NORMAL, Ill. - Kenny Long has pitched in the Cape Cod Baseball League for little more than one week, but he is already as popular as a rock star to the kids of Orleans, Mass. The Illinois State redshirt junior started playing June 14 for the Orleans Firebirds, which is a team made up of college baseball standouts from across the United States.
Between games last week, Long and his summertime teammates visited local elementary schools where the lefthander's wrist got tired - not from pitching - but from signing autographs.
"I was signing shoes, signing t-shirts, signing foreheads," Long said with a laugh. "It's fun. They all really look up to you."
Firebird head coach Kelly Nicholson is in his 10th season coaching in what he considers to be the nation's premier summer college baseball league. Nicholson said it does not take long for new players, such as Long, to understand the importance of their two-and-a-half month stay in Cape Cod.
"I told the team, `I just want you to understand that when you guys show up at this elementary school, you are their Boston Red Sox on the Cape for the summer,'" Nicholson said. "`I want you to know how much you mean to the community.'"
Not only is the historic wood bat league a big deal to its spectators, but also to the student-athletes who spend their summer living with host families while playing primarily at high school and middle school baseball facilities throughout Cape Cod. It is a way for players to improve during the college offseason and potentially get noticed by professional scouts.
"Once I heard that I had the opportunity to play in the Cape Cod League, I was all on board," Long said. "So it was a split-second decision that I was going to go. It really wasn't a tough decision."
Long - who ranked third in the nation with a 1.38 ERA - was recruited to play for the Firebirds after Nicholson received a text message from a friend on the Vanderbilt University baseball staff. The text was a reaction to Long's seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings performance against the Commodores in ISU's NCAA Tournament opening-game loss to No. 17 Vandy. So far, the Fox River Grove, Ill., native has lived up to Nicholson's expectations.
"I love the way he competes on the mound," Nicholson said. "I love his composure and the body language. He's the kind of kid we hope to have around all summer."
Long has pitched in four games for Orleans with his first win coming against Wareham on Saturday, June 19. He threw 1.1 shutout innings and struck out two in the game. Long said his ultimate goal this summer is to have fun playing in the Cape Cod League while building towards his third season with the Redbirds.
"It's just been a great experience for me," Long said. "No matter how long I'm going to be out here, it's just something that I'm always going to remember and it's something that will help me in the future."
Illinois State Baseball Players in Summer Leagues - Stats Updated Monday, June 21
Kenny Long | Orleans Firebirds | Cape Cod League League
1-1, 1.42 ERA, 6.1 IP, 1 SV, 11 SO, 1 BB, 4 H - Earned his first win of the season Saturday, June 19 versus Wareham, striking out two through 1.1 innings.
- Earned his first save of the season Friday, June 18 versus Cotuit, striking out four through two shutout innings.
Ryan Court | Thunder Bay Border Cats | Northwoods League
.214, 1 RBI, 3 H, 0 R, 1 2B
- Drove in his first run of the season with an RBI double Friday, June 18 versus Willmar.
- Hit safely in three of his first four games.
0-1, 3.18 ERA, 5.2 IP, 7 SO, 2 BB, 7 H
- Pitched 3.1 innings Saturday, June 19 versus Quincy, striking out four while allowing one earned run.
- Pitched two shutout innings Thursday, June 17 versus Hannibal, striking out two.
1-0, 3.38 ERA, 5.1 IP, 5 SO, 3 BB, 2 H
- Struck out two through two innings Saturday, June 19 versus Slippery Rock, allowing two earned runs.
- Earned his first win of the season Thursday, June 17 versus Quincy, striking out three through 3.1 shutout innings.