As sports fans, almost all of us fantasize of being a member of our favorite team. Red Sox fans imagine themselves hitting the go-ahead run over the Green Monster, Celtics fans visualize hitting the game-winning 3-pointer on the parquet floor, and so on. Of course, for most of us those dreams are far-fetched.
So we’re left to wonder; what does it feel like to get the chance to become a star for the team we grew up idolizing?
For an answer to that question, look no further than High-A Salem first baseman Nick Longhi, a Springfield native and lifelong Red Sox fan. Longhi, 20, may have moved to Florida as an infant, but he had no problem staying loyal to the stars of Fenway Park. He even remembers crying himself to sleep back in 2003 after Aaron Boone hit a walk-off home run off Tim Wakefield in Game 7 of the ALCS.
“It really wasn’t that difficult for me [to stay a Red Sox fan] because of the fact that I was brought up in that environment with my dad loving all Boston sports,” Longhi said. “And that’s something that we took an interest in. We bonded through sports my whole childhood and my whole life. Obviously, as a kid, that’s the team your dad roots for, that’s who you want to win, too.”
Not only has Longhi dreamed of becoming a Boston legend, he is moving closer and closer to his goal every day. Through Monday, Boston’s No. 15 prospect at MLB.com is slashing .290/.360/.398 in 84 games. His 56 RBIs are sixth best in the Carolina League, and he ranks second among current Salem batters in batting average. He’s collected 24 multi-hit games this year and continues to enhance his game after batting .330 with Lowell in 2014 and notching 62 RBIs in 115 games with Greenville last season.
Although Longhi’s home run numbers are down — he currently has two home runs after totaling seven last year — Salem manager Joe Oliver believes the drop-off is normal.
“I think his power will eventually evolve,” Oliver said. “Playing at Salem typically knocks down a lot of guys power numbers just because they’re playing so big. This hasn’t been a good season for his home runs, but he’s definitely showing clutch hitting, driving in quite a few runs.”
Drafted by the Red Sox in 2013, Longhi now has been a member of the Red Sox organization for four years, working his way up from the Gulf Coast League to the Carolina League. Longhi currently is thriving, but he came dangerously close to passing by an opportunity most of us can only dream about.
Longhi started drawing attention from scouts while in high school in Venice, Florida (about an hour north of the Red Sox’ spring training home in Fort Myers). He was named an All-American his senior year at Venice High, and Baseball America named Longhi the best pure hitter and No. 46 overall prospect of the 2013 MLB draft.
However, the college offers came flooding in, 72 in total, and Longhi committed to playing at LSU. Having committed to a college, Longhi saw his draft stock plummet, and the first two days of the 2013 MLB draft passed by without him being selected.
Even before the second day of the draft ended, Longhi had his mind made up that he would spend the next season playing college ball with the Tigers. He said he even quit paying attention to the draft completely after the fifth round.
By the time the third day of the draft rolled around, Longhi already was working on transitioning to the college level.
“I was actually in the cage, hitting with a metal bat, getting ready to go to LSU because I was preparing for it,” Longhi said. “I was telling myself that’s where I was going.”
With the draft entering the 30th round, it seemed certain that Longhi would forgo turning pro. That is, until he found out which team took a chance on him with the 893rd overall pick.
“One of my friends actually called me and said, ‘Congratulations, the Red Sox just drafted you in the 30th round,’ ” Longhi said. “I was a little upset, I just said thanks and hung up my phone.”
Longhi never planned to sign with a team for the minimum, but the Red Sox offered him a $440,000 signing bonus. He readily admits that if it was any other team, he would have skipped out on the opportunity. But the chance to play for his favorite team was too good to pass up. He signed with Boston 24 hours after being offered and was the fourth-highest-paid Sox prospect that season.
Not many 30th-round selections are expected to break through to the major league level. But Longhi, a top prospect talent who has shown improvement every year, continues to inch toward doing exactly that.
“I feel like every athlete has to play for something, for me it’s that point of pride,” Longhi said. “I use it as motivation every time I go to the field, every time I go to the cage, to make it to the big leagues and kind of defy the odds. Everybody sees a 30th-round label and they go, ‘Oh, not too much usually comes out of there.’ I just try to go there and, like I said, just kind of defy that label and just put that label to sleep.”
Throughout his four years in the Red Sox organization, Longhi has strived to make a name for himself and defy those odds. He hopes to join the likes of Raul Ibanez and Mark Buehrle, who were drafted late and went on to successful major league careers. To increase his chances of reaching the big leagues, Longhi has worked tirelessly on his defense, an area of his game that had to be upgraded.
To make things more challenging, Longhi was called upon to make the switch from outfielder to first baseman, a position that can take time getting used to. Yet he now considers his defense an important aspect of his game; he’s started 66 games at first this season, averaging a .998 fielding percentage on the corner. Longhi credits his coaches and coordinators for the smooth transition.
“They’ve been working with me hard on it and so there’s really no way that I couldn’t have improved on defense,” Longhi said. “I’m very pleased and very lucky and fortunate that they’ve put in the work that they have with me in order to make me a better defender and make me what I think is a plus defender.”
Oliver, who coached Longhi during his time with the Spinners two years ago, agrees that the first baseman has become much more reliable on the field.
“I’ve seen huge strides and improvement at his play at first base,” Oliver said. “He’s become a very good first baseman fielding over there, he’s saved some errors on the middle infielder with his ability to take over there.”
With the vast improvements he’s made on the defensive end, Longhi has brought himself closer to making Fenway Park his home field. In 2014 he was fortunate enough to get to play in the Futures at Fenway, an event where minor league affiliates of the Red Sox get to play at the historic ballpark. Longhi said that during batting practice he hit a couple of balls over the Green Monster, something he’s likely imagined himself doing for a long time.
“For me, it was an incredible feeling,” Longhi said. “It was just such a cool feeling to think about all the guys that have been there before me and done that, even the guys that are currently there doing that. It was just so cool to think about, the coolest part is that could be my future home where I play every day. That’s the reason you come to the field every day and work hard because that’s where you want to end up.”
He’s gotten a feel for Fenway Park. He’s getting better and better with each passing year. He’s a top prospect and one of the strongest hitters in the Red Sox farm system. One wonders how close Longhi is to getting his shot to live out his dream.
Until he gets the chance, Longhi said he just has to continue putting the work in and letting the chips fall where they may.
“Whenever the time is, the time is,” Longhi said. “I don’t know when it’s going to be. Obviously, as a player you want to be there yesterday. That’s why you just come to the field and work hard every day, because you want to get there as soon as possible.”
For now, Longhi will have to settle for dreaming of playing for the Red Sox, just like he did as a kid.