Almost Famous: The Astros' Alex Bregman Is Freshly Paid and Trying To Return Baseball to the Limelight
This story appears in the March 25, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The portion of the Torah known as Tazria-Metzora describes the ancient rituals God commanded Jewish people to undertake were they afflicted with a variety of unfortunate ailments, including scabrous skin infections, eruptive plague and penile discharge. It’s a little awkward, to say the least, for most of the 13-year-olds who discover that this is the passage they must chant and explain to their gathered families—and, even worse, to their also 13-year-old friends (penile discharge!)—at their bar or bat mitzvah service.
But if the boy assigned that portion by the Hebrew calendar wished he had gotten one involving, say, Moses and the Red Sea instead, he didn’t show it at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque on April 21, 2007. “We all need to realize that there are people out there who may be suffering and we all need to try to do our part to relieve that suffering when we can,” the 13-year-old, wearing a pin-striped suit, confidently read from his six-page, double-spaced speech. Two pages later, in a section on top of which he’d scrawled SLOWLY, he reached the heart of his message.
“When I think about the future and how I can make a difference in the world, I want to be able to use my love of the game of baseball to be a good example and a good person,” he said. “I want to be a professional athlete who plays for the love of the game, never quits trying to give my best and is a good role model for all of the kids who look up to baseball players.”
The congregants must have smiled. It was a dream harbored by millions of boys at that optimistic age, just before hard realities arrive for almost all of them, Jewish or not. This particular one stood a head shorter than his mother, who herself was only 5' 4", and he struggled to hold the Torah’s moderately heavy scroll. But Alexander David Bregman was completely unabashed about his intentions. “There never was a Plan B,” he says.
To fulfill Plan A, Bregman came to rely on a more modern text. One day, when he was in high school, he happened upon the YouTube video How Bad Do You Want It? (Success). It depicted a punishing workout performed by running back Giavanni Ruffin, set to rousing music and an oration delivered by a motivational speaker named Eric Thomas, also known as ET The Hip-Hop Preacher.
Bregman was enthralled. The video now has 45 million views, many thousands of which belong to him. He watched it every school day before going out at 5 a.m. to run up sand dunes until he puked, then viewed it again after returning home at 10 p.m. with bloody palms from the many hours of batting practice he’d taken. He’d recite the Hip-Hop Preacher’s sermon to push himself through his adolescent exhaustion. When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful. And, You gotta want to be successful so bad that you forget to eat. And, If you go to sleep, you might miss the opportunity to be successful.
Just 12 years after his bar mitzvah, and though he has only grown to 5' 10" (maybe 5' 9"), Bregman has already come through on most of the improbable promises he made at Congregation Albert. He is the third baseman for the Astros. He has won a World Series ring, earned an All-Star Game MVP award and finished fifth in last season’s AL MVP voting and, on Mar. 18 signed a six-year, $100 million deal. At 24, he is, says Houston manager A.J. Hinch, “a monster within the game.”
In other words, Alex Bregman is already a star. Now, though, he wants to become famous. In baseball in 2019, those are no longer the same thing—which would have been a surprise to his 13-year-old self, who vowed to not just be a major leaguer but an influential one. “How do we make baseball as marketable as the NBA and NFL?” Bregman asks today. “How do we blow this game up and make our stars huge?”
That’s the problem Bregman is trying to solve via the digitally savvy methods of not only basketball and football players, but of the Hip-Hop Preacher too. He wants nothing less than to captivate a new generation of fans, securing the future of the sport he loves. The effort starts at his dining table.
There’s no fire pole, no trampoline and no free vending machine, but in most other ways Bregman’s five-story townhouse in Houston is exactly the type of residence that any 13-year-old boy would fantasize about owning were he to become a pro athlete. It is stuffed with trophies, jerseys and small-batch sneakers. The garage shelters a Range Rover. One room is entirely reserved for watching football and playing Fortnite on its many screens. A private chef, Chef Lauren, prepares three meals a day—none of them featuring seafood, which Bregman loathes.
The best part, though, is that Bregman lives with his three best friends: the Boys. He ran up Albuquerque’s sand dunes next to Tyler Straub, a former Royals minor leaguer; played travel ball with Blair Beck, who’s now in the independent Frontier League with Straub; and attended LSU with Mike Papierski, a switch-hitting catcher with the Astros’ Class A club. Despite their varying levels of accomplishment, they have much in common, including passions for football and Fortnite, of course, as well as for working out and the word dece, which is short for decent but actually means pretty damn good. Much about their lives is dece.
