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Alex Bregman nears MLB greatness set in motion generations ago in D.C. sandlots and boardrooms

Alex Bregman has always been chasing Ted Williams, even before he knew it. Then again, it was predestined. (Elsa/Getty Images)

In some of the biggest moments of his career, Alex Bregman can sense a great circle of life bending around to completion.

On the July night in Washington, D.C., when he won the Most Valuable Player Award at the MLB All-Star Game at Nationals Park, and someone handed him the trophy named for Ted Williams — a name that is both familiar and sacred within his family — that circle closing nearly knocked him off his feet. On his flight out of town that night, sitting next to his father, he marveled at the cosmic underpinnings of the night, as if destiny had been dictating events.

“It was some magical stuff that happened out there,” Bregman recalled last week. “It was all we could talk about. It felt like it was meant to be.”

As Bregman, the Houston Astros’ confident and charismatic third baseman, leads the defending World Series champions into another postseason, beginning Friday with Game 1 of the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians, he is hoping to bring another great circle to completion. Baseball hasn’t seen a back-to-back champion since the New York Yankees of 1998-2000, but these Astros, with Bregman, 24, emerging as their best player, appear to have the pieces necessary to deliver another title to Houston, 12 months after they won the first in franchise history.

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“For me, he’s the MVP of the team,” said second baseman Jose Altuve, who is merely the league’s defending most valuable player, “and he’s right there with the best guys in the league.”

It would be somehow fitting — which means, in the Bregman view of the universe, it is predestined — if the Astros’ road to the World Series, as it did a year ago, went through Fenway Park, where Williams patrolled left field for the better part of 19 seasons and in 1941 became the last player to hit .400 in a season. This year’s Boston Red Sox won 108 games, the most by any team in 17 years, while the Astros’ 2018 run differential of plus-263 is the largest in that same time frame. Should both teams win their Division Series, they would meet in what could be an epic AL Championship Series.

Williams sits at the center of the Bregman family’s great circle of life. It is a circle that began in the late 1960s, when Washington lawyer and political insider Stan Bregman, Alex’s grandfather, convinced a political associate, Bob Short, to purchase the expansion Washington Senators, then convinced Short to hire Williams as their manager, negotiating both contracts himself.

“One of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in the short history [1961-71] of the expansion Senators,” Fred Frommer, author of “You Gotta Have Heart,” the definitive history of Washington’s pre-21st century baseball, said of Stan Bregman, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 84.

In those days, a young boy was a frequent presence around the Senators, bouncing on Williams’s knee in the manager’s office, marveling at Frank Howard’s capacity for drinking beer after games, zipping around the grass behind the cage during batting practice, riding in the back seat as his father drove Williams home and delighting at Williams’s notoriously salty language.

The boy was Sam Bregman, Stan’s son and later Alex’s father. And one day, a generation later, when Alex was of the same tender age, Sam Bregman showed him a picture of himself as a child on the knee of the Splendid Splinter. It may have been then, or it may have been later, but somewhere along the way, Sam told his son he was destined to be a big leaguer — and not only that, he would be the next to hit .400 in the majors. Neither the old picture nor the grand decree would ever leave young Alex’s mind.

“It was never just, ‘You’re going to make it to big leagues,’ ” Alex Bregman said. “It was like, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a stud — at every level you play at.’ That’s what he always envisioned, and honestly that’s what’s given me confidence. I was going to find a way to do it.”

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The Bregman men, you see, don’t do anything halfway, especially when it comes to that place where destiny, belief and baseball intersect.

‘He has a plan’

Before Alex Bregman, before Sam Bregman, before Stan Bregman — each of them completing another circle — there was Bo Bregman, Alex’s great-grandfather. His path to discovering a love of baseball was a winding one. His family, Jews from Pinsk in what is now Belarus, fled to America in 1911, arriving in Baltimore when Bo was 4. As a young man, he moved to Washington, where he became well-known in sporting circles as a bookmaker, horseplayer and boxing promoter who worked with fighters including Joe Louis and Billy Conn. He also owned a small piece of the original Washington Redskins after the team relocated to the city in 1937.

But in the evenings and on weekends, he was the diminutive but scrappy catcher for one or another sandlot baseball team — the best-known of them called the Washington Aztecs — that played its games on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

Bo’s son, Stan, attended George Washington University as both an undergraduate and a law student and went on to work on the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson before becoming involved with the Senators.

And Stan’s two sons, Sam and Ben, both went on to play baseball at Walter Johnson High in Bethesda, then the University of New Mexico, with the entire family eventually moving out west. (Alex’s younger brother, A.J., plays for UNM.) Sam would go on to become a prominent attorney in Albuquerque and later the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party.

The first son of Sam and Jackie Bregman — herself a prominent attorney in Albuquerque — arrived on March 30, 1994 and was named Alexander. From the beginning, he was different, as if all the dreams of all the Bregman men over all those generations had collected in one small place and had become infused with the collective talent of all of them.

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“When my son was born,” Sam Bregman said, “a love of the game was passed down to him.”

