For love of the (family) game

Two Minor Leaguers find a lifelong comfort in baseball

Niko Gallego hit .215 with three homers in 81 Cal League games. (Kenny Karst/

By Kelsie Heneghan / | January 27, 2014 10:00 AM

They grew up playing catch with the likes of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Some were given the opportunity to be Carlos Beltran's batboy in the Minor Leagues. And their dads' business trips involved batting cages and coaches rather than board rooms and bosses.

Growing up with a professional athlete for a father may seem glamorous or lonely. But for many of these descendants of the game -- like Jaron Long and Niko Gallego -- it was just life.

"It was difficult, but it was just all we ever knew," said Gallego, the son of former Major League infielder and current A's third base coach Mike Gallego.

The younger Gallego, a Minor League free agent, spent any chance he could on the baseball field with his dad and teammates.

Like Niko, Long couldn't wait to get a taste of his father's life. The son of Yankees hitting coach and former Minor Leaguer Kevin Long, Jaron defied the rules regarding unaccompanied minors at a young age and would fly to join his father on the team bus.

The more time the boys spent in their fathers' worlds, the more they wanted to become professional athletes themselves.

"It's just like everything else: Everyone wants to be like their dad, so I was just fortunate enough that my dad was a big league baseball player and something to aspire to," Niko said.

Though their fathers were known around Major League clubhouses, the paths of Jaron and Niko to the big leagues have not been red carpet-covered.

Both played college ball -- Jaron at Ohio State after a year at a junior college and Niko at his father's alma mater, UCLA. After his junior year, Long went undrafted, but his dream of joining his father in the Yankees organization wasn't over.

Kevin Long devised a plan for his son to play in the Cape Cod League. And after Jaron allowed just one run over 29 innings, he had multiple Major League offers on the table, including one from the Yankees.

"It was one of those things where I felt like if we could be closer together, it would always be better," Jaron said. "I've grown up most of my life with my dad out of town or traveling or being away, not by choice, but because that's what he does for a living. And I loved it and he loved it."

The 21-year-old right-hander signed with New York last summer, left the Cape League early and appeared in six games between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast Yankees and Class A Advanced Tampa.

While Kevin and Jaron will be headed to separate Yankees camps next month, the two will be living together, along with the family matriarch, Marcey. And that makes for a very happy father.

"He's going to Minor League camp and I'm going to big league camp, but when it's all said and done, we'll be home together and my wife will be cooking for us," Kevin Long said. "It's just something that we are extremely thankful and blessed that it's happening to us."

As one family prepares for a spring together, another is seeking a second chance.

Released by the Rockies a few weeks ago, Niko Gallego continues to train in the hopes of getting an invitation to Spring Training. As the free agent pushes himself in the batting cage, his father pushes the keypad of his phone, hoping to find a baseball contact looking for an infielder, just as he did when the Diamondbacks released Niko in 2012.

"He was able to express that he's not trying to promote me just as his son, he truly believes in me as a player and, luckily enough, the Rockies gave me a chance," the 25-year-old second baseman said. "Now that I'm a free agent again, it's the same process."

There are times when Mike and Kevin are agents for their sons and there are times when they serve as the father figures they are to their players. Gallego the third base coach thinks about Niko when talking to his players, trying to get a better idea of how they feel.

The Yankees coach is glad Jaron chose pitching over being a position player, saying he thinks it would be "a little bit uncomfortable" to have to evaluate his son strictly as a hitter in the same organization.

Outside the chalked lines and away from the aroma of hot dogs, there's another sport that fosters father-son bonding and competition: golf.

Niko's recent success on the fairways stems from the fact that he now outdrives his father, while Jaron was able to take his game to the next level. In a pivotal moment in many father-son relationships, Jaron beat his father on the links for the first time. Sure, it was just a one-stroke victory, but it was a huge moral triumph.

"He is so talented at everything, but now I'm finally starting to pass him up," the triumphant and younger Long said.

Familial competition aside, the ultimate dream for the Longs is for Jaron to make his Major League debut with Kevin looking on from the dugout.

"I've had a lot of special days, but that would be by far the best day that I could ever imagine and dream of, probably even better than winning the World Series, which we already did," Kevin Long said, his smile evident even over the phone.

Having his son in the same organization is a chance for Kevin to make up for missing every high school game Jaron played -- something that still hurts to think about.

Both Niko and Jaron said they understood their fathers didn't want to be away. They knew they were playing the game they loved, a game that ending up embracing the sons.

From the time a 7-year-old Niko mimicked the batting stances of his father's Yankees teammates to the time a 6-year-old Jaron really thought his dad would let him bat for the Wilmington Blue Rocks in a Carolina League game, baseball has been a part of their identities.

While neither father pushed his son to play baseball, the game has been the bond that could not be broken.

"That was the thing that I think ended up making baseball worth as much as it has at this point," Jaron said. "I love it just as much as he does."

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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