Jeff Seidel | Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — Someone from the adoption agency called Renee Lange at work.
“It was 2:30 in the afternoon,” she said. “And they said, ‘This girl had a baby yesterday. Get to the hospital between 6 and 6:15. She’s got this short window to be there.’”
It was Oct. 3, 1995. Her husband, Craig, was golfing. Renee started calling different courses, trying to find him, long before cell phones were prevalent. “I wrote him a note,” Renee said. “And I said, ‘You can meet me at the hospital between 6 and 6:15. We are getting a baby. If not, I’ll be home with our son.’”
Renee was 31 and unable to have children. For about a year, Renee and Craig had been trying to adopt a child but nothing held together. One month before the call, a woman had picked them for adoption and they bought a crib and car seat. But the woman changed her mind after giving birth to a girl.
“I was devastated,” Renee said.
Renee sold the crib and the car seat, hoping to try it again later, after she got her heart back. And now, on the way to the hospital, Renee stopped at Walmart and bought a car seat.
At the hospital, someone from the adoption agency handed Renee this beautiful baby boy, this unbelievable gift — and she recoiled with emotion.
“I can’t,” Renee said. “I can’t take this woman’s baby.”
“No,” the biological mother said. “This is your baby. All I ask is that you love him the way that he deserves to be loved.”
If it is possible for maternal instincts to kick-start in a single breath and for love to wash over every inch of your being, those things happened at that moment for Renee Lange.
“It was love at first sight,” she said.
The boy would be named Alex, and he cried all the way to his new home.
“I realized I didn’t have any bottles,” Renee said.
She didn’t have a place for him to sleep either, until she pulled a drawer out of a dresser and turned it into a makeshift crib.
About two weeks later, Renee met with Alex’s biological mother. She brought blankets and a letter from the biological dad, explaining the situation. But there was something else, something important.
“She said there were people in her family that played professional baseball,” Renee said. “She said, ‘If he picks up a baseball, you guys foster that.’”
Maybe, Alex would have found baseball on his own.
Maybe, he would have discovered the powers in his arm: a 97 mph fastball and a nasty curveball just waiting to be developed.
Or maybe, that comment was a subtle moment that changed everything, like a shift in wind at sea, pumping air into the main sail and altering the course of a life.
Alex did pick up a baseball and he found he had real talent.
Maybe, it was a gift from the baseball gods. Or maybe, it came from the genetics of a family tree that he couldn’t quite touch or see.
So Renee fostered the heck out of his passion, even after she got divorced. This single mother — a self-described “girlie girl” who didn’t know a thing about sports — worked three jobs, so Alex could take pitching lessons. She put all her money into him, she sacrificed everything for him.
When other families went on expensive vacations, Renee couldn’t afford it. Instead, she scraped together enough money so he could play on travel teams, going to tournaments and showcases, chasing his dream.
She surrounded him with baseball people, who could mentor him. And she set up a tarp in her garage so that he could hit baseballs off a T — Ka-Thump! Ka-Thump! And when that sound went silent, she would poke her head into the garage and urge him to continue.
Fostering that magical power inside him.
And now, that baby boy, the center of Renee’s life, has grown up and is trying to make the Detroit Tigers.
Renee was always open with her son about the adoption. Alex has never spoken to his biological mother but he knows her name.
Funny story how he discovered that.
“Funny and a little weird,” Alex said. “Me and one of my buddies were just messing around one day, looking through that stuff my mom told me about.”
They went through a lockbox filled with documents about the adoption.
“I was like, all right, let’s do it,” Alex said. “We went through it and we’re like reading stuff. And I’m like, this is kind of creepy. Look at all this stuff. This is weird. It was an address, the names, the letter, pictures and just stuff like that. It’s been years since I’ve looked at it, so I don’t remember everything. But me and my buddy, we were kind of just shuffling through the stuff.”
They found a phone number for his biological mother.
Alex made his buddy dial it.
“And she answered,” Alex said. “I think it was her, and we panicked and hung up because we were 13 or 14. It’s the weirdest thing ever, man. So that’s the closest I think I’ve ever come to actually talking to an actual relative of mine. So it’s kind of funny.”
He has read the letter from his biological dad. But it’s been so long, he can’t quite remember its contents.
“Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you what’s in it,” he said. “It’s been so long. And I know it was good things. And there was some good advice in there. I honestly don’t remember, it’s been 10 years. I should definitely go back and reread it because it probably will apply to a lot of that stuff now, way better, honestly.”
Alex knew the name of his uncle, who played in Cleveland’s farm system and looked up his stats.
“I don’t think he ever made it up,” Alex said of the big leagues. “But you know, pretty decent stats.”
A combination of nature and nuture
Where does baseball talent come from? Is it all genetic? Does it come straight from the DNA — half from a mother, half from a father, a spiral of genes and traits combined in a double helix of mystery deep within the cells?
Or is there something else?
Something more complex that needs to be unraveled?
How do drive and motivation — a player’s makeup, baseball people call it — fit into the equation?
Maybe, it is all tied together; a wondrous cocktail of nature and nurture.
Maybe, there is something else. Maybe, you need a healthy dose of drive to unlock the talent. And Alex has no doubt where the drive came from.
Straight from Renee, who pushed him to be great, “at everything,” he said.
