Lang follows unconventional route to Rutgers success
It was never for lack of effort or a shortcoming of confidence. If not for those intangibles, Michael Lang may never have found his way to Piscataway.
For Lang, it boiled down to the fact that his critics were simply wrong, and he remains dead-set on erasing any doubt that exists among the many who overlooked him.
The senior rightfielder for the Rutgers baseball team is the first to admit his road to collegiate baseball was not the most conventional, and a quick glance at how he got to the Banks reveals the same.
But despite all the possible excuses and setbacks, Lang embraced the challenge of treading the path less taken, and it started years ago during his career at St. Peter's Prep (N.J.).
There, Lang met the late Ed "The Faa" Ford.
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The Faa was a sports legend in Jersey City, not only for his quirky demeanor, but for his efforts in helping kids reach their goals in athletics.
Although he died two weeks ago at the age of 65, the Faa's memory lives on through the people he helped — especially in Lang's mind.
Just like his path to Rutgers, the first time Lang met the Faa after school in the Jersey City Armory was not the most ideal.
"So I'm there in my dress pants, dress shoes, shirt, tie and jacket, and he pulls me aside and says, ‘Get in your stance,'" Lang said. "He teaches me how to hit right there — no bat or nothing — in a school uniform. That was the type of guy he was."
From that moment on, the Faa was instrumental in constructing Lang's swing.
And it proved effective, as Lang hit .488 with 13 home runs in his senior season at St. Peter's.
But Lang never heard from a Division I program.
Lang was focused on playing Division III baseball at Rowan and admits he came dangerously close to setting afoot on a new path.
But once again, the Faa, a former Major League Baseball scout, stepped in and spread the word on Lang to local schools.
Eventually, the Faa's influence earned Lang a tryout for Rutgers head coach Fred Hill — one of the Faa's good friends and colleagues — prior to the 2008 season. The tryout was a success, and Lang walked onto the team without a scholarship.
Still, there were doubts.
"To be honest with you, we hadn't seen him play," Hill said. "Mr. Ford was a very well-respected baseball guy who I knew pretty well, and obviously I took his word for it."
Once again Lang was forced to prove his worth, as opportunities were slim and optimism even slimmer during his rookie campaign.
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Former Knights hitting coach Glen Gardner, now the program's Director of Baseball Operations, still recalls Lang's freshman season and the struggles that came with it.
Lang is never short on attributing his success in the college ranks to Gardner, who, like the Faa, played a big part in getting Lang his opportunity.
"We would go down to the field at like 10 in the morning and hit for two hours before the game, and then I'd come up and get ready and go onto the field," Lang said. "We'd hit after lifting at 8 in the morning, 9 in the morning. We just kept hitting and he kept teaching me new things."
Gardner saw something special in Lang, even though the unproven outfielder did little to grab the attention of the Rutgers staff in high school.
The very night after Hill's sit-down with the Faa, Gardner went and saw Lang play. And the outfielder still did not have a spot on the Knights' roster.
"I joke around with Mike a lot because in that game I think he was 0-for-3 and he dropped a fly ball in right field that he should've caught easily," Gardner said. "I came back to coach Hill and went in the office and he said, ‘How was the kid?' And I said ‘He had a terrible day, but he's great.' You could just tell by watching him."
But Lang struggled for his chance to flaunt his abilities in game action. As a walk-on, Lang got last-licks on playing time, putting a damper on his confidence as the season progressed.
It is only fitting that with all the good fortune it took for Lang to simply make it to a Division I team, his very first opportunity occurred after a series of minute events.
Before the Knights' series opener with Georgetown on April 11, 2008, now-senior third baseman D.J. Anderson developed an eye infection, preventing him from traveling with the team and forcing Hill's staff to bring Lang along as an extra body.
Come game time, an injury and subsequent base-running blunder by a pair of players got Lang to the plate, where he recorded his first collegiate hit against the Hoyas.
That game eventually snowballed into a few more opportunities for the Dumont, N.J., native, and Lang made the most of it, closing the year with 11 starts and a .388 average.
"It's not even his swing," Gardner said. "Just the way he plays baseball, he plays the game like he's got a chip on his shoulder, and you never have to ever say, ‘C'mon, Mike. Let's go.' He's already gone."
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After earning the starting spot as a walk-on to close his freshman season, Lang proceeded to lead team with a .343 average his sophomore season, hit .317 his junior year and now leads the team in hitting once again with a .321 average.
His consistency over the past two seasons even earned the attention of a number of MLB scouts and etched his name in the Rutgers record books, where Lang is sixth in career total bases (341) and triples (11), seventh in runs (162) and 10th in hits (207).
Lang points to the Faa for getting him through his rollercoaster rookie season and gives plenty of credit to Gardner for helping develop his swing.
But those who grew under Lang quickly take notice of the mental toughness he brings to the game — the same toughness he possessed during the course of his journey to Rutgers.
"He was a walk-on here, so it shows that a lot of people told him he couldn't do this or do that and he's consistently proved people wrong," said junior captain Russ Hopkins. "I think just the mental toughness that he has is something that I've tried to acquire in my own game."
Lang continues to embrace those who still doubt him. Through all the criticism and times being overlooked, the walk-on-turned-team-captain and now MLB prospect always found use for doubt to fuel his fire.
That never stopped Lang from enjoying the ride, and will never stop him from appreciating what it took to prove everyone wrong on his way to Piscataway.
"It's kind of one of those things that you dream of as a kid," Lang said. "You're like, ‘Oh it would be awesome to be a captain by senior year,' and I would always say back home that it would be sick to bat .300 for a Division I team. Both of those have happened this year. Just everything was pretty crazy how it all happened."