MILWAUKEE — Two years ago, after Alec Bohm made his major league debut for the Phillies, his college coach recounted a story from 2018 that, in hindsight, should have told us a lot about the young third baseman.
Bohm, then a junior at Wichita State, ranked among the top hitters in the country and got drafted with the third overall pick. But he grew up in Omaha, Neb., and always wanted to play for the University of Nebraska. It didn’t happen. He wasn’t recruited by the Cornhuskers, coached at the time by longtime Los Angeles Angels center fielder Darin Erstad.
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So after driving a ball over the left-field fence for a grand slam in the opener of a three-game series against Nebraska on March 2, 2018, Bohm flung his bat over his head in one of the most declarative bat flips ever.
“I said, ‘Hey look, man, that’s Darin Erstad. That guy’s a Gold Glover in the big leagues,’” then-Wichita State coach Todd Butler said. “You respect him, I respect him, we all do. And trust me, I’ve made recruiting mistakes in my career. I said, ‘Don’t do that. I know you wanted to go to Nebraska and everything. But don’t do that.’”
Two days later, in the series finale, Bohm hit another grand slam — and flipped the bat again, no less emphatically than before.
“He came in the dugout and I told him, ‘Hey, do whatever you want. Just keep hitting ’em,’” Butler said, laughing heartily.
The point is, Bohm is emotional. Always has been. If ever there’s a doubt about his state of mind, he usually makes it clear through his body language. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, but he plays a sport in which even the best players fail much more often than they succeed. In baseball, being overtaken by emotion can beat you up.
Sometimes it can even leave you bloodied.
As much as anything, then, Bohm’s major league education — a mostly on-the-job process since the Phillies called him up on Aug. 13, 2020, without so much as one day of triple-A experience — has been about self-control.
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“Sometimes stuff builds up, and you let it go, and sometimes you don’t let it go in the best way,” said Bohm, whose game-tying solo homer off indomitable Brewers closer Josh Hader on Tuesday night in Milwaukee qualified as the biggest hit of his major league career. “This game, and life in general, is going to teach you lessons until you learn them.”
The lessons have come frequently over the last few seasons.
Bohm, 25, kept his emotions mostly in check in 2020 during an eyeblink of a pandemic-shortened rookie year. But as he struggled last season, he often would stomp around the batter’s box when he was unhappy with a swing or disagreed with an umpire’s strike zone. He would boot a grounder during infield practice and chuck the ball into the left-field bleachers.
Former manager Joe Girardi and other team officials would note that Bohm often seemed to take his frustration over making an error up to the plate with him or lose concentration in the field after a difficult at-bat.
Last August, when the Phillies sent Bohm to triple A, it was as much to clear his head as to fix his swing or sharpen his defense. He has worked with the team’s mental skills staff to deal with the toll of being a touted prospect in the majors.
The lessons have continued this year. After making three errors in the first three innings of an April 11 game at home against the New York Mets and getting a derisive cheer for making a routine play, television cameras caught Bohm telling shortstop Didi Gregorius, “I [expletive] hate this place.” Bohm made a public apology, claimed he didn’t mean it, and explained that it happened in the heat of an emotional moment. The fans forged.
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Then came last Saturday night. Bohm went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, adding to the depths of a 1-for-28 slump, slammed his bat into the top of the bat rack, and gashed himself when it ricocheted back and hit the bottom of his chin.
Bohm looked like a prizefighter in need of a cutman between rounds. He also got a reminder from interim manager Rob Thomson about the importance of controlling his emotions.
A day later, Bohm told reporters that he felt like he was “in the pit” and said he “maybe overreacted.” He also pointed to Mike Trout, who went 0-for-11 against the Phillies last weekend and left town in a career-worst 0-for-26 tailspin. But Trout didn’t have a public temper tantrum or incur a self-inflicted wound.
“Sometimes it maybe takes a little extra to get you to learn your lesson,” Bohm told reporters. “I think I learned my lesson about handling it. That’s the difference. You look over there, you see [Trout]. He’s not doing that.”
Since Bohm vs. Bat Rack, he went 3-for-4 with a walk in Sunday’s come-from-behind, walk-off victory over the Los Angeles Angels and hit the first homer — and scored the first run — allowed by Hader since July 28, 2021 .
Lesson learned? Perhaps.
Thomson has stressed to Bohm and other young players that they need not feel the stress of the two-month struggle that left the Phillies with a double-digit deficit in the National League East and prompted Girardi’s firing. Leave that to Bryce Harper, JT Realmuto, Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber, and the other highly paid stars on the $238 million roster.
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If Bohm, in particular, is able to control his emotions and just play, maybe the results will improve.
“It’s a loose group of guys that’s just playing together and having fun,” Bohm said. “Guys aren’t worried about their stats. Guys aren’t trying to do this or that. Everyone is just playing together, trying to win. I think we’re just having a lot of fun.”