Everybody has that sensory talisman or two that evokes a specific feeling — for me, it’s usually a song that takes me back to a distinct time and place, or the link my brain automatically makes between baseball and the smell of freshly cut grass.
Like the rest of us, LSU coach Paul Mainieri can’t escape these associative connections. So he can’t help himself when he sees Alex Bregman’s name in the newspaper, or when he sees his face on television. He gets overcome by a feeling that is tied to Bregman and players he feels a similar appreciation to have coached: Gratitude.
It doesn’t matter the context — this time, he happened upon a news article about Bregman switching agents. It was an otherwise mundane note that nevertheless sent Mainieri’s mind whirling back to the three years he spent coaching one of the best players in school history.
“It made me think about how fortunate I’ve been in my life as a coach to come into contact with such unique, quality individuals like Alex Bregman,” Mainieri said.
Of course, the time of year might also play a part in this. This is usually prime time for thoughts of Bregman, and not always because he, as one of the game’s brightest young stars, is typically a prominent feature on summer sports highlights. The MLB draft is rapidly approaching, and Bregman’s story is one LSU should be telling this time of year.
First, the gratitude.
If everything went the way it was supposed to go, Mainieri never would have gotten the chance to coach Bregman. When he signed with LSU, Bregman was considered one of the top prospects in the 2012 draft class. The only reason he even held a scholarship offer from LSU was on the off chance that everything did not go according to plan — which is exactly what happened.
“We took a chance,” Mainieri said. “When you try to shoot for greatness at LSU, you have to take a chance on some guys who may end up showing up at school.”
Neither Bregman nor LSU could have possibly known Bregman would break the middle finger on his throwing hand during pregame infield practice before his fifth game of his senior season. “Smashed that finger to smithereens,” Mainieri said. He somehow played that game, going 3 for 4, went into surgery after and spent much of the season watching from the dugout with pins sticking out of his flesh.
Bregman’s senior year of high school baseball was over before it truly began. He played one more varsity game, an Albuquerque Academy playoff loss.
Considering everything that has transpired since, Bregman almost certainly would have done enough with a full senior season to convince a Major League Baseball team to meet his requirements. But he missed his senior season, and by the time the first round and the so-called “sandwich round” passed, Bregman’s name was not called.
Bregman had already told Mainieri and professional baseball scouts that it would require a first-round pick and a certain dollar figure to pry him out of his LSU commitment. Plenty of players have told Mainieri this in the past, only to ultimately cave for a lower dollar figure and draft status.
So, when Bregman called early the morning after being passed over in the first round, Mainieri started the conversation by trying to talk Bregman out of certain disappointment.
“I’m basically saying to him, Alex, I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you last night, but today’s a new day, you could still get selected and still get a good signing bonus,” Mainieri recalled. “Alex’s response to me was, Oh, I’ve already been called, I’ve had a team tell me they were going to take me with their pick in the second round and give me $900,000.”
Mainieri’s ears perked. He asked Bregman what he said back to the team.
“He says to me, I told them don’t waste your time. And by the way, I hope that first-round pick you took over me works out well for you,” Mainieri said.
Bregman gave Mainieri his word that he’d arrive on campus, and he held true. The rest, Mainieri gladly notes, is LSU history.
In three seasons on LSU’s campus, Bregman batted .337, slugged .514 and played premier defensive shortstop. He was a two-time All-American and a finalist for the Golden Spikes award. LSU fell short of winning a national title in Bregman’s time, but it went to the College World Series twice and won 156 games in three seasons.
And beyond all the numbers and accolades, Bregman, by all appearances, appeared to genuinely enjoy his college experience, and Mainieri certainly enjoyed that three-year run, too.
“We had a lot of fun and a lot of success,” Mainieri said. “And of course he gets drafted with the second pick in the 2015 draft and signs for $5.9 million.”
And that is where Bregman’s story becomes especially relevant around these parts at this time of year: He is the poster child for college baseball success stories. And Bregman’s own story feels a bit more relevant now than usual.
Mainieri said he was recently having a conversation with an LSU signee who, like Bregman, could potentially be a first round pick in next month’s draft. Also like Bregman, this player’s senior season was abruptly cut short, though this time by a global pandemic and not a funky hop.
So Mainieri had a conversation with this player about the draft, and the potential that the first round could come and go without his name being called, or the potential a team does not meet the price to buy out a college experience.
“Don’t spend your time dwelling on the disappointment,” Mainieri said. “Turn it into motivation, turn it into a positive.”
And while that decision is ultimately up to the player and his family, there is a precedent for this sort of thing.
“Alex Bregman was a great example,” Mainieri said.