Michael Lang just felt comfortable with his professional baseball life. The former St. Peter’s Prep standout and Hudson Reporter Most Valuable Player a dozen years ago had spent parts of the last seven summers in Iowa playing for the Sioux City Explorers of the independent American Association.
So when Lang was called into the office of Steve Montgomery, the manager of the Explorers, last week, Lang thought it was all business as usual. Maybe Montgomery had an appearance that he needed Lang to attend or a kid needed an autograph or a local day camp needed a player to stop by and offer some words of guidance and encouragement.
The 30-year-old Lang had done all of that – and more – over the last seven-plus baseball seasons. After all, Lang is the franchise’s all-time leader in hits, games played, runs, doubles, triples, at-bats, you name it. Lang personified being an Explorer as much as perhaps Ponce de Leon and Francisco DeGama.
“When I was called in, I didn’t know what to think,” Lang said in a phone interview last week. “I had no clue. It caught me totally off-guard.”
Montgomery hit Lang with the news. He had been traded to the rival St. Paul Saints for two players to be named later.
“Steve said that they were working on the details of the trade for about two weeks, going back and forth,” said Lang, who also had a great career at Rutgers University in New Brunswick before signing on with Sioux City in 2012, after two seasons in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization. “He said that the Explorers were getting two great players for next year. He said that it was a trade that was going to help the team eventually.”
That’s the key word – eventually. Not exactly right now.
Lang had developed camaraderie and a kinship with the fans in Sioux City. He was clearly one of the franchise’s most popular players of all time.
“I just sat in the office for about five-to-10 minutes in shock,” Lang said. “At first, I thought they were joking around. I asked Steve, ‘Is this real?’ It was weird, for sure. The funny thing is that my Dad and I had just been going through all the team’s records and I realized all the records I had set. I just set the record for doubles [in a career with 106] and recently became only the 13th player in the history of the league to collect 600 hits [ending with 642].”
This season, Lang was hitting .279 with five home runs and 18 RBI in 65 games. He had 17 doubles and stole 13 bases. He had two homers and four RBI in a win over Winnipeg in June.
And it was more than just baseball for Lang, who became a multi-dimensional player at both Prep and Rutgers during his days there, before taking off to the Great Midwest. Lang eventually met his wife, Briana, a Fargo, North Dakota native, through baseball and the Langs were blessed with the birth of their daughter, Lyla Rose, nine months ago.
“I built relationships in Sioux City,” Lang said. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how many friends I have, long-standing personal relationships.”
Lang mentioned avid Explorer fans who attended mostly every game.
“There’s one little girl who I fist-bumped with before every game,” Lang said. “She sits with her family right behind the dugout. I’ve been doing that since she was about two or three and she’s like seven now. There’s a little girl who has Down syndrome who sits close to the field and I fist-bump with her. There’s a guy whose son I took onto the field and played catch with. They live two hours away from the ballpark and they come all the time. Women made hand-woven blankets for my daughter when she was born. Just thinking about being away from these people really makes me sad.”
Lang tried to conjure all the positive thoughts together while he took the four-and-a-half hour drive from Sioux City to St. Paul (Minnesota) last Monday morning.
“Obviously, I had a lot of time to think about it [the trade],” Lang said. “I just kept trying to process it. It’s a trade that didn’t make sense at this point of the season. [The Explorers have 33 games remaining]. The one thing that played through my head the whole time was the relationships with the great people of Sioux City.”
For five years, before Lang got married, he lived with the same host family, Mike and Bonnie Muecke (in a typical gentleman fashion, Lang did mention Bonnie first when offering their names).
“They were like my own parents,” Lang said. “My own parents came out about two or three times a year and they all got along so well. I don’t know what my parents are going to do. They’re upset as well. It’s such a small market team that the fans know you and you know them.”
In fact, Lang has fallen in love with the Midwest almost as much as he did with Briana – so much so that he spends the offseason with his wife and daughter in Fargo.
Briana Lang has been nothing but supportive to her husband, right down to allowing him to grow his now-trademarked long beard.
“She wants me to get it all out of me,” Lang said. “She wants me to have fun playing ball and I do that. She tells me to keep playing. She’s the best. Now, it’s not just about me. I have a family to worry about. But I love it. I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t having fun. I love playing baseball.”
Lang said that he’s settling in with the Saints, even though he’s been with his new club for only a week.
“I drove all that way and I was in the lineup that night,” Lang said. “Emotionally, I was so totally out of it. Thank God, the game got rained out. I really needed a day. But it’s my new team now and I’m going to do whatever I can to help the Saints win. I’m happy to be here now. It’s a little weird and different, but I’m getting used to it.”
Eventually, Lang won’t mind playing in the Saints’ new $70 million home in downtown St. Paul, right along the banks of the Mississippi River.
“The Saints are extremely happy to have me,” said Lang, who was batting second and playing right field right away for his new team.
Lang and his new teammates are on the road, traveling to Milwaukee and Chicago, for two three-game road trips, before making a very interesting journey – to Sioux City and face the Explorers for the first time.
“That will be very interesting,” Lang said. “The first day, it’s going to feel weird. I’m going to be emotional. But baseball is a business. Sometimes, you get traded. It’s part of the game. It’s not like Sioux City got rid of me. They made a trade with next year in mind.”
And Lang got traded to a team that is one-half game out of first place. He went right into a pennant race.
“It’s a tight race,” Lang sakd.
Montgomery did mention that he will miss Lang’s leadership and his ability to get along with everyone in Sioux City. After all, you don’t become a fan favorite overnight.
“Obviously, this is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do not only as the Sioux City Explorers’ manager, but in baseball, period,” Montgomery said in an interview with local media in Iowa. “What Michael’s meant to the community, what he’s meant to this team, what he’s meant to me personally as a manager, me personally as person. I understand it might not be popular in the community and with our fans, but baseball’s a crazy game sometimes. I hope over the past five, six years I’ve been able to garner some trust in the fans that what I’m doing is in the best interest of the Sioux City Explorers each and every time we make a move. It was just hard all the way around.”
Lang will remain in Fargo, N.D. in the offseason. He works at a training facility called Dynasty Performance Training and also works at a baseball facility called The Ballyard giving hitting lessons.
And there’s no hint of retirement.
“I wouldn’t have allowed the trade if I was going to quit,” Lang said. “People think that I’m leaving, but I always take it year by year. When I physically can’t do it anymore and I truly mean it, then I’ll walk away. But I love playing ball. I’m enjoying myself. I’m settling in and who knows? St. Paul could become a new home.”