Between two New Orleans boulevards, Milne Playground sits in the middle of a neighborhood as a central point for youth sports in the area. It hosts basketball games, provides a football field and in 2006, became the place Tre’ Morgan learned how to play baseball.

Beginning that year, Morgan and his dad drove two blocks from their house to the playground almost every day, carrying equipment to the small baseball field on the corner. There, John Morgan Jr. began to mold his 4-year-old son into one of the best players in the Southeastern Conference.

“You see where that kid is on first base?” Morgan’s dad said, pointing, one day earlier this month as he walked past the field. A baseball team practiced in front of him. A football team drilled on the other side of the park. The sun set in the distance, casting a soft yellow glow over the teams. “I would take Tre' and put him on first.”

Morgan’s dad stood along the fence surrounding the field, gazing at the area where they practiced so many times. He would stand about three feet from his son and hop baseballs toward him, forcing Morgan to scoop them from the dirt. After 12 reps, Morgan’s dad steadily moved back until he skipped the ball from shortstop. He threw as hard as he could and never through the air.

One day, Morgan’s dad asked him: “How good do you want to be at this?”

“I want to be the best,” Morgan’s dad remembered him saying.

“Well, if you want to be the best, you and I are going to have some very bad days,” Morgan’s dad said. “I’m going to get you where you want to be.”

Fourteen years later, Morgan constantly displays the skills he learned from his dad. He makes difficult plays look easy around first base, shifting across the bag to catch errant throws and scooping balls that skip across the dirt. He prevents countless errors. Coach Paul Mainieri has called him one of the top-five defensive first basemen he has seen during his 39-year career. Morgan hardly resembles a freshman.

Not only has Morgan established himself as the best first baseman in the SEC, his .370 batting average and .461 on-base percentage rank third in the conference. He also leads the league in runs (59) and hits (80) while tying for second in doubles (15) before LSU plays Georgia in the first round of the SEC tournament at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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LSU first baseman Tré Morgan fields a ground ball before stepping to the bag for the putout early in the game against Mississippi State, in the third game of their series, Sunday, March 21, 2021. LSU won 8-3.

Under his dad’s guidance, Morgan became that player at Milne, using a routine that felt grueling at times. Morgan missed birthday parties and family functions. But he wanted to practice, and his parents pushed him when he needed encouragement, all of them determined to develop him into an elite baseball player.

Morgan’s dad began training him after his mom took him to a T-ball tryout when he was 4 years old. Morgan smacked a ball so hard off the tee, Shalita Morgan called her husband and said, “He can’t do this. He needs to go to the next level. He’s going to hurt one of these kids.”

So Morgan’s dad took him to a tryout with 6-year-olds. The coach said he didn’t have room for someone two years younger, despite Morgan’s obvious talent. Undeterred, Morgan’s dad helped form a team at Milne Playground with other 6-year-olds in the area.

His first year, Morgan made the local All-Stars at the end of the season. It played other teams around New Orleans. Before the first game, the coach told all the parents to make sure they had their son’s birth certificates to verify their ages.

Morgan’s mom raised her hand.

“He’s only 4,” she said. “Can he play?”

“What do you mean he’s only 4?” the coach said, amazed.

Morgan’s dad, a former football player at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, continued training his son between team practices. He taught Morgan proper running technique. He bought an agility ladder and a parachute to improve Morgan’s speed. At first, they hit balls into the backstop. Then, when they hit toward the field, Morgan scattered them across the outfield grass.

“I always wanted him out here in the sun,” Morgan’s dad said. “I always wanted him out there in the heat because it drains you. It makes you tired. It makes you weak. It makes you want to quit. If he could find a way in practice to push through that heat, the games aren't going to be that hard.”

Morgan joined a travel baseball team by the time he was 9, and its facilities allowed him to train when it rained, intensifying practices. The team took him to Texas, Florida and once to the Dominican Republic, a trip that transformed the way Morgan approached the game because of the passion players had there. His dad started calling him “The Sheriff” after how well he played at tournaments.

