Before he made the most pivotal decision of his life last summer, Dylan Crews received a phone call from someone who went through the same process eight years earlier: former LSU infielder Alex Bregman. For 45 minutes, Crews and Bregman discussed the draft and college, weighing the pros and cons of each, the past of LSU baseball helping its future.

Bregman understood Crews’ dilemma like few others. In 2012, a broken finger tanked his draft stock, and when no one selected him in the first round, he attended LSU, developing as a player and a man until the Houston Astros picked him No. 2 overall three years later.

Crews stood in a similar position. Major League teams told his family he could go anywhere from No. 20 to No. 35 in the draft, slots that came with a signing bonus around $2.5 million. Regardless of the money, Crews envisioned himself as an early first-round pick. Nothing less. 

“If you believe you're a first-round pick, you make sure that you are,” Bregman said earlier this week, recalling their conversation. “You get what you're worth.”

Crews, who said coach Paul Mainieri wanted Bregman to call him, was already leaning toward choosing LSU. He loved the energy on campus. He thought he needed to develop. One week before the 2020 Major League draft, he pulled his name from consideration, becoming the highest-rated freshman in the country. 

“I knew my worth,” Crews said. “At the same time, it was going to take a lot for me to miss this opportunity here at LSU. It was a dream of mine to come here and be on campus in front of the best fans in the country and play for these coaches.

“It was something I couldn't cut short. As soon as I found out I wasn't going to be where I wanted to be, I didn't want them to waste a pick on me, and I wanted to come here.”

Nine months later, the right fielder who recently turned 19 years old has established himself as LSU’s best freshman position player since Bregman. The designation has passed through the years from Todd Walker to Mike Fontenot to Bregman, and now Crews has a chance to join them as National Freshman Hitter of the Year.

“Guys come in all hyped up, but they don’t often meet the hype,” Mainieri said. “He’s met the hype.”

Entering the Southeastern Conference opener Friday night against No. 6 Mississippi State, Crews leads LSU in batting average (.406); ranks second in home runs (6), doubles (five), steals (five) and slugging percentage (.739) among starters; and has only struck out nine times in 18 games. He regularly crushes balls over 100 mph. Nearly half his hits have landed in the opposite field, a sign of his advanced approach.

Within the SEC, Crews is top five in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage (.539), runs scored (25), hits (28) and walks (18), and if his production as a hitter isn’t enough, Crews has thrown out two runners from his perch in right field and made a diving catch in foul territory, proving himself as the rare five-tool player who makes it to college.

“The fact that he’s on campus right now, that’s the most impressive thing,” junior pitcher Jaden Hill said. “I don’t know how Coach got him here, but boy, I’m happy that he’s here.”

Captivated by Crews, Bregman has watched most of LSU’s games. He loved the way Crews hustled and maintained his calm demeanor in the midst of his exploits, and he was amazed by power Bregman never had in college. After Crews hit a 419-foot home run to right-center field opening weekend, Bregman texted Mainieri, “My goodness, Crews has power to the opposite gap like that?”

“He does a lot of things way better than I did on the baseball field,” said Bregman, a Golden Spikes Award finalist and two-time first-team All-American at LSU. “He drives the ball to the opposite field better, and he runs a hell of a lot better.

"I think our game is slightly different. He has unlimited power. I was probably a little bit more bat-to-ball, but at the same time, he does things on a baseball field that most freshmen can't do. LSU's extremely lucky to have him on campus. He could've easily been a top-of-the-first-round pick, which he will be in three years.”

Until then, Crews enjoys the life of a college student. He often orders a Caniac Combo — six chicken fingers, french fries, coleslaw, Texas toast and a large drink — in the middle of the night from Raising Cane’s, always replacing the coleslaw with extra fries. The decorations in his dorm room consist of an LSU flag, a few pictures, 25 pairs of shoes, his Playstation and a black “Dilly Dilly” flag above his bed.

“You've got Dylan, and it also means cheers,” Crews said over Zoom, the flag behind him. “Had to have that in here.”

Crews’ rise began years ago, driven by a constant desire to reach the Major Leagues. Growing up around Orlando, Florida, he started playing baseball when he was 5 years old. By 12, he joined a travel team. That same year, his parents, Kim and George, installed a batting cage and pitching machine in the backyard. Crews often came home from practice, ate and asked to hit more.

Once Crews reached eighth grade, he had built a local reputation. Matthew Gerber, who owned the Orlando Scorpions at the time, contacted Crews’ dad. The program focused on high school players, but Gerber asked Crews to attend tryouts. He arrived about 5-foot-9 and 125 pounds.

“I’d heard all these things about him,” Gerber said, “and when he first showed up, I was like, ‘This is the guy?’ Then you watch him swing a bat.”

Crews generated remarkable bat speed, which improved the more he practiced. When Nolan Cain became LSU’s recruiting coordinator in November 2016, college recruiting sat in a dead period, restricting in-person communication. He called coaches across the country. Gerber told him about Crews, then a freshman.

“At this point in his development,” Gerber said, “he’s the best player I’ve ever coached."

Having only seen video, Cain hosted Crews — the first player he brought to campus — for an unofficial visit a few months later. Cain remained in touch, building a relationship with Crews and his family, and flew to watch Crews play as soon as LSU finished its 2017 season. Crews committed that summer.