In Alex’s first tee-ball game, according to family lore, he turned an unassisted triple play. He hit .678 as a high school junior and became the first high schooler to win USA Baseball’s player of the year award. He was drafted in the 29th round in 2012 by the Boston Red Sox, but decided to attend LSU, where he wore No. 30 as a freshman — to symbolize the 30 major league teams that all passed him over in the earlier rounds of the draft.

If Alex’s talent surpassed that of his forebears, so too did his drive. As a kid, his travel ball coaches would have to force him to go home to eat dinner, but he would show up at the field again in half an hour announcing that he had eaten and was ready to play some more. At LSU, the coaches grew so weary of having to let Bregman into the stadium at all hours of the night, they finally just gave him a key.

Drafted out of LSU with the second overall pick in 2015 by the Astros — Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson went first to the Arizona Diamondbacks — Bregman was in the big leagues within 13 months of signing. By the second half of 2017, at age 23, he was hitting second in baseball’s deepest lineup. In the first postseason at-bat of his career, against the Red Sox, he homered off Chris Sale. In the second at-bat of his first World Series game, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he homered off Clayton Kershaw.

And in Game 5 of that World Series, the one around which the entire series pivoted, he smashed the line-drive single off Kenley Jansen in the bottom of the 10th to give the Astros a walk-off, 13-12 win.

“He never ceases to amaze me with how controlled he is in the big moments,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said recently of Bregman. “Any part of the game, any situation, any pitcher. He obviously loves the moment.”

In the stands in Houston that October night, Alex’s sister Jessica, seated next to Sam, was counting the spots in the Astros batting order, watching as the game wound its way to Alex’s at-bat against Jansen, the Dodgers’ brilliant closer.

“She realized he would have a chance to walk it off,” Sam Bregman recalled. “And she says to me, ‘Stan is controlling all this. He has a plan.’ Sure enough, he walks it off. Obviously, we felt his presence.”

Visualizing success

Last week, Alex Bregman closed out another great circle of life. In a small, private ceremony before an Astros game at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, he presented Hank Allen — a former Senators outfielder and longtime scout based in Maryland and now working for the Astros — with his 2017 World Series ring. As you might imagine, there was a long history between the men and their families.

In 1972, Stan Bregman, at the time performing contract negotiations for various players, negotiated a record-setting deal for Ritchie “Dick” Allen, Hank’s brother. During Alex’s years as a travel-ball and high school player, Hank Allen would fly out to Albuquerque at the request of Stan and Sam to give a scout’s perspective about Alex’s game.

Giving Allen his World Series ring, Bregman said, “made me feel close to my grandfather again.” After every home run, Bregman thinks of Stan as he touches home plate.

This season, there were 31 such moments — 31 home runs, as Bregman, in his second full big league season, blossomed into arguably the AL’s best infielder. At just 5-foot-10 (his family acknowledges his listed height of 6-foot is not quite accurate), Bregman is a slick-fielding third baseman and a terror at the plate, with a knack for clutch plays at both disciplines. According to FanGraphs, his wins above replacement of 7.6 this season made him the fourth-most valuable player in the majors, behind only Mookie Betts, Mike Trout and Jose Ramirez.

His rapid improvement as a hitter in just 2 ½ seasons in the majors is best reflected in the refinement of his pitch selection: As a rookie in 2016, he offered at 30.9 percent of all pitches thrown out of the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. But by 2017, he had reduced that percentage to 26.3, and this year it made a major drop to just 18.1.

Bregman is also prone to the theatrical, the colorful and the unusual. He speaks Spanish well enough to converse with Latino teammates in their native language. His television-camera staredowns in the dugout after home runs have become a central part of the Astros’ outsized personality. “He has a lot of swagger,” Hinch said. “But it’s a controlled swagger.” He is unabashedly confident and doesn’t flinch when someone suggests that confidence borders on cockiness.

And if Bregman is, in fact, cocky, it might be the only one of his traits that did not come from the baseball part of his heritage. As a kid, he would watch his father prepare for a big case, practicing his remarks into a mirror, visualizing an outcome from the jury. Sam Bregman would tell Alex how he hoped the trial would go, and sometimes Alex would get to come and watch it play out exactly that way.

“It all comes from my dad,” Alex Bregman said. “The way he talked about it when it was just us — when you continually talk about it and visualize it, you start to learn how to do it exactly that way. I would watch him in court, and go, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how he said it would go.’ ”

Asked about the influence his own courtroom preparation and execution had on Alex, Sam Bregman said, “We’re a family that’s extremely competitive with whatever we do. It runs in the genes. He’s seen a lot of that. ... Sometimes it comes across as cocky. At end of day, it’s not cocky if you can back it up. If you work hard and are well-prepared, you’re allowed to walk in with confidence.”

The Bregmans may not be the Boones or the Griffeys or the Bondses — multigenerational families of big leaguers — but they still believe there was a heritage in the game that was passed down from one generation to the next. Starting with his son Alex, Sam Bregman can look backward and trace a long line — not a circle this time, but a straight one, going back in time, across generations and continents.

“All of us are the wannabes,” he said. “We all want to be doing what Alex is doing. We talk about it all the time. He’s living out all of our dreams.”

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