How Detroit’s No. 19 prospect is getting in the giving spirit

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

One by one on Friday evening, the kids and their parents walked up to the small crowd at the Meijer store on Grand River Avenue in Detroit and were paired with a current or former Detroit athlete and a $250 donation to use for gifts. Some families were emotional at the prospect. Others couldn’t contain their enthusiasm.

Nearly a dozen current Red Wings players took part in the event with kids from The Children’s Center. So did one Tiger.

“I would rather do nothing else than this,” rookie right-hander Sawyer Gipson-Long said. “And I want to use the Tigers and baseball as my platform to give back to this community up here.”

Just a few months ago, Gipson-Long — ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Tigers’ No. 19 prospect — made his Major League debut on a Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park. As part of the Pediatric Cancer Awareness Day festivities, the Tigers invited kids battling cancer to take the field and meet Tigers players as they took their defensive positions for the start of the game against the White Sox. As Gipson-Long took the mound at Comerica Park for the first time ever, he was greeted by 4-year-old Cailen Vela. Gipson-Long crouched down and gave Vela a fist bump.

“Going out there for the first time and seeing Cailen out there brought me a lot of confidence, and I’m really thankful for him being in my life,” Gipson-Long said. “I wanted to come back and hang out with him and reunite with him. Hopefully that fosters a friendship for a long time with us. I want to keep doing that.”

So a couple days before the Meijer event, Gipson-Long reunited with Vela at a Kids Kick Cancer event.

“Took a karate class with him. He kicked my butt,” Gipson-Long said. “I was sweating and he was doing fine, so I need to work on my karate skills.”

The next day, he recovered enough to visit The Children’s Center in midtown Detroit, where he and his family donated $1,000 of winter gear for kids.

Tigers players don’t make many offseason public appearances in the area. None of the current players live in Michigan in the winter. The team brought in a small group of players for a few stops last January, including Matt Manning, but the Tigers haven’t done a full Winter Caravan tour since before the pandemic. Gipson-Long is unique, in more ways than one. 

The Tigers didn’t ask for him to do this. The Georgia native wanted to return to Michigan and do something. He wanted the Tigers to offer him ways to give back, and he wanted to see Vela. 

This, Gipson-Long explained, is a family tradition. He grew up learning about volunteering for community service through their church, and later through his high school and college. One of his favorite causes near his home in Georgia was Goshen Valley Boys Ranch, an environment of safety, love and stability for kids in foster care. As he turned pro and began his journey in the Minor Leagues, he worked with Blessings in a Backpack to help provide food for at-risk kids when they were away from school. 

“My family has always been a giving family,” Gipson-Long said. “We’ve always done a community service event around the holidays, so this was perfect for us. It lined up great with all the events.”

Gipson-Long’s breakout 2023 season and rise to the Majors provided him the visibility and opportunity to have an even greater reach. 

As far as Gipson-Long’s workout plan, he said he has focused on strength training and mechanics. Once he gets that set, he’ll start throwing off a mound later this month before progressing into bullpen sessions. He finished with 119 2/3 innings last season between Detroit, Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Erie, a few innings fewer than his 2022 total (123).  

“The Tigers have a good game plan for me,” he said. “It’s really just focusing in my intent and trying to make the transition into The Show seamless and learn as much as I can about myself and how to adapt in the big leagues,” he said. “Hopefully what I’m doing for my body and my pitches and myself this offseason is going to pay off next year.”

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