookie Ball in 2016 before posting a 2.27 ERA in 20 Single-A relief appearances the following season. But with two weeks remaining in minor league spring training in 2018, Long was released.
Long was caught off guard, and when he got back home and tried to figure out what to do next, he found it was too late to enroll in spring classes at Sacramento State. Instead, he took EMT classes during the summer, thinking perhaps he would become a firefighter. When fall came around he resumed work on his communications degree, but halfway through the semester, Long, 23 at the time, started to reevaluate. He wanted to give baseball another chance.
"I felt like I missed a shot, and not only because I had the game taken from me. I also felt like I could have given more of myself to it," he said. "When I started to get back into shape I made that my number one priority. I didn't want to leave any stones unturned."
Long started to eat better and threw himself into workouts at Optimum Athletes, a facility in Sacramento. He went back to his natural over-the-top arm slot and found that his velocity had ticked up and his curveball was sharper. As Long's agent, Marc Kligman, started to work on setting up a showcase for scouts, Optimum uploaded a highlight reel to Twitter. In the 23-second clip, Long is throwing to former Giant Andrew Susac's younger brother, Daniel, and sitting around 93 mph.
"I remember going to bed and seeing that a few buddies had liked it and there were some comments," Long said. "I woke up the next day and there's like 40-50,000 views and I'm like, 'Holy cow, that's crazy.'"
FlatGround App, an account started by the popular Pitching Ninja to publicize pitchers looking for a break, had been tagged in the tweet and helped promote it. Long became one of the first free agents to benefit from Pitching Ninja's powerful signal boost. A Chicago White Sox area scout whose daughter did softball drills at Optimum had kept his eye on Long, and when the video started to get passed around baseball circles, the White Sox called and asked to sign Long before he could throw for others.
"I wanted to get back in the game," Long said. "I was just happy to hear from one team."
Long spent 2019 in Single-A, making 15 starts and 15 relief appearances. He had a 3.06 ERA, held opposing hitters to a .205 average, and struck out 112 batters in 97 innings. The fastball that once led to experimentation with his arm slot could hit 95 mph when he really reached back.
It was a big step forward, and then 2020 hit, and Long, like most in the minors, had his entire season wiped out. In the fall he decided to look around again, and the Giants were one of the first teams to call. They were the only team to offer a big league camp invite right away. It was an easy decision, and one both sides are happy about this spring.
"He continues to look like a guy who has a chance to be a major league starter at some point," Kapler said. "I think Buster was pretty impressed by his stuff and his ability to attack the strike zone. Everything is kind of in a tight window with Sam -- he's able to land three pitches in that window. Between the stuff and the control, the command, and some of the poise that I think Buster noticed, he's been particularly impressive."
Long was in high school when Posey helped the Giants win the first of three titles. On Sunday, he lined up across from him at Scottsdale Stadium and then listened closely after a bullpen session as Posey gave him advice about tunneling his fastball and curve and making his changeup tougher to pick up.
When Farhan Zaidi took over in 2018, he said one of many things the Giants needed to do a better job of was keeping local standouts in the organization. Long got away for a while, but he's finally with the Giants, and he has impressed some pretty important people through the first week of camp.
"Those are some good names to hear positive feedback from, that's for sure," Long said of Kapler, Posey and Bart. "It's been awesome so far."