Alex Bregman is different. His parents knew it early on — well before anyone else.
They were there to see 4-year-old Alex, in his first T-ball game, turn a triple play — unassisted. He caught a line drive, tagged a runner and then stepped on second base.
“No other kids were paying attention,” said Jackie Bregman, Alex’s mother. “They were picking up worms. They were eating dirt. It was just hilarious.”
Over the next decade, others slowly realized Alex was different.
For example, he threw a baseball against a wall in the family’s backyard so much that it produced a hole. The wall was cinder block.
Alex once asked a hitting instructor to help him prepare for a sidearm pitcher he would face the next day. Alex already had scouted the pitcher. He knew his velocity, his arm slot and his tendencies.
Alex was 14.
“I never had a 14-year-old ask me how to hit a sidearm pitcher,” said Jason Columbus, that hitting instructor. “Most of the time you’re trying to get them to stand in there correctly.”
Mike Foote, co-owner of a local baseball academy, once saw 15-year-old Alex field a routine one-hopper behind his back while playing second base. As the ball was hit, Alex twisted his chest to face third base, dropping his gloved left hand behind his back to field the ball.
Why the heck would he do that?
“So he was in a position to throw the runner out going from second to third base,” Foote said. “I remember looking at the third-base coach (for the other team). The coach is going, ‘What the heck was that?’ ”
Alex spent so much time in his hometown’s baseball academy that Columbus and other facility workers would tell him to go home.
“He’d leave for 20 minutes,” Columbus said, “and come back and say, ‘I went home.’ ”
LSU’s batting cages are now accessible to each baseball player through a key card-swiping system installed before the 2014 season. Why? Because Alex routinely would call student equipment managers, requesting they drive to the baseball stadium to open the cages.
The calls would come in, sometimes as late as 11 p.m. or midnight.
An equipment manager would unlock the cages and wait while Alex and sometimes others hit. An hour later, the manager would poke his head into the cages: “Just turn off the lights when you leave,” they’d say.
“He used to tell me he could just hit all day and all night,” said Paul Marcello, an equipment manager for the team. “I don’t think he kept track of time.”
“He’s like every other kid,” said Sam Bregman, Alex’s dad, “except he’s obsessed with the game of baseball.”
‘A gift from God’
Alex Bregman is not at LSU leading the Tigers to the College World Series because he enjoys 8 a.m. classes, mid-term exams and 100-question finals.
He’s at LSU because he broke his finger during the first week of baseball season his senior year in high school.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Jackie Bregman said. “It was a gift from God.”
Alex broke the middle finger of his right, throwing hand while fielding a ground ball. His first-round draft stock plummeted. His chances at a multi-million dollar signing bonus went “poof.”
Here’s a kid who batted .678 as a junior in high school and hit 19 home runs, a guy who homered in his first at-bat in the state championship game as a freshman.
The broken finger forced him to miss all but about six games of his senior season. And still he received a call from a National League team — that’s as specific as he gets — with a second-round offer of about $900,000.
Alex wanted first-round money, or he was heading to LSU.
“We’d love to take you. Will you sign?” a team official asked him.
His reply: “Don’t draft me. I’m going to go to school.”
How has that gone?
He’s a two-time All-American, he was the SEC freshman of the year and some say he’s the best shortstop in the history of this baseball powerhouse. His career stats at LSU are what you’d expect for a player who was destined to be a first-round pick out of high school.
He’s batting .333. He has more extra-base hits (87) than strikeouts (67). He has made 35 errors in 871 chances for a fielding percentage of .960. He has missed one start in 194 games, and he has driven in 148 runs.
Every fifth at-bat, Bregman brings home a run. He hits for extra bases every eighth at-bat.
The gaudy numbers have produced dollar signs.
On Monday, Bregman became the highest-drafted position player in LSU history, going No. 2 to the Houston Astros. He’ll get a signing bonus of about $7 million when he signs on the dotted line after the Tigers return from Omaha, Nebraska.
“Alex isn’t the kind of guy that’s going to spend any money,” Sam Bregman said. “He’s going to go out and work his (butt) off and become a major league player. He just wants to play baseball.”
Where it all began
The last time Jackie Bregman threw any kind of ball to her son, the two were in what the Bregmans call “the cul-de-sac.” That’s where Alex grew up.
Jackie tossed a tennis ball toward a bat-wielding Alex, age 10. He hit the ball back at her, smacking her in the chest so hard that she dropped to the ground and lost her breath for a moment.
“True story,” Jackie said recently.
