Stephen Alemais knows he doesn’t embody the image of a typical Tulane baseball player.
The Green Wave shortstop is covered in tattoos, speaks in a Latino accent smothered in New York flair and plays with polarizing, attention-attracting emotion.
“People can judge all they want,” Alemais said. “This is who I am.”
Alemais airs his successes, failures, frustrations and celebrations for everyone to see.
“He’s true to himself,” Tulane coach David Pierce said. “It’s what makes him such a great leader and teammate and someone I enjoy coaching so much, but I will say he’s also made some decisions that are very challenging for me as a coach.”
The same 21-year old featured in SportsCenter’s No. 1 highlight for his barrel-rolling, double-play-turning assist to beat LSU is the same one who demonstratively strutted and flipped his bat toward East Carolina’s dugout in a critical conference win, days before he was benched for slamming his helmet into the turf following a routine groundout.
The spectacular comes with the sour.
“You never really have to guess how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking,” Tulane first baseman Hunter Williams said. “What you see is what you get. I absolutely love him for that. He’s honest, and he’s out there, and he’s exactly the kind of teammate you want because of that.”
And more often than not, the spectacular supersedes the sour.
Not only has Alemais led the Green Wave with his .320 batting average, 16 steals and impeccable defensive range, he’s spurred Tulane’s revitalization, helping the program earn its first conference championship since 2005.
Now, as the first-team All-AAC shortstop takes the Green Wave into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year — opening the Oxford regional on Friday at 3 p.m. against Boston College — former Tulane coach Rick Jones said Alemais has earned his rightful place on a long list of celebrated Green Wave shortstops, even if he doesn’t necessarily look or sound like them.
“Every shortstop that we signed in my (21-year) tenure played professionally and four played in the big leagues (Andy Cannizaro, Anthony Giarratano, Tommy Manzella and Josh Prince),” Jones said. “Stephen falls right into that category. He has such great feet defensively, he’s grown so much offensively, and there’s no doubt he can steal bases. He’s got a great chance to be every bit as good as those guys who made the big leagues.”
So, there’s substance behind the style.
“He has game-changing ability on the defensive side of the ball,” said Cannizaro, now an assistant at LSU. “The play he made against us just shows that he can take hits away. It’s just fun to watch him play defense.”
But don’t let the high praise, or Alemais’ swagger, fool you.
It’s been a long, tumultuous journey for the former top-ranked recruit in New York State to become the face of Tulane’s program. He’s been criticized by professional scouts, coaches, family members and even himself for lacking maturity as he grew through his three seasons in New Orleans.
“I pride myself on being confident, but I was very arrogant when I got here,” Alemais said. “I didn’t know any better. I was the best player in basically every game I had ever played, and I never had to truly work for it. So, I needed to grow up and I think coming here made me a better player, but I know it made me a better person.”
Two trips across the country spurred his maturity, but Alemais’ personality is still rooted in his Bronx upbringing.
Raised in a Dominican family where he learned Spanish as his first language, Alemais spent his formative years playing in the shadows of Yankee Stadium, trying to find any available field during the scant months of warm weather. Although his family had no ties to baseball and his father, Ernies Alemais, barely even knew the rules when his son was born in 1995, it didn’t take long for young Stephen to shine and eventually turn baseball into the family business.
“I remember he was 10 years old and we were at Cooperstown for a tournament and he hit two home runs as the leadoff hitter, and a man who introduced himself as a scout, came up to me and said if he keeps it up, Stephen could play Division I,” Ernies Alemais said. “I was so stunned, I didn’t even know what to say. That thought had never crossed my mind. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and I keep that home run ball in my office to this day.”
To keep up with his son’s growing potential and seeing a void in the market, Ernies Alemais left his job in building maintenance to open the Uptown Sports Complex, bringing the first batting cages to Upper Manhattan. Meanwhile, Stephen Alemais gained notoriety, eventually becoming the most sought-after prospect in the state during his time at All Hallows High School.
“We just showed up and played,” Alemais said. “I look back now and realize that even though my name was getting big, I really didn’t know anything except for catch it, throw it and hit it. We were pretty limited by the weather and just the lack of fields.
“To show how strange it was, at our field there (we) had no outfield fence, so they could play two games at once on one big field. And the center fielders of the two games would be across each other and closer to the other game’s home plate and facing each other. It was just the way we had to do it in New York.”
Still, Alemais’ talent shined through.
During a pre-draft showcase event in Florida, Tulane recruiting coordinator Jake Gautreau said Alemais’ talent stood out, even in a crowded field.
“I watched him from the bleachers, looked at the list and saw he was uncommitted, then immediately turned to (fellow Tulane assistant) Chad Sutter and told him, ‘We just found our next great shortstop,’ ” Gautreau said. “His skills and his ability just jumped off the field. I knew he was going to be one of our top priorities and someone we can build the class around.”
