White Sox

White Sox

Whenever baseball returns to our lives, imagine the White Sox taking the field on Opening Day being led by veteran left-handed pitcher Kyle Long.

Yes, I’m talking about that Kyle Long, the former Bears offensive lineman who the White Sox drafted back in 2008.

As crazy as this might sound, the now retired football player admits that he does think about the professional baseball career he never had.

“I love my life. I love everybody in it, but I always think that everything would be a little bit better if I played baseball,” Long said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Chicago.

“Me and (Chris) Sale would have been SHOVE-ing!”

A star baseball player at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, Long was like no other high schooler on the planet. At 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, he was a mammoth left-handed first baseman with extreme power and a dominating left-handed fireballer who could throw heat in the mid-90s.

On paper, he sounded like Babe Ruth.

“If you’re comparing me to Babe Ruth, you and I may as well take a shot of whiskey right now and call it a day,” Long said.

But back then, there were games when Long looked like the second coming of the Great Bambino.

“I could see somebody saying a Babe Ruth. He was special. That’s all I know,” said Nick Hostetler, the White Sox director of scouting from 2015 to 2019 who became an assistant to general manager Rick Hahn last July. “He was so big and so strong.”

How strong?

At the 2007 Perfect Game Showcase in Cincinnati, Ohio, scouts from every major league team came to watch the best high school players in the country.

Gerrit Cole was there. So were many other future major leaguers like Eric Hosmer, Sonny Gray, Aaron Hicks, Tim Beckham and Jarred Cosart.

“Right now, I can’t tell you I remember exactly what Gerrit Cole looked like or Sonny Gray in that setting,” Hostetler said. “I remember what Kyle Long did.”

Everyone does.

“When I went to the Perfect Game event, I knew I had the presence of mind to say, 'This is the elite group of players, now go let your freak flag fly and don’t be scared,'” Long recalled.

“He walks onto the field, and he looks like Zeus,” Hostetler remembered. “He was throwing 93 to 96. The hitter had to be scared to death because this monster is up there just throwing BBs at him.”

Later, the hulkish 18-year-old stomped into the batter’s box and crushed a baseball with such brute force, people are still talking about it 13 years later.

“At the University of Cincinnati, right-center field is the basketball arena. (Long) hit the ball, and it came close to going on top of that roof,” said Hostetler, an Ohio native who lives across the river from the stadium.

“I’ve seen a lot of games there. Kevin Youkillis played there. I’ve seen a lot of guys play there. I’ve never seen a ball go that far in my life.”

How far do you think it traveled?

“Every bit of 500 feet. No question in my mind,” Hostetler said. “People are going to say 450. The building stopped it. It was continuing to go. There’s a decent gap behind the fence in Cincinnati before the basketball arena comes in. I’m serious. It looked like he hit one of those super balls. It exploded.”

The blast was a jaw-dropping moment for everyone. Except for Long.

“I remember thinking nothing of it, just because the arena is there and my ball happened to go over it. I knew pro guys hit it out of the friggin’ stadium. I’m not going to bat an eye at this. I’m not going to watch it. I didn’t want to show anybody up. But when I got back to the dugout, it’s like, ‘Bro, did you see where you hit that ball?’”

And here’s the crazy part.

“I don’t think it was the farthest ball I ever hit, because it was a wood bat,” Long said.

Did it travel 500 feet?

“I think it did go 500 feet. I’ll give it that,” he said.

It takes a lot to impress a scout. They’ve been everywhere and seen just about everything. Except this.

What was Hostetler’s reaction after Long massacred that baseball?

“The first thing I think I thought was, ‘Oh shit,’” Hostetler said. “The second thing was, it got quiet because everybody started looking down at their program and their roster about who he was, what he was, where he was going to school. Everybody knew who he was. That was evident. We knew his father (NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long), his brother (NFL defensive end Chris Long) and all that. You started writing notes, but the buzz was going.

