Five television cameras surround Alex Bregman just outside Zephyr Field’s third-base dugout.
Team officials set aside this Thursday afternoon just for Bregman’s media availability. Kris Bryant and Josh Hamilton received similar treatment last season during trips to New Orleans.
Bregman, now with the Fresno Grizzlies, begins another answer, speaking of his affinity for Louisiana. A yell comes from across the diamond, where the hometown Zephyrs are finishing early work, interrupting the star of this weekend’s four-game series.
“We got Nola!” a Zephyrs player shouts, pointing inside the dugout. “Look! He’s right here!”
Bregman laughs, losing his train of thought. Austin Nola emerges from the Zephyrs dugout, an almost apologetic smile beaming from his face. He puts on his batting helmet and begins a game with three teammates while Bregman returns to his answer.
“(Nola) said, ‘I got the ring,’ ” Zephyrs manager Arnie Beyeler said with a chuckle, an ode to Nola’s role on LSU’s 2009 national championship team. “ 'He got the money, and I got the ring.' ”
Nola is a modest, soft-spoken, five-year veteran of minor league baseball, taking the opposite trajectory of the man whom he was accused of verbally owning. He nearly keels over in mortification when asked to verify the jab.
“I didn’t say that,” Nola said, embarrassingly incredulous. “No chance. I didn’t say that. ... After LSU, when I would go back and work out, I just enjoyed watching how he played, prepared and carried himself. It was a joy to watch him play at LSU."
It is more than meaningful to play shortstop at LSU. The dirt between second and third base was elevated to revered status following seven seasons of mastery from Nola and Bregman. Coach Paul Mainieri’s switch 40 games into that 2009 season, when Nola entered at shortstop, began a 415-game stretch where one of these two men manned shortstop.
The two present varied approaches the position. Nola employs a more graceful, fluid fielding motion, while Bregman moves with alacrity and aggression toward anything hit in his vicinity. Either style is acceptable, especially when the production those two provide follows.
That 2009 switch forced MLB All-Star and current Colorado Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu to second base. Bregman’s swift professional ascent is well-chronicled. Nola, meanwhile, toils in relative anonymity.
He fields calls from Sports Illustrated and ESPN, only to be asked about his little brother, Aaron, the Philadelphia Phillies' seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft who faces the big-market media crush.
“I like talking about him,” Austin said. “I’m happy to do it.”
Bregman’s yearlong skyrocket up the Houston Astros farm system is the exception. Nola's trajectory is more the norm in baseball, a sometimes unforgiving career choice that doesn’t put much stock in standout college careers.
“And that’s the best part,” Nola said. “We learn a lot from our failures and a lot from when we fall, but it’s about the times when you get back up and keep pushing forward. My career, a lot of times, man, I was down. But I had to get up and keep doing it every day. Keep getting back up and going at it and — you know what? — good things start to happen.”
Nola is a three-time non-roster invitee to Miami Marlins spring training. He has never hit higher than .260 in any of his four full minor league seasons. His promotion to Triple-A last June put him on the cusp of the call-up any player envisions, the culmination of grasping one of the game’s most difficult lessons.
A Louisville Slugger All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year at Baton Rouge's Catholic High and a four-year starter at LSU, Nola had not encountered failure before his selection in the fifth round of the 2012 draft.
“You start to learn how to play the game the right way even when you don’t feel good, even when you’re playing bad,” he said. “Every year there’s moments for sure where you feel like you hit rock bottom. You just get back up and do it the next day. … Early in the year, it was like that for me. I was like ‘Man, I have to go out and compete, play ball and not worry about the results.’ ”
Cognizant of what major league teams value, he has taught himself to play second base — where he started in the first two games of the weekend series against Fresno — to go with shortstop and third base. His hitting has improved, but he functions as a prototypical No. 2 hitter.
“Moving guys around, taking advantage of situations and playing the game,” Beyeler said. “When it’s all said and done, baseball players play in the big leagues. You can talk about tools, talk about different things all you want, but that’s a production league. And when guys produce and they need guys that can help out, those are the kind of guys they’re going to turn to.”
Beyeler describes his utility man, the one his teammates call “the captain,” and can’t help but laud his LSU upbringing. It’s how he got that nickname, too.
“In Low-A Greensboro,” Nola remembered, “they started calling me that. At LSU, (it) was always about doing our stretches right. I came to pro ball and I thought it was the same way, but I’ve learned over the years that it’s more to do what you have to do to get ready for the game. They all started calling me captain because I would go out and do stretches the right way.”
Bregman’s proficiency matches the shortstop he followed — a “fantastic person” who lent his help to the incoming freshman in 2012, Bregman said.
Now one is a heartbeat from the major leagues. The other falls into line with a slower rise.
"This is part of our life," Nola said. "We all have to go through those to get where we want to be. I feel like that’s where I’ve gone and I’ve learned a lot about myself, met a lot of people that if I was fast-tracked I may not have met. Learned a lot of good things and met a lot of good people, so I would never regret any of it.”
The two sit side by side in a concourse Saturday while autograph seekers wrap a line around the stadium. Many disobey the strict “one item per person” rule, wanting their fill of LSU memorabilia signed.
A boy approaches, wearing a Zephyrs jersey bearing Nola’s No. 9. He gleefully asks Bregman whether he will play in Saturday night's game. Bregman smiles, telling him he will.
Bregman passes the boy’s item to Nola, who signs it. The two smile at the boy’s departing words: “Go Tigers!"