LSU Baseball
There goes Alex Bregman, working until he's the best there ever was
2/10/2014 2:31:13 AM
Photography by Hilary Scheinuk

There goes Alex Bregman, working until he's the best there ever was.

By LUKE JOHNSON
Tiger Rag Associate Editor

To the rest of the planet it's a flat green tarp, but in Alex Bregman's world, it's Vanderbilt's Tyler Beede, Mississippi State's Jonathan Holder or his own teammate, Aaron Nola.

Hell, maybe it's Clayton Kershaw or the ghost of Satchel Paige -- it doesn't matter. It's anybody you tell him he'll have to settle for less than perfection against. It's the best pitcher in the world, the best that ever lived, and Bregman is going to get his.

He stares down the tarp for a full five seconds, envisioning the beginning of a powerful delivery, tracking the imaginary path and noting the distinctive backspin of a center-cut fastball. Bregman sees this all in his mind's eye and starts his swing.

About that swing. Every step was planned and perfected until Bregman could repeat the action in a millisecond without letting his brain get in the way. It's the type of swing those kids in the old Tom Emanski commercials strived for. It's a swing that is both innate and learned. It's a swing that Bregman spent countless hours honing over the summer and fall because he felt as if it wasn't good enough when he hit .369 in the middle of the Tigers' order as a freshman.

His back elbow is raised nearly level with his ear. His bat wiggles slightly as he gets in his stance, then steadies. The pitch comes in, Bregman rocks back and explodes through it.

THWACK!

A fraction of a second later, the ball screams back toward the pitcher who was never there and pops the tarp where he would've been.

THUMP!

"There she is," Bregman said, satisfied with the repetition.

His training partner, freshman Jarrett DeHart, places a new ball on the tee and the sequence starts over. Bregman gets into his stance, the bat stops wiggling, he loads his weight onto his back foot with a barely perceptible step and -- THWACK! -- the ball is in the air. THUMP! It rebounds off the tarp. Over and over again.

THWACK! THUMP!

This sound is Bregman's music, and he's a diligent composer.

THWACK! THUMP!

This is who Bregman is. Outside of DeHart, there are no teammates or coaches present. It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and most of the country took it off. Bregman doesn't remember the last time he voluntarily took a day off.

THWACK! THUMP!

"That pitcher's dead," Bregman said, the ball striking the same spot, dead center of the tarp hanging in the indoor batting cages situated behind the right field bleachers of Alex Box Stadium.

Bregman's life is consumed by baseball. LSU implemented a new system that grants players access to the training facility using their student ID, and Bregman's apartment has been a lonely place ever since.

THWACK! THUMP!

He dreams about baseball. He wakes up thinking about baseball. He's with friends and family and his mind drifts to baseball. The only time he's not thinking about baseball is when he's engaged in the act of playing baseball. His obsession has a purpose, of course.

Bregman is driven to be the best player who's ever walked the earth. His choice of words reflects his belief that this goal is attainable if he empties his soul into it.

"That's realistically all I want to do," Bregman said.

That's what all this is for?

"That's what everything is for," Bregman corrected.

***

Talk of what he accomplished in his freshman season means next to nothing for Bregman, even if there is so much to talk about.

His list of achievements through one year is a novel in itself: National Freshman of the Year, All-American, National Shortstop of the Year --on and on it goes. The kid raked. He led the Southeastern Conference in hits and fell one game shy of tying an LSU record with a 23-game hitting streak.

But for all the numbers he accumulated in his debut season, only one means anything to Bregman: Zero, as in the number of national titles LSU won.

"People ask me all the time how Alex Bregman can get better," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. "I say, "Hey, he didn't lead us to the national championship last year did he?"

It sounds unfair, but Mainieri's not pinning blame on Bregman. Not after an eighth-inning error in the first game of the College World Series that allowed UCLA to win the game, and eventually the tournament. Not after Bregman went 0-for-8 from the plate as LSU was bounced in two games.

No, Mainieri's got his finger on Bregman's pulse, and he knows what gets it racing.

"The kid's obsessed with winning it all," Mainieri said. "If he finishes his career at LSU and we haven't won a national championship together, we're going to feel disappointed."

It is all woven together to form a simple equation in Bregman's grand scheme. Hard work breeds success on the field. Success on the field leads to championships. Championships are what the best players alive win.

"That's why I do this every day," Bregman said. "I focus solely on winning a national championship. Doing anything I can to help the team win. Everything will fall into place if I just worry about that."

This is who Bregman is, and this is who Bregman has been since he decided as a youngster that he would do whatever it took to be great. It's his rare combination of elite ability and drive that are going to get him there.

Jason Columbus teaches hitting in Bregman's hometown at the Albuquerque Baseball Academy (ABA). Columbus, who played for one season at LSU, clearly remembers the first time he met Bregman.

It was just before the state playoffs, and a 14-year-old Bregman wanted to know how to hit a sidearm pitcher he'd be facing in the first round.

"I kind of looked at the kid like, 'Um, most people don't try to figure out how to hit one pitcher the week before they face the guy," Columbus said. "Most just do what they usually do."

