The Tampa Bay Rays are perennial contenders in the American League East, and a big reason is star third baseman Evan Longoria. The 2008 AL Rookie of the Year and three-time All-Star is an offensive threat with one of the best gloves in the game. He recently partnered with the equipment company SKLZ to create a series of drills and skills videos to help kids improve their game.
Sports Illustrated Kids spoke with Longoria at Rays Spring Training camp in Port Charlotte, Florida, about the videos and the skills kids need to become the next great ballplayer. Check out our Q&A with the Rays slugger — and watch some of the videos he produced with SKLZ — below!
What's the most important drill for you or skill that you work on to keep refining your game?
I hit off the tee a lot. It's probably the one drill, for me, that I couldn't go without, just because it gives you instant feedback. You know, if you're not doing something right, the ball's not going to come off the tee or off your bat the right way. But it's such a simple drill that you can pretty much do it anywhere. You don't need a whole lot of space, you don't need anybody else, you can do it by yourself. It's a way for me to kind of get myself feeling good and also just give me that instant feedback.
For a kid who is just starting in baseball or has played for a couple years, what's the most important skill they should focus on or work on to just sort of hone their core abilities?
The tee is a great place to start. Offensively, because, if you have a net and a tee and a couple of baseballs, you can go out in the backyard and do it yourself. It's not something that you need a large wide open space or somebody else to help you with. I think defensively, there's really just no substitute for taking ground balls. The number really doesn't matter, but just quality reps, directly at me, and then have whoever's hitting the ball move me to my left and move me to my right and just work on the fundamental aspects of a backhand and a forehand and just really focus on catching the ball first and then after that, even if you're not throwing the ball to first base, continue with the same motions that you would if you were going to. So working that footwork, getting in position and moving yourself towards first base or towards second base if you're turning a double play.
Right. When you were starting out, what was the hardest part of the game for you to sort of get a handle on, that you had to work the hardest at?
Honestly, probably the mental aspect of the game. I think that's the toughest part. It's what separates really good players from the average or mediocre or the guys who don't make it at all. A lot of times I see guys that are more physically gifted or talented than I am, but for whatever reason, they just aren't able to figure certain thing out mentality or be able to slow the game down enough to handle certain situations. For me, being able to work with some people on the mental side of the game has really, I think, helped me continue to progress as a player.
What kinds of things do you do to work on your mental game?
I think preparation is the backbone of it all. Preparation and routine, just having something that you can do a daily basis that stays consistent, because that's going to give the peace of mind to know that you've put the work in and that when it comes time to play the game, you don't have anything else to think about. You've worked as hard and prepared as much as you can to go into that game. I think visualization for younger kids that don't have some of the more advanced tools that we have, like video and scouting reports and all that. And so I think just preparing as much as you can by either knowing who your opponent's going to be, knowing what kind of pitcher you're going to be facing, and then also understanding the other team offensively and being able to position yourself in a good spot defensively.
What's the biggest mistake you see kids making when they start in baseball, or even if they've been playing for a while?
Very simply put, I think it's not having fun. Ultimately, it's a game. It's a sport, it's competition, but it's meant to be fun. And when we start playing the game when we're young, that's what it is, and that's what really draws us to the game, that element of childish fun, you know? Just enjoying being on a team with your friends and just going out there and having fun. And so I think the biggest mistake or misconception I think players when they start to get older have is that it's work and that you can't have fun. You've got to be upset when you don't get a hit or upset when you lose and it ruins your day and all that. It's like, I mean, to a certain extent, especially at this level, it should because there's a lot at stake and it affects more than just us in the room. But ultimately, at the end of the day, it's about fun. It's about enjoying being who you're with and I think that sometimes that gets lost with kids.
How much of that is that kids feel that they have to play all the time, year-round?
Yeah. And I talk a lot about that with people because I didn't play all year round. I've been playing since I was 4 or 5 years old, Tee Ball and on up, you know, and when I was, like, 6-7-8, 7-8-9, whatever, I was playing soccer and some basketball and stuff, I wasn't playing baseball year round. Even until, really, I got into college, I wasn't playing baseball year round. I played in high school, and actually I played water polo during one of the other seasons. And then my last two years — my freshman and sophomore years I played water polo and baseball — and then my junior and senior years, I was focused on baseball. I was playing during the baseball season and we had a little summer ball type thing, but it wasn't year round. I think a lot of kids get burned out nowadays, and that pressure from parents is tough to deal with for a lot of kids, you know? And I think that some of the guys that I play with now have had similar experiences as me, where their parents didn't force them to do a lot. They just let them kind of do what they wanted and enjoy playing the sport, and it turns into a real love and passion for the game, whereas the guys who were forced to do it, you know, and forced to play year round kind of lose that passion.
By playing those other sports, how did that help your baseball?
Well, it gets your mind off of it, for one. You're not always thinking about the same things, and you're not always with the same group of people, you know? Because sometimes, I mean, we all love each other in here, but it's tough to be together with the same group of guys. There's personalities and, you know, fundamental differences in everybody, and so you don't always agree. So I think it's a way to get away and be with a different group of guys. And obviously, you need different skill sets to play different sports. And so, for me, before I was in high school, I played in a rotating, three-sport community league where you played baseball-basketball-football, baseball-basketball-football, and so just learning how different games work, learning how a team functions in different sports because they're all different, the dynamic is always different, and just to break up the monotony.
What other sports do you like to play now?
Golf, mainly. I have a basketball court in my backyard, I shoot around basketball. But if I didn't do what I do, I'd probably do a lot more, you know? I would play basketball harder, I'd actually play games. I enjoy playing football. I can't say I'd play tackle, I don't really want to play a full contact like that, but, you know, some kind of intramural type stuff. I mean, I love all sports. And I think there's something to be gained from playing every sport.
Check out more Evan Longoria drills videos at sklz.com/longoria!
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports