The Pirates yesterday came close to completing manager John Russell's staff by hiring Don Long as hitting coach, but they narrowly missed out on what would have been a fine finishing piece.
Two sources confirmed that the team's top choice to fill its only remaining vacancy, at first base coach, had been Perry Hill, the highly respected former first base coach and infield instructor of the Florida Marlins. The Pirates and Hill had agreed verbally on contract terms late last week.
But Hill backed out at the last minute, citing personal reasons, and general manager Neal Huntington was left to pursue other options.
Hill, 55, spent 14 years as a coach in Major League Baseball until March, when he suddenly retired from the Marlins to be with his ailing wife, Olivia.
Hill has instructed Gold Glove winners at every infield position, including Derrek Lee, Luis Castillo, Orlando Cabrera and Mike Lowell. Castillo gave his second Gold Glove trophy, in 2004, to Hill as a gesture of appreciation.
For Long, 45, his hiring followed 21 years of coaching in the minors. He had been the Philadelphia Phillies' hitting coordinator since 1999, this after 12 seasons in the Los Angeles Angels' system as a manager and coach.
He interviewed earlier this decade for openings with the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles.
"I've been close on a couple occasions and felt I was ready then," Long said. "But my attitude was to just go back to work, and it's amazing how much I've learned since then. I'm almost kind of thankful this chance didn't come until now."
The chance came largely because of a strong recommendation from Russell, who managed Philadelphia's Class AAA affiliate the past two seasons. Russell and Long had adjacent locker stalls in the Phillies' spring training camp and got to know each other well.
"We would talk a lot about how we would do things, maybe at the big-league level and sometimes just baseball in general," Long said. "We had a good rapport."
Huntington called Long "a great communicator and a tireless worker who has had successful results wherever he has been."
The Pirates batted .263 as a team last season, 10th in the 16-team National League, as several players dipped below their career averages under former hitting coach Jeff Manto. They also drew only 463 walks, fewest in the league, continuing their recent history of poor patience at the plate.
Long's view of walks is that they come naturally.
"The type of hitter we're going to try to create is aggressive but under control," he said. "When he steps up to home plate, he's ready to hit every pitch until his eyes tell him no. He has to see the ball and recognize where it's going before he actually goes after it."
He also stressed the idea of letting each player be himself, something the Pirates' previous staff did not do in cases such as Chris Duffy, who had his swing altered by Manto and former manager Jim Tracy with disastrous results.
"The thing I'm interested in is connecting with each player and not just go with a blanket approach," Long said.
A shortstop in his playing days, Long batted .251 in three minor-league seasons -- 1983-85 -- in the San Francisco Giants' system.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com .