July 9, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
The tale of Thomas Smith has grown taller now that Bingo Long has worked his way into it. Seriously, a man with that name helped make a traveling All-Star out of Tech’s second basemen, and – unlike the Bingo that may leap to mind – this is all real.
If you’re playing catch-up, Smith is the young baseball player who did not receive a single scholarship offer coming out of high school last year. Disappointed but not discouraged, he tried out at Georgia Tech last fall and made the squad only to sit the bench every single second of the Yellow Jackets’ first 25 games in the spring.
Disappointed but again fighting off dismay, he kept scrapping in practice so as to make Danny Hall notice a little something extra. With his squad scuffling afield and short in the category of intangibles, the Tech coach started Smith at second base.
You might say that paid off.
With the 4th of July months away, Smith took off as if packed into a mortar and set ablaze. He started Tech’s final 39 games, hit .302 with a .407 on-base percentage, played in general as if on fire and then made the ACC All-Tournament team as one of the key components in the Jackets’ semi-miraculous drive to the title.
“For 30 games, I told him I was going to red-shirt him, and then just decided to play him,” Hall said. “I just felt like our team was missing energy, a spark. He could really catch the baseball and we were playing bad defense at the time.”
Yep, and nothing has changed lately.
Smith played Sunday in the Valley League All-Star game, where he hit .321 for the Harrisonburg (Va.) Turks in the first half.
Given these combined results over the past few months and the fact that not a single college program chased this young man out of John Carroll Catholic High School in Ft. Pierce, Fla., some questions are left begging: did Smith make some sort of substantial change between his senior year and the present?
Did he grow a great deal? Switch to Wheaties? Find his inner zen?
Turns out there’s a simpler answer if you can get past this Bingo Long character.
When summer ball rolled around in 2011, and Smith joined the squad representing American Legion Post 358, the post had a hitting coach who tweaked a few things.
It went like this:
“I changed my batting stance the summer before Georgia Tech. Our hitting coach changed up my stance a little bit, and that really, really helped me out. I was a good high-school hitter, but I wasn’t impressive by any means,” Smith said. “When we changed it up, I started to have a little more power, started squaring balls up more consistently.”
Smith doesn’t remember that hitting coach’s first name. Maybe he never knew it. “We just always called Coach Long, ‘Bingo,’ ” he said.
Even though Smith’s swing was squared away – although adjustments took a couple weeks to sink in – and he made the squad at Tech, there was a relative dearth of intel from which Hall and his staff could draw. So, for the longest time, Smith sat. Then, the call came, and he was jittery – much as the Jackets had been up to that point.
Hall asked Smith, “You nervous?”
The freshman was honest when he said, “A little bit.”
The coach offered something of an, “Ahfuhgedaboudit.”
Smith recalled: “He said, ‘I just want you to go out and play the way you play, play hard. We need some of that. You’ll be fine.’ “
He never left the lineup after going 1-for-3 against Georgia Southern that day. From there, Smith and the Jackets improved. No wonder the coach said of Smith after the ACC Tournament, “He plays the game the right way, always gets his uniform dirty, does a lot of the little things well.”
If all of this isn’t unusual enough, Smith said that until Monday he never knew of a Bingo Long other than the one who righted his rip. Told there was a movie in 1976 or so titled, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” he hadn’t a clue.
Nevermind that the character of Bingo – a pitcher – was played by Billy Dee Williams and based loosely on Satchel Paige. It was all foreign to a lad born 16 years after that movie – which also starred Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones – came out.
His response: “That’s kind of cool.”
Smith’s having a grand summer in Virginia, where three of his Tech teammates – Alex Cruz, Charles Sheffield and AJ Murray – are Harrisonburg teammates and roommates. It hasn’t been cool; they played a game the other day when it was 102 degrees.
All he knows of Bingo Long is that the man convinced him to, “kind of hold my hands out over the plate and bring them back. I used to bury my hands [close to his body] so I couldn’t get to the inside pitch. When I load, I don’t bury my hands so I can get to any pitch. I was kind of conventional before.”
This is, it should be clear by now, an unconventional story.
Smith had no hard-core baseball reason to try his hand at Tech. He showed up on The Flats more because of the engineering school. His father, after all, graduated ME ’85, and Thomas is majoring in mechanical now as well.
“I didn’t get any athletic offers so I was going just based off academics. Georgia Tech was my No. 1 choice for engineering,” he said. “I was going to try to walk on anywhere I went. I thought the best-case scenario would be to show up an get a roster spot, red-shirt my freshman year.
“I went out with the attitude that I had nothing to lose. If I didn’t make it, I was at school of my dreams. If I did make it, I would have the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Bingo Long’s All-Star and his teammates will wrap up in the Valley League around August 1, and then he’ll return to Florida for more than a week before showing up at Tech for the start of fall semester. His is quite a tale, huh? Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org