Gautreau’s message and recruiting pitch connected. Alemais spurned offers from across the country, committing to the Green Wave during his junior year.
But, it wasn’t a smooth ride to New Orleans.
Alemais tore his left labrum months later, keeping him off the field, while Ernies grew concerned Stephen was drifting mentally because of his sudden celebrity status in the neighborhood. Stephen coming home with first tattoo (which he tried to hide) at age 17 didn’t help matters either, cementing Ernies’ belief that his son was concentrating more on his signature style than in the classroom or field.
“He was ranked No. 1 in the state, and for a Bronx kid, it was getting a little bit to his head,” Ernies Alemais said. “He was getting to the point where people were coming to watch him in the cages and showing up to watch his games and people thought he had an automatic ticket to the draft and told him that. So, he started dragging his feet a bit and we had an opportunity to do something, so we took it.”
The solution was to accept a scholarship and complete high school across the country, at Elev8 Sports Institute in Del Ray, Florida. Alemais jumped at the chance to rehab his labrum and start the baseball season four months earlier than in New York.
By the time he arrived at Tulane in 2014, Alemais had already locked up the starting shortstop and leadoff role, taking the coveted spots in fall practice. But Tulane’s season fell apart months later.
Jones fell ill, , thrusting Gautreau into the interim role. And after a hot start, Alemais’ bat fell silent, his average dipping below .220, while he committed nine errors in his first 37 games.
With frustration mounting around him, Tulane plummeted into last place, en route to posting its first losing record since 1993.
“I mean, I hit almost .500 in high school, so I figured I would be able to hit around .400 in college and that just shows how much I didn’t know,” Alemais said. “Halfway through the year, scouting reports show up and they’re throwing me first pitch curveballs and throwing at my weaknesses. That never happened to me before, and then I got frustrated and I was struggling and it was just hard for me to deal with.”
As he slumped, Gautreau noticed Alemais’ demeanor transform from overwhelming confidence into negativity, prompting him to bench the Green Wave’s top prospect, shocking the young star.
“I was so happy when Gautreau finally sat him down for a few games,” Ernies Alemais said. “When Jake called to tell me he had an attitude and wasn’t performing, I said, ‘I try not to get involved, so I didn’t call you, but I’ve been upset with you for not sitting him down earlier.’ He started laughing, and I think it turned everything around.”
The message connected. Not only did Alemais finish the season on a tear, he hit .320 and stole 26 bases in the Cal Ripken League the following summer.
“To this day, I still text (Gautreau) and tell him I wouldn’t be here without him,” Alemais said. “I joke about the time he sat me down, but it really changed everything for me.”
However, when Alemais returned to Tulane, Gautreau was gone and new coach David Pierce had taken over the program. Despite the change, Alemais said he never considered transferring and committed himself to leadership.
His play on the field improved, earning him a spot on the all-AAC second team by leading Tulane in hits, stolen bases and total bases, propelling Tulane to its first NCAA tournament berth in seven years.
“As far as our dugout, he’s our number one guy, and he has the ability to have people follow him,” Pierce said. “How he projects himself is so critical. I think he’s one of the best teammates I’ve seen, because he’s always talking and keeping everyone engaged.”
Still, Alemais hasn’t lost his panache along the way.
Much to Ernies’ dismay, the tattoos have grown exponentially since that one he hid in high school, now covering his arms, chest and abdomen. He’s expressive on social media, shooting an array of selfies and videos that have gotten him teased by teammates.
“He’s always on the phone, and it’s so funny to watch him to do his stuff,” said Williams, who rooms with Alemais on the road. “He’s got Snapchat up every minute in the room, and he’s making faces into the camera and talking to girls. I’m just thinking that this guy is something else and like nothing I’ve ever seen.
“You have to love it, though, because he’s having fun and he puts himself out there in a way most of us never would because our backgrounds are so different. He’s a great teammate and great leader because of that attitude.”
Not everyone is charmed by Alemais’ style, though.
The infamous bat flip against ECU enraged Pirates coaches, who wanted him thrown out of the game, and Alemais declined to apologize for it. Even Tulane coaches admit the most frequent question by MLB scouts is about his “make-up” as teams attempt to decipher where he should stand on their draft boards.
“I had a coach make a comment to me after that, and I had to tell him he was flat-out wrong,” Tulane associate head coach Sean Allen said. “(Alemais) plays with an edge, and he’s good because he plays with an edge. I don’t want to take that away from him. I’ve just fallen in love with the kid because he’s fun, he’s vibrant and has a ton of personality.
“I’d take 100 guys like him if I could. There are some kids who just blend in, and he’s just not one of them. He comes from a totally different background than most guys, and he’s always maturing and growing, but he’s still going to be himself.”