Two houses in the four-home cul-de-sac belonged to professional athletes: Matt Quillen, an ex-NFL fullback, and current Arizona Diamondbacks catcher and infielder Jordan Pacheco.
This was a nice neighborhood — one that “kind of had a county club feel,” Alex says. It’s set into the base of the mountains overlooking Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city of a half-million people that might be best known for being the setting for the hit AMC series “Breaking Bad.”
“I know everywhere that it’s set,” Alex said. “I think my dad was asked to be in it.”
The cul-de-sac is where Alex learned baseball, where he created a hole in that cinder block wall, where he dived for footballs on pavement, where he broke a neighbor’s window after teeing up a golf ball and letting it rip.
He was 5 during that golf ball incident, and the neighbor was more worried about finding the ball and having Alex sign it than her dining-room window.
“He’s going to be the next Tiger Woods,” she told Jackie.
The cul-de-sac — it’s where Alex waited each night for his father to come home with a new baseball card that he had picked up on his drive home from work.
Sam and Jackie Bregman are both lawyers. Alex is their oldest child. They have a daughter, Jessica, who’s 18 months younger and just completed her freshman year at Tulane. They have a younger son, too. A.J. Bregman is a 15-year-old lefty pitcher.
“Our big fantasy is that some day A.J. gets to pitch for the LSU Tigers,” Sam said. “That would be the ultimate experience.”
“We want to be the next Nolas,” a laughing Jackie Bregman said, referring to LSU’s brother duo of Austin and Aaron Nola.
The Bregmans have embraced south Louisiana culture. They’ve immersed themselves in it like their son does with baseball.
They spoke to a reporter from a tailgating site in the Alex Box Stadium parking lot before LSU’s super regional win last Sunday over Louisiana-Lafayette. They were decked in purple and gold, drinks in hand, belly already full of Cajun cuisine.
They were smiling. They were laughing. They were sweating. They were savoring what would be their son’s final game in Baton Rouge.
“I know this ranks as some of the best years of our lives, just coming out and experiencing LSU baseball and the best college baseball fans in the world,” Sam said. “It’s pretty special.”
Not the biggest, but the best
More than 200 people gathered Monday for a watch party in the Champions Club lounge of Alex Box Stadium. At about 6:15 p.m., Alex’s name was called, and the room burst into celebration.
One of the TV analysts listed Alex’s personal information. He got to height and read aloud what was listed: 6-foot.
“Six-foot!” someone shouted to a rumble of laughter.
Alex isn’t 6-foot. He admits he’s always been “tiny” from an early age. He didn’t get his dad’s height. Sam is 6-4. His sister, Jessica, is taller than Alex. Alex’s younger brother is on his way to being 6-3 or 6-4.
Alex’s arm isn’t the strongest, either. And he’s not one of the fastest guys out there. In fact, he’s not in the top four of LSU’s fastest players. He doesn’t have the big, bulky muscles or long lanky arms.
“Everybody knows his story,” said Mike Foote, co-owner of the Albuquerque Baseball Academy, Alex’s home away from home. “He’s not a phenom athlete.
“But,” Foote continued, “Alex Bregman is the best baseball player.”
Alex knew about his athletic inadequacies growing up. Others saw it, too.
University of New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham lectured Alex when he was 14 years old during a baseball camp. He told him about the 10,000-hour rule. If you want to be good at something, he said, you must put in 10,000 hours of work at the craft.
“From that point on, I was like, ‘OK, I’m working towards those 10,000 hours right now,’ ” Alex said. “Sometimes it’s excessive. Sometimes I work too much. Sometimes I hit so much my hands get tired and stuff starts happening. That’s the way I’ve always done it: I’m going to work, work, work at the game until I can’t any more.”
Alex estimates that he’s practiced or played baseball all but six days in the past seven years.
That’s about 2,550 days.
“He’s way past his 10,000 hours,” Sam said. “I think he’s on 25,000 hours.”
Jacob Robson’s sharp grounder seemed destined for left field. It was a sure bottom-of-the-ninth, game-winning shot through the left side of the infield.
Unfortunately for Robson, it was hit toward one of college baseball’s smartest players. Alex, leaking toward the left-side hole, dived. He made a game-saving play in a game that LSU eventually won over Mississippi State in extra innings.
“If you rewatch the video, before (Jared) Poché releases the pitch, I’m already moving that way before he makes contact,” Alex said.
This isn’t the first time — and won’t be the last — that Alex has anticipated where a hit would land. He doesn’t often.
Foote offers an explanation of what’s happening in Alex’s head before each pitch.