“Raw power wise, the only person I can think of, amateur wise, that I saw like that was Joey Gallo. To make an impression in the summer of 2007 and still sticks with you till this day, regardless if we took him or not, you don’t forget that.”

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Hostetler, who was an area scout with the Braves in the summer of 2007, was hired by the White Sox that September as their East Coast crosschecker. At the time, he believed that Long had a chance to become a two-way player in the majors as a pitcher and first baseman.

“To me, his left-handed power was something I had never seen in my life, so I was all on board to let him go out and do both. After that summer, there was no question in my mind that he was a top 50 pick,” Hostetler said.

Long had a more specific plan for his baseball career.

“In high school, my five-year plan was to be the first starting pitcher (in the majors) to make the All-Star team and win the Home Run Derby, and I wanted my dad to throw batting practice. I’ve never really voiced that plan, but that was my five-year plan when I was 18.”

Also a star football player in high school, Long committed to play baseball at Florida State during his senior year. At the MLB Draft that June, his stock plummeted with all signs pointing to him going to Tallahassee.

Hostetler was in the White Sox draft room that day. Ken Williams was the general manager. Doug Laumann was the team’s scouting director. This was the draft where the White Sox chose Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel in the first two rounds.

Later, they selected three high schoolers you’ve probably heard of: James McCann (31st round), Marcus Semien (34th round) and C.J. Cron (44th round). All three chose to play in college instead.

In the 23rd round, the White Sox took a gamble and drafted Long.

“At the time, I took it as a slap to the face,” Long explained. “I throw the ball 97 miles an hour, I hit .650 for average, I had 25 stolen bases, I’ve been intentionally walked 50 times this year and I’m getting drafted in the 23rd round? You’re going to tell me 690 players or whatever the number is are better than me? In my mind, this is not what it’s supposed to be.”

Nor was what happened six months later.

Long’s dream of playing in the major leagues came to an abrupt halt before he even played a single game at Florida State. It was a moment in time that, looking back, sealed his fate and though he didn’t know it then, would bring him to Chicago playing a completely different sport.

“I ended up back home Christmas break and I made a really, really dumb decision. I had a couple of beers. I drove. I got a DUI, and I had to leave Florida State.”

The official reason for leaving FSU was academics, but after the incident, Long decided to change sports. The next year, he enrolled at Saddleback College, a community college in Mission Viejo, California, to play football instead.

“(The DUI) was the turning point. And had it not been for that night, Jan. 4, 2009, I would have never been in a Bears uniform, I would have never taken up residence in Lake Forest. So really that could have been the best thing that ever happened. Who knows?”

So if you didn’t get that DUI, do you think you would have ended up playing baseball?

“Yeah.”

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After a nine-year NFL career, the three-time Pro Bowler announced his retirement in January. All the injuries and surgeries eventually caught up with him to the point where he could no longer perform at the level he expected of himself.

Retirement can put you in a reflective mood, which is why, as he sits here today, Long believes his life would be better right now if he chose a career in baseball instead.

“In any way, every way, in all the ways,” he said. “I’d feel better, I’d be skinnier, I’d be tanner, I would have had that hair surgery long before everyone knew that I was going bald. I would have way more money probably. Eventually, baseball was the right choice, logically, but for me you can’t run from your bloodlines and that shit courses through me like hot lava and football for me was hitting the nail on the head.”

As cool as it would have been to see Long with the White Sox, playing on the same teams as Paul Konerko, Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito (he’s only 31 years old, 11 months younger than Dallas Keuchel), his football DNA won out — and in the end, so did Chicago. The Bears selected him with the 20th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

“The stars had aligned when I arrived in Chicago. I felt the energy and the electricity immediately because I was destined to be in this friggin’ town. And you guys were destined to have to deal with my dumb ass, and now you can’t get rid of me,” Long said.

Long on the South Side? It would’ve been great to have him.

“I think about it, but it didn’t happen.”

Regardless, he’ll be a Chicagoan for life.

 

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