This winter the quartet began each day at 10:15 by drinking a delicious beets-based juice fresh squeezed by Chef Lauren. As they assembled around the only piece of furniture that Bregman picked out himself—the dining table, which is fashioned out of Jack Daniel’s barrels—they immediately assumed different roles: that of Bregman’s co-stars.
That’s because another thing Bregman and the Boys share is their love for athletes who document their lives and connect with their fans online: LeBron James, Conor McGregor, Odell Beckham Jr. and especially the one they refer to only by his first name, JuJu.
He is JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers’ 22-year-old wideout. “He has the No. 1–selling jersey in the NFL,” Bregman says, which seems farfetched but is only slightly so. JuJu’s jersey finished 10th in the league’s official sales in 2018, impressive for a second-year player who was at best only the third-most traditionally famous player on his own team—neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Antonio Brown made the list—and surprising unless you are, say, one of the nearly 750,000 people who subscribe to his YouTube channel. Smith-Schuster is a lot more influential and beloved than most people think. This offseason, Bregman resolved to become MLB’s answer to Juju.
Arranged around the Jack Daniel’s table were lights and cameras overseen by the fifth member of Bregman’s off-season household: Alex Scoffield—Sco, to the Boys—who is the younger brother of Bregman’s agent, Brodie Scoffield, and serves as Bregman’s full-time social media producer. Since launching his YouTube channel last Halloween, Breg and the Boys have posted nearly 80 videos, about four a week. They drove around Houston giving $100 tips to unsuspecting drive-through workers. They worked out with Alex Rodriguez in California. They went undercover as awful umpires in a youth baseball game, whose players happily swarmed them—at least, happily swarmed one of them—when they finally removed their masks.
That last one garnered 700,000 views. In fact, the whole enterprise worked. According to opendorse, an athlete marketing platform, Bregman earned 4.3 million social engagements between late October and mid-February, nearly 21⁄2 times as many as baseball’s second-most engaging player, Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman. Still, Bregman’s total would have put him just 18th in the NFL (JuJu was third, behind Beckham and Tom Brady) and 25th in the NBA, trailing the Lakers’ zero-time All-Star Brandon Ingram. The NBA’s top draw—James, naturally—had almost 85 million engagements, five times more than MLB’s top 10 combined.
This last fact underlines baseball’s biggest problem: its difficulty connecting with and inspiring Bregman’s generation, one that views digital life not as distinct from reality, but fully integrated into it. According to Sports Business Journal, as of 2016 the average MLB fan was 57, seven years older than that of the NFL and 15 than that of the NBA. Baseball has not developed the crossover stars—authentic, cool and intensely competitive in an old way but brashly playful in a new one—who dot rival leagues. Bregman believes there are a number of reasons for that failure, among them apathy by both MLB and its players as well as a fear of upsetting the gatekeepers of what remains a culturally hidebound sport.
But Bregman has never been lazy—“What else would I be doing with my downtime, sitting here reading a book or whatever other people do?” he asks—and he is unafraid. “I think you have to have this thing called feel,” he says. “You can do whatever you want to do if you have a feel for the situation. At the end of the day, I know I’m a good person, so I’m not worried about anything bad that could happen on the Internet.”
Bregman’s league and club are generally supportive. “I like it—for him,” says Hinch, a former Stanford psychology major. “As long as he controls it, his perspectives haven’t changed, and it hasn’t become more show than substance. I think time will test if he can maintain that.”
Bregman has no doubt that he can, and that his off-the-field activities will only further allow him to do all the other things he once promised Congregation Albert he would: to make a difference in the world, to be a role model not just to kids but to a new breed of baseball stars. His efforts are also fun and, he admits, profitable—if modestly, so far.
Even so, he knows that no one will care about any of it unless he—like LeBron and JuJu—continues to be more than dece when and where it really counts.
Bregman is only about to turn 25, but he already has the most important walkoff hit in the Astros’ 57-season history. It was the two-out single he lashed off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen’s first pitch to him in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, the one that tilted the matchup to Houston. “He continually slows his heartbeat down when the rest of the building is jumping out of their seats,” Hinch says. Bregman is able to do that because he has prepared himself to do it.