“He knows the guy standing at the plate and what their tendencies are and knows the pitcher on the mound,” Foote said. “He’s looking in to see what pitch is being called, and then he studies the hitter to see what their body movements are. You hear football players watching film all of the time and learning from film. For baseball players, it’s knowing every hitter, knowing the pitches going to be called.”
LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro, a former major league scout, says Bregman is the smartest young player he’s ever been around.
LSU assistant coach Will Davis has been with the program for eight years as coach and four more as a player before that.
“Smartest college player I’ve ever seen, and I don’t expect to see another — no matter how long I’m in this,” Davis said. “He’s so in tune with the game, it’s ridiculous. Most people that have the intelligence level of a coach aren’t good. He has the intelligence level, baseball IQ of a coach, and he’s really good.”
Foote thinks of baseball as a chess match. Alex is always thinking one or two moves ahead.
“That focus,” he said, “is very rare.”
Is Alex Bregman a second baseman or a shortstop?
Is his swing too unorthodox? Does it need some major changes?
These are questions and criticisms Alex often hears. It’s hard to tell which issue rattles the player more.
Alex has used the same swing for nearly a decade, since beginning his work with Columbus at age 14. And he has spent the past three years perfecting his play at shortstop. Alex played catcher for much of his high school career, and he admits he never took defense seriously until arriving in Baton Rouge.
He played shortstop as a high school freshman and played second base during summer ball while playing up an age group or two. The Astros have told him he’d get every opportunity to play shortstop.
Davis admits that Alex arrived at LSU unpolished defensively. Earlier this season, he went 31 straight games without making an error.
“He doesn’t have one God-given tool that’s off the charts,” Davis said. “He’s turned himself into a plus hitter and plus defender. I know he didn’t show up like that here as a defender.”
His bat has always been there.
Alex and Columbus groomed the swing over years of work in the batting cages of the Albuquerque Baseball Academy. They’d hit for two hours, walk down the street for a burger and fries — one of Alex’s favorite meals — and then hit for two more hours.
The hitting group also included Blake Swihart, now a rookie catcher for the Red Sox who grew up just north of Albuquerque. They hit. They hit. And they hit some more.
“We’d hit for two hours, and Alex would sit down, and I’d leave and come back and he’s sleeping in my cage,” Columbus said.
Alex’s swing is made to be repeatable. It’s short, simple and compact. They picked this specific swing for him because of his incredibly quick hands.
“He had such great hand speed when he was little that he doesn’t have to do what a lot of other people do to create bat speed,” Columbus said.
He hears the critics, though. Most big leaguers have free-flowing, loose swings.
“People say he’s too tense and there’s no looseness in the hands, but there’s looseness,” Columbus said, defending his pupil.
Alex understands that his swing is unusual. He describes his approach to hitting as “unconventional.” He focuses on getting the knob of the bat — the end closest to the hands — past the baseball to create backspin. Backspin helps the ball cut through the air and carry farther. It comes off his bat harder.
Alex leads LSU in average exit speed off the bat: 92 mph.
Alex doesn’t remember what city LSU was playing in. This happened midway through his freshman season. He roomed during a weekend road trip with Mason Katz.
The Tigers were No. 1 in the nation. Katz and Alex were hitting over .400. Katz was as happy as could be.
“I was pissed,” Alex said. “I thought I’d be better than that.”
Alex admits college might be tougher than he thought. As an incoming freshman, he was “telling everybody” that he would hit .550 in college. He hit .369 as a freshman, .316 as a sophomore and is hitting .312 this season.
He endured a 4-for-41 slump during his sophomore year. It was the low point of his baseball career.
“Coming to LSU was the best thing that happened to me, and that might have been the best thing that happened to me since I’ve been here,” he said. “I was learning how to get back up from failing, learning how to flush it. … I never failed that much before.”
This year hasn’t been easy. He was in an 0-for-18 funk before hitting a two-run, two-out single up the middle in his final plate appearance at Alex Box Stadium last Sunday.
It helped LSU get to the College World Series for the second time in Alex’s three seasons. He has demons to quiet at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Alex committed a crucial error in LSU’s opening game at the 2013 CWS, a 2-1 loss to UCLA.
He booted a grounder, a miscue that eventually let the winning run score. Also, he’s 0-for-8 with two strikeouts at the CWS.
None of this sounds like Alex. Those close to him don’t expect it to continue.
“He’s in a little funk,” Columbus said, “but the weight of the world is off his shoulders now after the draft. I think it’ll be good in Omaha.”