As Crews played a national circuit with the Scorpions, some considered him the No. 1 player in his freshman class. The rating brought constant scrutiny. Scouts and general managers evaluated Crews throughout high school, expecting him to blast home runs. He struggled at times the summer before his senior year. Pro teams worried about his swing-and-miss rate.

“It snowballs on you until you’re that evaluator who heard he’s the next best thing,” said Gerber, who coached a first-round pick every year since 2009, “and he doesn’t go 2 for 4 with two home runs, you start to question whether or not he’s that good.”

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Crews continued to train. Through most of high school, he took three online classes, an arrangement with Lake Mary High and the Florida Virtual School that let him leave campus around 11 o'clock every morning. He spent the rest of the day hitting with Gerber and working out with his trainer, devoting as much time as possible to baseball.

In Crews’ last evaluation from Perfect Game, all his numbers fell in at least the 92nd percentile for his class. The organization ranked him as the 13th overall player in the country. He appeared destined for professional baseball, but the coronavirus pandemic created uncertainty, Crews’ projected draft position didn’t match his expectations, and he wanted to develop.

“We knew he was going to LSU,” said George Crews, Dylan's father. “I said forget about the exercise and futility of going through the draft. You know you're not going to get drafted where you want to get drafted or the number. So just take yourself out of the draft. That's going to make a statement to the university, the fans of LSU and hopefully some other kids will pick up on that. It worked out great.”

The day Crews decided to withdraw, Mainieri drove down Perkins Road. Crews called. Mainieri pulled into a parking lot. He breathed deeply, calming himself before he answered the phone. Mainieri had taken similar calls hundreds of times during his career, and though Cain told him LSU had a chance to keep Crews, he didn’t know what to expect.

“Hey, Coach,” Mainieri recalled Crews saying, “I just want to tell you something. I’ve thought this thing over, and I decided to pull out of the draft. I definitely want to come to LSU.”

“Dylan, can you hold on for a second?" Mainieri said, and he covered the receiver before yelling “Yeahhhh!” inside his car.

After Crews settled on LSU, his parents bought a 40-foot Tiffin motorhome, knowing they would commute back and forth from Orlando throughout his career. Crews’ dad offered the seller, an Alabama fan, extra money to paint the exterior purple and gold. The man refused, so Crews’ dad applied an LSU-inspired wrap.

Opening weekend, Crews’ parents parked the RV about a mile from Alex Box Stadium. They spent 11 days in Baton Rouge, watching the beginning of their son’s collegiate career. They've returned every weekend since, either with the RV or by plane, never missing a series, buying lemon pepper wings from Triplet’s Blue Store and breakfast from Ruby Slipper Cafe between games.

Over the last month, Crews formed an immediate connection with the fanbase. Students in right field often yell “I love you,” and Crews points back at what he calls “his deck.” When his walk-out song, Calabria 2008, plays from the loudspeakers, people appear to stop and focus, knowing they might witness something unforgettable.

“He works extremely hard,” Mainieri said. “He’s got the respect of his teammates. They kid him a lot for being so highly touted. Somebody once compared him to a young Mike Trout, so they call him ‘Mike.’ He grins and takes it all in.”

As Crews stood out opening weekend, 7-year-old Aubrey White watched LSU play Louisiana Tech with her parents, Robbie and Crystal.

Aubrey is non-verbal autistic. When she speaks, she usually repeats something she heard on a cartoon or from her iPad.

“Out of nowhere,” Robbie White said, “She said, ‘Dylan Crews.’ ”

Aubrey’s mother filmed as LSU returned to the field the next inning, and Aubrey repeated Crews’ name. They posted the video to Facebook, where Crews’ mother found the clip.

Once Crews saw the video, he coordinated tickets for Aubrey and her family when LSU played Oral Roberts. They took a picture before the game and met again postgame. Crews signed a baseball. Aubrey gave him a light blue rubber bracelet that says “Hope for Autism” he still wears.

“She says ‘Dylan Crews’ to this day, and that’s the only LSU baseball player she says,” Robbie White said. “She doesn’t call us mom and dad, but she does say Dylan Crews.”

Despite his initial success, Crews remains unsatisfied, motivated by the slight he felt during the draft cycle. After the first hitless game of his career, he spent three hours at the batting cages with his roommates. They left around 1 a.m. Crews recorded 10 hits over the next six games. He wants to win National Freshman of the Year. He sees himself as a top 5 pick in 2023.

Last Sunday afternoon, Crews’ parents sat along the concourse as LSU played UTSA. Crews’ father sipped a Bud Light. His mother ate Skittles with some of the other team moms. A gold “3” necklace, for Crews’ number, dangled from her neck.

“The long-term goal, his dream, is Major League Baseball,” Crews’ mom said. “But whatever is the best way for him to get there, he's going to do it. He's so happy to be here.”

As Crews stepped to the plate in the first inning, his father steadied his phone along a railing. He tapes every at-bat, documenting them for Crews to review later. Crews watched one pitch. He hit the next one high into the air toward the right-field bleachers.

The ball carried through the wind as Crews’ mom stood up and yelled “Get out!” The ball landed over the fence for his sixth home run. Crews’ dad filmed until he crossed home plate, and all the parents stood up and cheered.

Two days later, Crews doubled into the left-center field gap against Southeastern Louisiana pitcher Kyle Flettrich. He strode into second base and asked the umpire for time with a small thumbs-up. Crews removed his batting gloves. He didn’t celebrate. He has more work to do.

“Don't feel bad, 35,” a fan yelled at Flettrich from the bleachers, “he'll be in the majors in three years.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com