“It didn’t matter if I was doing the dishes or doing homework or playing ball, it didn’t matter. She expected perfection and everything,” Alex said. “That’s kind of how I still carry myself today. I demand perfection on the field. I demand perfection in my training and my workouts. I don’t shortcut anything. That’s from her. She instilled that value in me.”
As he talked, her words started to come back to him: “If you want to get to where you want to go, you don’t take shortcuts.”
Renee knows only one way of doing things: honest, straightforward.
“It was very black and white,” her son said. “I didn’t ask a lot of questions, because I knew the answers. That’s how she raised me. That’s the way I go about my business. It’s pretty cut and dried. It was yes or no, and there was no real games. It was very open and honest.”
As a child, Alex was sharp and quick. He was placed in the gifted program at his elementary school.
Alex graduated from high school with a 4.3 GPA (because of honors classes) and when he enrolled at LSU, he was already basically a sophomore. He is analytical by nature. His mind churns like a computer. Math makes more sense to him than words.
That’s why baseball makes sense to him, especially the new analytics.
“I think why I succeed in baseball is because I’m able to take the numbers and apply them to baseball situations,” he said.
Just the two of them
Alex and Renee make quite the odd couple. He is 6-foot-3 and 197 pounds; a big, sturdy boulder of determination. She is 4-11 and barely comes up to his shoulder.
“Growing up, it was just me and her,” Alex said. “She was the mom, the dad, the friend, the parent and the executioner all at the same time. She handled all of it. I mean, I wouldn’t be here today without her. She’s really the only family that I’ve really got.”
That special bond is all over Renee’s Facebook page, the love seeping into every post.
On Oct.2, 2017, Renee posted on Facebook: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the light of my life! 22 years ago I was blessed with this incredible gift. I love you to the moon and back my son. Wish I could be with you to celebrate. Enjoy your day!”
2017? What an amazing year for Alex. He was a second-team All-American at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and led the Tigers to the College World Series. “That place holds a special place in my heart,” he said. “I really grew up and matured there as a baseball player and man.”
He was a starter at LSU, never coming out of the bullpen in 53 games. The Chicago Cubs drafted him in the first round, then waited until nearly the last second to sign him, below slot level.
On Oct.2, 2018, Renee posted on Facebook: “It goes without question, the depth of which I love this kid is bottomless. Happy 23rd birthday to my sunshine Alex Lange. I prayed for you before you were born and I fell in love with you the moment I laid my eyes on you. I am beyond proud of the man you have become. I am blessed to be your mom and to call you my son. Happy birthday my angel!”
2018? That was another good year. Lange was Chicago’s fifth-best prospect going into the season. He played High-A ball, going 6-8 with a 3.74 ERA in 23 starts.
On Oct.1, 2019: Renee posted on Facebook: “It’s hard to imagine that this little angel was brought to me 24 years ago. Literally sent from heaven and the greatest gift I could ever imagine. Happy Birthday to the light of my life, my son. I am beyond proud of the man you’ve become and am blessed to be your mom. I love you!”
Everything went off the rails in 2019.
“I just wasn’t in a good mental place,” Alex said. “Honestly, I think mental health is something that’s super important in this game, especially when it’s not going well. You know, it’s easy to have that carry over to the field and off the field and it’s a vicious cycle. You know, I had some growing up to do.”
On July 31, 2019, the Tigers traded Nicholas Castellanos to the Cubs for Lange and Paul Richan.
The Tigers took one look at Alex and saw a reliever.
Looking back, that trade changed everything for him.
“I like it here,” Alex said. “When I got traded here in 2019, it was start of the turning point for me. It was, hey, we want you to be yourself, go out there and be who you are, be what’s made you successful. That’s been very freeing. I’m good at that, you know, I’m not good at being someone I’m not. ”
On May 16, 2020, Renee posted on Facebook: No question that I love this kid, right?! I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate Mother’s Day. My heart.
2020? Ugh. What a year. For everyone.
Lange lost a year of minor league ball.
Renee grew up Catholic. She never forced religion on him but he found a strong, deep faith.
“It’s everything,” he said. “It’s the base of who we are, and how we carry ourselves, how we interact with people, how we treat others, and how we view the world. So I think it’s super important, especially in this game, to have a solid foundation, something that you believe in and, and stay true to and helps you stay true to yourself.”
On Nov.21, 2020, Renee posted some huge news: “Thrilled to share that this kid made the Detroit Tigers’ 40-Man Roster! It’s a testament, in part, to his hard work, perseverance and determination to realize “the dream”.
I recognize that this doesn’t happen without the support, guidance, and love of a village, so I want to thank each of you who have had a hand in shaping Alex into the man any mom would be proud to have for a son. Now, go show ’em what you’re made of, kid! I love you.”
When the Tigers placed him on the 40-man roster, it sent a significant signal of how they viewed him. They were afraid of losing him in the Rule 5 draft.
“It’s an interesting arm,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “The breaking ball is his calling card, he’s got a really good one. You look around the league at relievers’ pitch usage, he needs to use his breaking ball a lot, and he does. He has a swing-and-miss breaking ball.”
In all likelihood, Alex will start the season at Triple-A Toledo. But it wouldn’t be shocking to see him in Detroit this season.
He’s determined to make that happen.
And that’s amazing, when you consider how this all started, the day Renee became a mother.
“If he picks up a baseball, you guys foster that.”
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.