Long Beach has always influenced Major League Baseball. It’s produced more MLB players than any other city, and Long Beach State has led the NCAA in alums on MLB rosters for the better part of the last decade.
Despite the COVID-19 shortened season starting just last week, Long Beach products have already been all over the MLB headlines.
Wilson High alum Aaron Hicks was actually the first batter of this unprecedented season. The New York Yankees center fielder led off the Opening Day game against the Washington Nationals last Thursday. Hicks, 30, grounded out to second base against Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the at-bat, but picked up his first hit of the season in the second game.
Hicks and fellow Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton were both among the first MLB players to take a knee during the National Anthem before the season opener as part of the Black Lives Matter protests.
“As a Black man living in America I feel like I should be judged by my character and not by my skin tone,” Hicks told USA Today. “Unfortunately, growing up, that’s what’s happened.”
It’s only been nine months since Hicks underwent Tommy John surgery, so the delayed season actually helped the outfielder miss fewer games. He only played in 59 games last year while hitting .235 with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs.
“To not miss opening day is kind of exciting about this whole situation for me,’’ Hicks told northjersey.com. “Because, now I don’t get to miss a game and that’s pretty exciting.’’
Hicks isn’t the only former Moore League superstar to play on Opening Day. Lakewood High alum JP Crawford is entering his second season as the Seattle Mariners shortstop, and he reworked his swing at home during the shutdown. Crawford, 25, even set up training facilities at his house.
“My fiancé actually helped me out a lot,” Crawford told The News Tribune. “We were practicing in the backyard. She would hit me grounders and roll me ground balls. I bought a net, put that in my living room and got a tee and just hit on the tee all day, and got a gym set up in the garage, so I squared up that way. I didn’t really lose a beat.”
Crawford said he recently watched a video from when he played in the MLB All-Star Futures Game in 2015 when the leg kick wasn’t part of his swing. Reincorporating the rhythmic leg kick has helped him get more pop at the plate. Crawford hit .400 with five RBIs, two triples and two stolen bases in 28 plate appearances before spring training was suspended.
“(Crawford is) a big part of our future going forward,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told The News Tribune. “He took his offseason very seriously. He’s bigger, stronger now. I think the confidence that he’s carrying in our clubhouse … it’s been great to see.”
Crawford hit .226 in 93 games last season with 46 RBIs and 21 doubles.
“Last year, a new team, new organization, I was just trying to come in here and show them what I could do,” Crawford told The News Tribune. “This year, now that they know what I can do, it’s time to take over. I’ve always been that guy to kind of take leadership (roles), so I want to do that here.”
Crawford had three hits and a pair of triples against the Houston Astros in the second game of the season last weekend.
The Long Beach State Dirtbags also have five former players on MLB rosters. Evan Longoria is the senior member of that group, and the San Fransisco Giants third baseman should be back in the lineup this week. He was dealing with an oblique injury.
“He’s gonna play often,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler told the San Francisco Chronicle about Longoria. “He’s gonna get a ton of starts, a ton of reps, like he always does.”
Longoria, 34, takes pride in his longevity as he enters his 13th season in MLB. However, a broken hand and plantar fasciitis has forced him to miss time over the last two years.
“That’s something that I’ve really prided myself on over the course of my career and look forward to doing it again this year,” Longoria told the San Francisco Chronicle about being the everyday third baseman. “I have that belief going in that I’ll be in there a good majority of the time. If that changes or if there’s something different, then we’ll have to have that conversation when we get there.”
Longoria, who is three home runs away from 300 for his career, also told the San Francisco Chronicle that this 60-game season will change everything.
“You could get that team that gets hot for 30 games and sneaks into the playoffs,” Longoria said. “In a 162-game season, the cream kind of rises to the top. If this were last year, the Nationals (27-33 through 60 games) wouldn’t have won the World Series… We know we just have to get hot, put together a good month and a half, two months, and get on a roll early and feed off of that. There’s a ton of belief that could happen. I think every team has that optimism, and that’s the uniqueness of this season.”
Former Dirtbags infielders Jeff McNeil, Garrett Hampson and Matt Duffy are all hoping to contribute for their teams.
LBSU and Lakewood High alum Matt Duffy signed with the New York Yankees earlier this month. McNeil will try to duplicate his unexpected All-Star season with the New York Mets a year ago, and Hampson is working his way into the Colorado Rockies starting lineup.
Fellow LBBU product Bryan Shaw is pitching for the Seattle Mariners. Jared Hughes is the fifth former Dirtbag on an MLB roster, but he’s starting the season on the Injured List for the Mets.
*Statistics thru July 26