The night before Game 5, lying in his bed in his townhouse after Los Angeles had knotted the Series, he had visualized the contours of his next at bat against Jansen. Hours earlier he had homered off the All-Star, although it hadn’t been quite enough to prevent a Houston loss. Jansen had thrown him a slider. “In my head, I’m like, ‘No chance he throws me a slider again. I’m looking for a cutter,’ Bregman recalls thinking. Jansen’s first pitch was a cutter.
In many ways Bregman had been destined for such a moment. “The whole family, generation after generation, has been obsessed with the game of baseball,” says Sam, Alex’s father. Sam’s dad, Stan, was the general counsel for the Washington Senators and later on, in 1973, represented the slugger Dick Allen in negotiations that resulted in the game’s largest-ever contract: three years and $750,000. Both Sam and his brother, Ben, played at New Mexico, but they went no further; Sam ended up opening up a successful law firm with his wife, Jackie, whom he had met at law school. It didn’t take them long to realize that the first of their three children was different from all other Bregmans.
Alex was the kid who, in games of touch football with older boys, would dive headfirst onto the concrete of the cul de sac to haul in a pass. When a big trial meant that Sam was too busy to play catch, Alex would hurl a baseball at the same spot on a cinder-block wall in the backyard until, after five years, he broke through it. “I was thrilled,” Sam says. “His mother wasn’t.”
Sam never pushed him—he didn’t have to—but when Alex was 10 he introduced him to the family credo: TTFU. Toughen the F--- Up. “I might not be the greatest parent when it comes to language,” Sam says.
Sam didn’t have to remind his son of the motto often, but he did after a pregame grounder one game into Alex’s senior season at Albuquerque Academy. Bregman had promised LSU that he would play there unless he was a first-round pick, but a bad hop shattered that possibility along with his throwing hand’s middle finger. TTFU. When the Diamondbacks called to tell him they were considering taking him in the second round, Bregman told them not to waste their time—that he was going to college, and that he hoped their first-rounder worked out. He chose number 30 for his freshman year at LSU to reflect the number of MLB teams that had passed on him.
Three years later Arizona had the No. 1 pick and another chance to draft Bregman, an All-America shortstop with more extra-base hits than strikeouts. The D-Backs took Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson instead, leaving Bregman for Houston. The Astros believed in Bregman so deeply that they moved him up in the batting order after he began his major league career by going 1 for 32. (TTFU, texted Sam.) Last season Bregman led the team in home runs (31), RBIs (103), OPS (.926) and almost everything else, while ranking as one of the 12 toughest hitters in the league to strike out.
He also came fairly close to leading them to another World Series. When he stepped to the plate against Craig Kimbrel with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 of the ALCS, he had the night before visualized how he would swing at a first-pitch rising fastball from the Red Sox’ closer and drive it to left for another walk-off. “Off the bat, I thought it was déjà vu from the World Series,” he says.
In leftfield, though, Andrew Benintendi was playing shallow. He laid out to snag the ball with the fingertips of his glove, denying a series-tying hit. Boston sent Houston home the following evening.
TTFU, texted Sam. The next day Bregman was in the gym, preparing for 2019 with a new set of goals: “Win a World Series. Win a World Series MVP. Have the best year of my life on the field. And then blow up off it.”
It was Monday in January, a few weeks before he would report for spring training in West Palm Beach, and Bregman had a packed schedule. He and the Boys were up early to shoot a boxing-themed music video for a song the Houston hip-hop artist Paul Wall had written for him. At 10:15, they gathered around the Jack Daniel’s table to record a video podcast while sipping Chef Lauren’s beet juice.
At noon he drove the Range Rover to Minute Maid Park to continue rehabbing from the surgery he’d had earlier in the month to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow, a periodically painful condition that he’d refused to divulge to anyone for three years until he woke up in December and found the joint locked at a 90-degree angle. “We probably had the most public surgery in the history of baseball,” Bregman says. Sco had documented everything but the procedure itself for YouTube, including Bregman’s drug-addled post-op stupor in which he promised to win 14 straight MVPs. “Maybe I meant 14 straight All-Star appearances,” he says. “Mike Trout’s still in our league.” Anyway, the intimate video—Breg and The Boys Ep. 8—has now been viewed 60,000 times, and Bregman recovered quickly enough to hit a home run in his second spring training game.