Bregman insisted and Columbus obliged. Twenty minutes later, Bregman had it figured out. Columbus was not ready for that.

"I went home and told my wife, 'I just saw a kid, and I don't know if I've ever seen anybody learn something as fast as him and apply it as quick as him. He's going to be really special one day," Columbus said.

The two have grown and maintained their relationship since that day. Whenever Bregman is back in Albuquerque, it's not hard to find where he is.

"He's home here over Christmas, and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, he's bugging me on the phone to go down to the ABA and hit," Columbus said. "We were down there every day. While others take those days off, he doesn't. He didn't go out for New Year's with his buddies, he was with me late, hitting in the cage."

Bregman lives with a no-days-off mentality. He took DeHart, a New Jersey native, home with him over Christmas break. They drove back to Baton Rouge from Albuquerque, mapping out their route with batting cage pit stops along the way to ensure they wouldn't miss a day.

"Alex takes it to a new level," Columbus said. "There are times when I have to look at him and say, 'You're going home. Leave.'

"He'll go home, but he'll be back in 25 minutes and say, 'Ok, I went home.'

***

The speakers in the training room crackle as Bregman plugs his iPhone into them before beginning his post-workout stretching session. He added stretching to his everyday routine after feeling the rigors of a full college baseball season taking a toll on his body toward the end of last year.

It's not music that Bregman selects. It's LSU football coach Les Miles delivering a fiery pregame sermon. In perfect cadence, matching the intonation, Bregman preaches along with Miles as he stretches.

"The day's about playing like we play! This day's about dominating an opponent! This day's about being LSU!"

"The kid's obsessed with winning it all," Mainieri said. "If he finishes his career at LSU and we haven't won a national championship together, we're going to feel disappointed."

As if he didn't have enough, Bregman is constantly scanning the world for motivation. He sometimes goes to sleep listening to Eric Thomas, his favorite motivational speaker. He only pays attention to the collegiate baseball rankings that have LSU ranked lowest. He wore No. 30 last year as a reminder of the 30 teams that passed on him in the first round of the 2012 draft.

"The 30 teams that messed up," Bregman said.

He is greeted every day by an image of his failure.

"You know what's in his locker?" Mainieri asked. "The front page of The Advocate, the picture of him booting that ball (in the College World Series). He reminds himself of it every day. He doesn't ever want to see that happen again."

It's just another tool in Bregman's overflowing shed, a device paving the way for improvement.

"You've got to treat failure with a learning mentality," Bregman said.

***

It's easy to forget that Bregman is still a kid. Kids don't talk about their "craft." Kids are quick to dream, but kids aren't found putting in the work required to achieve that dream.

Yet here he is, a 19-year-old college sophomore straddling the line between childhood and manhood. He's a jokester, eliciting a laugh from DeHart when he does an off-the-cuff Mainieri impression. He is stone-faced when he has a bat or glove in his hands. Those worlds collide sometimes. He talks about how he has to curb his cravings for cheeseburgers and soft drinks between reps.

"I'm starting to take care of my body in the new year," Bregman said as he shags the balls off the floor of the batting cage. "I'm starting to drink water. No more Coke."

Bregman and teammate Mason Katz would sometimes wash a Walk-On's cheeseburger down with a few Cokes in the hours before games last year. This year, his diet is tailored, like everything Bregman does, with purpose.

"The diet might not be important right now," Bregman said. "I mean, I feel good every day, but it's not so much about right now. If I want to play this game for 20 years in the big leagues then I've got to start treating my body right, right now.

"That's the long term goal. It's not to play for three or four years in college and hit the road, it's to play as long as I can."

That being said, when it comes down to it, Mainieri isn't sure how important diet really is to Bregman. Maybe he's leaving his childhood behind. Or maybe it's his youthful exuberance allows him to be what he is.

"I think he'd rather hit and take ground balls than he would eat," Mainieri said.

***

Bregman and DeHart field ground balls under a sky painted a deeper shade of purple than LSU would ever wear. They see the ball in the remnants of a sinking sun and the ambient glow cast by the small lights over the club seating level. They try not to use the stadium lights if they can help it.

"We probably ran the school's electric bill up a couple thousand dollars this fall," Bregman admits as he sets up his FungoMan, essentially an automatic JUGS machine that spits baseballs out along a predetermined path.

Bregman sets up about 30 yards away and lowers himself into his defensive stance. A yellow light flashes, the engines whir and a baseball fires out of the machine. THUNK!

The ball skips on the artificial turf in foul territory along the first base line before landing with a soft clap in Bregman's glove. It repeats over and over again, until the purple sky fades to black.

WhirrrrTHUNK. Clap.

There are no fans screaming in adulation. There are no baseball-themed tunes pumped in through stadium speakers. It's just Bregman, his training partner, his craft and the music it makes.

It's leather pinching leather and echoing off the empty grandstand. It's the sound of virtuosity. It's Bregman's soft refrain, "One more."

"One more."

"One more."

Posted by: Luke Johnson | Submit comment | Tell a friend



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