One focus for Long in the off-season was to work on being more selective at the plate. Last season he failed to draw a single walk in 61 official at-bats.
"Coach Polk told me to get deep in pitch counts, that something better might come along," Long said. "Last year I was swinging at a lot of fastballs early in the count and chases pitches, so I didn't get any walks."
The change in attitude at the plate has obviously paid off, since Long already has drawn seven walks in just 55 at-bats this spring.
Another key ingredient to Long's success is the new role of a starter, which he acquired officially long before the season began. While seeing plenty of pinch-hit and late-game opportunities as a junior last season, Long says knowing that you are going to play day-in and day-out has made a huge difference in his game.
"Starting everyday, I'm seeing good pitches and finding my groove, instead of playing as a pinch-hitter, where you don't see as much playing time," he said. "It's good to know that you are going to be in the line-up everyday and that the coaches and my teammates have faith in me."
Long, who leads the squad in steals, with three steals in four attempts, hits in the ninth spot, which suits him just fine.
"I love hitting ninth," he said with a grin. "It takes a lot of the pressure off and the guys hitting in front of me are always on base."
Long almost didn't make it to Starkville. In fact, he signed with UAB out of Northwest Rankin High School in 1997. But a redshirt season didn't fit his liking, and he soon found his way back to Mississippi, this time at Meridian Community College. The self-proclaimed laid-back country boy felt out of place in the larger city of Birmingham.
"I was there a year and I still didn't know how to get around anywhere. I went out, but there are so many streets and things that I couldn't remember how to get from one place to another," he said. "I just didn't feel at home there. I thought it would be best to see what else was out there."
So Long called up former pitching coach Jim Case, who recruited him at UAB the previous year but later took the job on Pat McMahon's staff. No scholarship was available for Long at the time, but Case invited him to try-out at MSU and walk-on. After much thought and consideration, Long opted to go the junior college route. He wanted to keep playing and get better, considering he hadn't played competitively in over a year.
Long started out slow at MCC, batting just .200 as a freshman in 22 starts. But he improved dramatically the following year, hitting .322 with 48 RBIs in 58 starts, helping MCC to a berth in the 2000 Junior College World Series.
Following his two-year stint at Meridian, Long once again called Jim Case. Like before, there was no scholarship available, but Long was given the chance to come try out and walk-on in the fall of 2000. He received scholarship offers from small schools like Middle Tennessee and Tennessee-Martin, but Long opted to take a chance in Starkville, and fulfill his dream of playing big-time college baseball.
"I wanted to enjoy my last two years of school," he said. "I thought I would come up here and give it everything I had, and if things didn't work out, I would enjoy going to school and being around the people."
Of course, things worked out just fine. Long made the squad and quickly earned pinch-hit roles and late-game duties early on. By the end of the season he was starting in centerfield.
"Sometimes I think all of this is unbelievable. I used to look up to these guys when I was a kid, and now I'm a part of it," he said. "Playing for Mississippi State in front of the big crowds in the big games is something you dream about when you are a kid."
As in years past, these Bulldogs each have a snippet of music that is played during the batter introduction each time the player is due at the plate. The fans that attend regularly can tell who is coming to the plate just by the sheer sound of the music being played. The songs are chosen carefully, in an attempt to portray the player's character or it might just happen to be the type of music that player likes.
Casey's song: Fishing in the Dark by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. A country song for a country kid.
"I like hanging out and just relaxing," said Long, who hunts and fishes on occasion. "I'm not a big rocker. That was a big reason I didn't fit in at Birmingham."
That, and the traffic conditions. One thing's for sure, Long doesn't have a hard time finding things in Starkville. The winding road that has paved his college career has brought him right where he belongs, playing for Ron Polk and the throng of fans that file into Dudy Noble Field.
Aaron Sones is a free-lance correspondent for Gene's Page. Aaron, who is a student at Mississippi State University, works part-time in the MSU Athletic Department. He is also co-host of WFCA FM 108's Gameday show which airs two hours prior to each football game. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.