By Justin Sokeland
SAUGERTIES, N.Y. – Austin Long is a long, long way from home, a foreigner – a Southern Indiana kid in upstate New York – who left a small town for the shadow of the Apple.
If not his destiny, it’s what he needed to do. Long, recovering from elbow surgery in October, made the 13-hour trek to the Empire State to pitch for the Saugerties Stallions in the summer Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
Long, the former Bedford North Lawrence standout who’s about to enter his junior season at Indiana University, is building his arm strength, and fastball velocity, back up after the procedure to repair a stress fracture reduced his work and availability. He was a one-inning, spot reliever last season for the Hoosiers. He needs work.
“This is extremely important,” Long said. “It’s huge for me to get more innings. Last year all I could do was an inning at a time, my arm wasn’t ready for that. So this summer is huge. I’ve been able to push it.”
What could be better than summer in the Catskills, playing 48 games (minus a four-day homestand to stand in his sister’s recent wedding) and seeing the beautiful scenery during 4-5 hour bus rides to such tourist destinations as Utica, Elmira, Oneonta and Amsterdam?
Don’t confuse the quaint towns (Saugerties is the hometown of late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon, by the way) for quiet baseball. The 12-team league is stocked by college talent, from the Big Ten, ACC, SEC and other top-tier conferences. It’s the perfect setting.
Long, despite the distance, is in comfortable surroundings. He stays with IU teammate Jake Skrine with a host family, spends a lot of free time in the weight room, and works on his craft. For the first time in two years, his elbow isn’t shrieking at him. The injury got so bad, Long was barely able to throw a ball last summer. Now he’s back into the low-90s on the radar gun.
“I’m fighting to get back to where I should be,” Long said. “When I started feeling pain as a freshman, I kept pushing it off.”
Long was a star with the Stars, hitting .359 with a team-high five home runs, along with 27 RBIs, 18 runs, and .620 slugging percentage as a senior. He also went 5-1 on the mound with a 1.71 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 53 innings, powering BNL to a Class 4A sectional championship.
His first two seasons with IU have included only six appearances each year, going 1-1 in 2019 with a 3.38 ERA in only 5 1/3 innings. He expects a bigger load – in Long relief, of course – and expanded role with the Hoosiers (who went 37-23 as NCAA tournament qualifiers last year) under head coach Jeff Mercer.
“It will be good to get a full year in,” Long said. “I’ve never really had the opportunity to pitch the whole year. I’d like to stay in long relief. I enjoy it.”
In 8 games with Saugerties (which is 16-13 in the East Division of the PGCBL), Long is 0-0 with a 7.36 ERA in 11 innings. When he’s not pitching, he’s doing volunteer work at the ballpark.
“It’s been a little tougher,” Long said. “That was one of the big things, staying close to home at IU and having my parents come to every game. So this is a big step going past that. It’s hard to balance everything.”
The family can watch Long in live-stream action during home games.
Notice Long has no batting statistics? That’s the part he misses most. His BNL career highlight was a two-out, seventh-inning home run against Jeffersonville in the HHC Tournament. He will step into the batting cages at IU, messing around with the new technology – does baseball really need to measure exit velocity? – and see how far he can still crank a ball.
He also hopes to see how far the game can take him. Right now he’s waiting, hours of waiting, paying a penance and longing for home.
“I’d love to go to the next level,” said Long, who is majoring in sports management. “If that’s not an option, I want to further my career in any athletic thing. I definitely want to stay around sports.”