After his rehab and a workout, it was time to produce more content—or footie, as he calls it, as in footage—this time at the request of the Astros. Reid Ryan, the club’s president, had asked if Bregman might be up for popping into the ticket office. Of course he was. He bounded in, to the obvious delight of the staff members, many of whom kept replicas of his jersey in their cubicles, and jumped on the phone. “Jim Crane”—the Astros’ owner—“told me he’s not gonna give me a contract extension unless you buy a full season,” he pitched one customer, successfully (editor's note: on Tuesday, Bregman reportedly signed a six-year, $100 million extension). “I feel like the Wolf of Wall Street right now!” he shouted, drawing laughs.
Before leaving, he was shown a mockup of the team’s new media guide. The cover featured a photo of him with his arms crossed, filtered in such a way to make their vasculature pop, beneath this year’s slogan: TAKE IT BACK, as in the title. “Forearms look dece,” Bregman said, approvingly, to more laughs.
That eagerness to connect with others—online or IRL—is often on full display inside the clubhouse. When first baseman Yuli Gurriel, having recently arrived from Cuba not knowing a word of English, entered it for the first time in 2016, he was surprised to be immediately greeted by a much younger rookie with a twinkle in his eye. “Cómo está, mi hijo!” Bregman shouted, using the sometimes butchered Spanish that was the only subject in which he usually earned A’s in high school, because it was the only one he thought could help him as a major leaguer. Now the two are inseparable, chattering all day as they help each other improve in their respective languages. Gurriel says Bregman particularly likes learning all the malas palabras—the bad words.
Bregman believes that a more closely bonded team is a better one. There was also a hidden motivation behind the Instagram story he posted before Game 3 of the ALCS in October. He titled it lil pregame video work, and it showed himself, centerfielder George Springer and second -baseman José Altuve hitting back-to-back-to-back homers earlier in the season off Nathan Eovaldi, who happened to be Boston’s Game 3 starter. He did it for three reasons. One, he was trying to gin up the narrative as athletes in other sports do—say, McGregor vs. Mayweather—but is not yet quite welcome in baseball. Two, he was trying to get into Eovaldi’s head. Three, he was publicly laying down a gauntlet for himself: I did this, now I have to back it up.
He only backed it up partway. While he went 2-for-2 with an RBI double and a walk against Eovaldi in Game 3, the righty blew him away with a 101-mph fastball in the eighth inning of Game 5. “Post that!” Red Sox starter David Price screamed from the opposing dugout, which Bregman didn’t mind. “I’ll say all that stuff, but if you get me after I do it, I’ll be the first to say: You got me,” he says. “That was some serious cheddar. He got me.”
FTEN, Bregman’s use of social media is much quieter. In December, for instance, a relative of a 36-year-old Astros fan, the father of two young children, messaged Bregman on Instagram to say that the fan was dying of Stage 4 brain cancer, and that he’d asked to be buried in Bregman’s jersey. “A signed note or jersey would make his entire life,” the relative wrote. Bregman asked for his address. That weekend Bregman and the Boys, leaving their cameras behind, drove up to the man’s house and spent an hour at his bedside, surrounded by his family.
Two days later Bregman received another message from the relative. “He died this morning,” she wrote. “We are so grateful you saw him and made him laugh before he made his way home.”
It’s a lot of power for a 24-year-old to have, but Bregman has long sought it out. It’s what he meant when he told Congregation Albert that he wanted to use his love of baseball to be a good example. It was also a reminder that there is more to life than footie.
Another came near the end of last May. Bregman and Justin Verlander, the Astros’ 36-year-old ace, were drinking coffee together in the clubhouse when Verlander stared into his eyes. “Dude, you look tired today,” he said. “How much do you sleep?”
The Hip Hop Preacher’s YouTube wisdom (If you go to sleep, you might miss the opportunity to be successful) echoed in Bregman’s head. In high school he had permitted himself perhaps six hours a night, but now he was up to seven or eight. Verlander was stunned. “Bro, you have to be sleeping 10 to 12 hours,” he said. “Eight’s for normal people who don’t tear their body down as much as you do.”
Bregman began turning in at midnight and setting his alarm clock for 10. While he had begun June with just five home runs, he ended the month with 16. “Verlander knew what he was talking about,” Bregman says.
The right influencer can make all the difference.