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“Every time you go,” Morgan’s dad said, “you take over.”

By eighth grade, Morgan received his first scholarship offer from Alabama, but after a poor performance at one of its camps and a quiet ride home, interest cooled until LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn watched a game between St. Amant and Brother Martin.

Dunn had gone to see Blayne Enlow, a pitcher LSU recruited at the time who was later drafted by the Minnesota Twins. Morgan’s dad had never seen so many scouts. They filled the bleachers behind home plate with radar guns. Enlow threw fastballs about 94 mph. Morgan started at Brother Martin as a freshman.

In his first at-bat, Morgan fouled one of Enlow’s fastballs down the third-base line. He faced Enlow three times and didn’t have a hit. The fourth time Morgan approached the plate, he singled up the middle. Dunn returned from the trip and told recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain, “This freshman barrelled him up two times.” LSU began its pursuit.

“He wasn't facing the best talent on the mound, which can happen sometimes in Louisiana,” Cain said. “You may go to a game and not be able to see a guy face 85 mph. But AD had seen him face low 90s with some good stuff.

“We followed him throughout that summer. I remember at the PBR Future Games, he went off against really good pitching. We couldn't wait to get him on campus for an unofficial visit.”

Morgan committed to LSU his sophomore year. He continued to develop, becoming one of the best players in Louisiana. His junior season, Morgan batted .483 and struck out three times. Always wanting to improve, he hoped to top those numbers his final year of high school and win awards like Gatorade Player of the Year.

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LSU first baseman Tre' Morgan (18) throws to first base for the out on against Northwestern, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, at Alex Box Stadium on the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

A part-time pitcher, Morgan appeared in the last inning of a scrimmage last February. He threw 10 pitches. Then Morgan pointed at his elbow. Tests later revealed he had partially torn his ulnar collateral ligament, the injury associated with Tommy John surgery. The tear tanked his draft stock. When his mom told him the diagnosis, Morgan collapsed on her shoulder and cried.

“The dream is not destroyed,” Morgan’s mom told him. “It’s deferred. You get 24 hours to wallow in this. After those 24 hours, we get to work.”

On their way home that day, Morgan asked his mom to stop at Brother Martin’s baseball practice. Unable to contribute on the field, he spent the rest of the abbreviated season supporting his teammates from the dugout as he rehabbed.

“The night that injury happened, it hit me hard,” Morgan said. “But me and my dad talked about it. We knew we had to get back to work to get back to the player that I was and that I needed to be to compete at this level.”

Morgan didn’t need complete reconstructive surgery, so doctors placed a brace in his elbow. He began training again two weeks later, focusing on his lower body while his arm healed. Morgan didn’t miss a scheduled workout until he arrived at LSU. He occasionally rested on Sundays.

Though unable to throw during fall practice, Morgan cemented himself as the starting first baseman. Morgan also impressed as a hitter, batting third during scrimmages. His balance at the plate allowed him to drive balls all over the field.

“Before the season even started, we had a couple scrimmages in the fall,” junior pitcher Landon Marceaux said. “People asked, 'Who's the toughest guy to pitch to in our lineup? Who's the toughest out?' My answer every time was Tre' Morgan.”

The more Morgan played, the more he grabbed people’s attention. He exuded confidence, and Morgan batted .390 during conference games with four home runs and a 1.010 on-base plus slugging percentage. By the time LSU played Ole Miss in late April, his parents heard opposing fans say, “Can we trade first basemen?"

The production helped Morgan reach a list of goals he wrote down before the season, a tradition he started years ago with his dad. He wanted to earn SEC freshman of the year, make multiple all-conference teams and record 80 hits. Morgan accomplished all of them but freshman of the year, finishing behind Vanderbilt outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr.

The only ones left remain team goals, all within reach after LSU’s run into the postseason. He wants to play in the College World Series. But if that doesn’t happen next month, Morgan has two more years. He just started.

“This is the reward,” Morgan’s dad said. “These are all those days you put up with me and that sun. Now, nobody can do it better than you. Y’all are going to see something that’s never been done before.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com