More like ‘I love it here’? Inside Alec Bohm’s rehabbed rep in Philly

    ESPN baseball reporter. Covered the L.A. Rams for ESPN from 2016 to 2018 and the L.A. Angels for from 2012 to 2016.

Alec Bohm had a commemorative snapback cap on his head and a permanent smile on his face. It was Saturday night, and the Philadelphia Phillies had just stunned the division-champion St. Louis Cardinals with back-to-back road victories to advance to the National League Division Series. Most of the crowd had quickly filed out of Busch Stadium, but the away fans who remained migrated down the aisles to cheer for the Phillies players who remained on the field. Several of them wore burgundy T-shirts with the phrase “I f—ing hate this place” emblazoned on the front, an ironic reference to the way Philadelphia had rallied around its young third baseman.

Bohm, being interviewed by MLB Network, was asked to provide a message to his ardent supporters. He smiled again. “I love this place,” Bohm said, briefly stepping away from the microphone to admire his own quip. The line sounded somewhat rehearsed and borderline cheesy, but it was undoubtedly fitting.

Bohm, 26, was less than six months removed from a three-error game that ignited boos, followed by sarcastic cheers, from the home crowd at Citizens Bank Park, prompting him to mutter the worst possible sentence — “I f—ing hate this place” — in America’s most unforgiving city. Cameras captured the moment and social media instantly made it viral. It could have ended him. But when Bohm comes to bat in Game 3 of the NLDS on Friday, he will undoubtedly receive raucous cheers from Phillies fans who waited 11 years for their team to return to the postseason. They’ll mark an incredible reversal.

“He’s a guy that has improved more within a year than I’ve ever had in my career,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He really has — not only offensively but defensively, maturity-wise.”

Bohm’s turnaround began on the afternoon that followed the worst day of his professional life, with a direct challenge from one of the sport’s most candid coaches.

After committing three throwing errors within the first three innings of his second start of the season on April 11, Bohm asked Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson to navigate him through early work the following day. They met on the field at 1 p.m. and Dickerson came with a message.

“I don’t know if you can be a big league third baseman,” he told him, “but we need to find out.”

The problem was that fielding ground balls in practice wasn’t the issue. Dickerson told Bohm that any professional could field cleanly with no one else watching; he needed to separate himself when the pressure arrived. Dickerson told Bohm he was playing scared and wasn’t putting his true abilities on display, essentially cheating himself. He told him about a similar mental block that halted his own playing career.

“Some of us just can’t do it,” Dickerson recalled telling Bohm. “It’s too stressful.”

The Phillies made Bohm the third overall pick out of Wichita State University in 2018 because they liked his bat, specifically his advanced feel for hitting. The hope was that he would eventually grow into a competent defender, but third base was an unnatural fit for his stature. Only two others — Troy Glaus and Kris Bryant, the latter of whom is now mostly an outfielder — have played third base even semi-regularly at Bohm’s listed height of 6-foot-5.

The obstacles became obvious early. In 2021, on the heels of an encouraging offensive showing as a rookie in the COVID-19-shortened season, Bohm committed 15 errors at third base, tied for third most at the position even though he started only 98 games. His offense dropped off dramatically in concert. When the 2022 season began, Bohm wasn’t guaranteed a starting job. When defensive issues manifested themselves early, rumors swirled about a potential trade. The three-error game represented a glaring fork in Bohm’s career.

“He hit rock bottom,” Dickerson said, “and sometimes that’s what it takes.”

Dickerson, in his first season back with the Phillies, has established himself as one of the industry’s most esteemed infield coaches over a career that spans nearly three decades. He is exceedingly knowledgeable and he cares deeply, but he is also intense and direct, a trait that has at times made him a polarizing figure. Manny Machado revered him in Baltimore; Fernando Tatis Jr. seemed to clash with him in San Diego. Bohm quickly took to his message in Philly.

“He said, ‘I wanna do this,'” Dickerson recalled, “and so he tightened up his belt buckle and went to work.”

Bohm wasn’t excellent this year — he was a league-average hitter by adjusted OPS and a below-average defender by outs above average — but as the season progressed, he continually got better. He made the plays he should, didn’t let his defense spill into his offense. And when the stakes were highest, he seemed poised, confident, steady. Dickerson cleaned up his defense and hitting coach Kevin Long simplified his approach, but Bohm battled to improve on his own, too. His initial contrition earned him a standing ovation from Phillies fans when he first came to bat on April 12, but it was his continual work that ultimately made him a beloved figure in Philadelphia.

“This guy was a high draft pick, he was a stud in college, I’m sure he was a stud in high school, ran through the minor leagues, just hit everywhere he went,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said shortly after the Phillies advanced to play the division-rival Atlanta Braves in the NLDS.

“He got to the big leagues and … kind of got slapped in the face, like a lot of us do. That’s what this game does. But to see him grow and figure out how to get on the other side of some of those valleys that we encounter often in this game … I’m proud of him for that. Obviously the stuff on the field he’s come a long way with too, but that just comes with reps. I don’t think anybody is surprised by that because of the staff that we have and the work ethic that he has.”

In Game 1 of the Phillies’ wild-card series against the Cardinals, Bohm ran a long way to catch a foul pop-up before colliding with the fence in the bottom of the third. He started a key double play in the bottom of the sixth. In Game 2, he ranged to his right to snare line drives from Yadier Molina and Nolan Arenado, the latter of which saw him fully extend and end up on his knees. He led off the next half-inning with a ground-rule double and later came around to score the Phillies’ second run in a 2-0, series-clinching victory. In Game 1 of the NLDS, he helped ignite a win by driving in two runs and playing another clean game defensively, displaying the “ball security” Dickerson has long desired from him.

Bohm has gone from being a liability to a catalyst.

“It’s been a long road,” Bohm said.

Most importantly, in Dickerson’s mind — he’s reliable.

“It had gotten to a point where he had pressed and pressed and pressed defensively,” Dickerson said, “and now I trust him as much as anybody.”

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