Sometimes the magic is right in front of us for Pete’s sake.
Open your eyes, baseball fans.
For all the negativity surrounding America’s Pastime, with the daily dose of Covid talk, there is something really special that can be tapped into this crazy season.
The world will get an unvarnished, up close look at the happiest player in the game, a modern-day player who is a cross between Ernie Banks (“Let’s play two!”) and Mark (The Bird) Fidrych.
Love of the game and just enough quirkiness sets him apart from other players.
And with no fans in the stands and many mics pointed in the players direction and with no outside noise, we should get some really interesting insights and comments.
It helps too that he mashes the baseball.
That player is Mets first baseman Pete Alonso.
If baseball plays its cards right during this 60-game sprint – and of course that is one big if – Alonso could come out of this season as the Face of Baseball due to his slugging ability that earned him NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2019, his pure love of the game and the immense joy he brings to the diamond.
Alonso is coming off his rookie record 53-home run season but there is so much more to Pete Alonso than just the booming home runs.
Everyone wants the multi-talented Mike Trout to be that face-of-the-game player.
Trout is the best player in the game, no doubt, but his personality is nowhere remotely close to the Top Ten in the game.
That’s okay, let’s just appreciate Trout for being Trout.
Aaron Judge is up there because of his size, leadership, crush-ability and devoted team approach but with Alonso – because you are never quite sure what is going to come out of his mouth – it makes him so different than any other star. There is huge talent and even more gigantic personality in that 6’3” 245-pound frame of his.
Yes, Alonso can be a bit crude (“LFGM”), but that’s part of his charm because he feels what the fans feel and is not afraid to say it. He is on their side. There is enough edge to make him way more interesting than your typical corporate ballplayer.
He is real, authentic in every way and offers a winning smile. Alonso is physically and mentally invested in everything he does. The man has that edge and a desire for greatness. That became evident to me last year, not only on the field but early in the season when one day the rookie showed up in the Mets clubhouse wearing a T-shirt that read: Piss Excellence.
Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights would approve. Shake and bake, baby. Piss Excellence.
In a Zoom call with reporters this week, Alonso explained what it felt like to finally return to Citi Field for Summer Camp after more than a three-month absence. He spoke from the heart. No canned answers from this Polar Bear.
A legend is Christened. Photo: Ny Daily News<br />
“I walked onto my position at first base, it was weird, I put my hands on the ground just to feel the dirt to, like make sure it’s real; and just being here and being able to play baseball, just do my job, I found a much higher appreciation for this game and for this opportunity,” Alonso said. “I love what I do, but now with this hiatus and everything that’s going on, for me it’s like, I don’t know, I have this love affair with baseball and it’s just made my love for it grow even more.
“The game means so much to me and I feel like I’m not the only one that feels that way,” he said. “Baseball is so much more than a sport. Not just to us players and the teams, but for so many other people and fans of baseball around the world. So it’s tremendous to be back.”
See what I mean about Ernie Banks, who was known as Mr. Sunshine and Mr. Cub? Alonso’s love of the game is a beacon, much like Banks’ approach to playing baseball. And like The Bird, Mark Fidrych, the splendid diamond dirt in his hands is a gift.
Alonso is not bemoaning what’s wrong with baseball or the possible dangers players face in their masked return in this Covid Era. He’s speaking like someone who is thrilled to simply be able to play the game at any level.
This is how you felt as a kid when you walked onto the field for the first time on a spring day after a long, cold winter. To feel that dirt in your hands just to make sure it was real and not a dream.
Some may think all of this is corny, but it’s not. Alonso owns a deep love for his job, his profession, and is not afraid to say it. He is old school in every way. He’s even got a nickname like the old timers: Polar Bear. His numbers last year were definitively old school: 161 games played; no load management for him over 693 plate appearances at the age of 24. Get dressed and play. Pound out those 53 home runs and 120 RBI.
That looked like a power line from a 24-year-old Mickey Mantle in 1956 with 52 home runs, 130 RBI in 150 games and 652 plate appearances for the Yankees; or a year earlier when 24-year-old Willie Mays played 152 games for the New York Giants with 670 plate appearances as he totaled 51 home runs and 127 RBI. Or even in 1966 when a 30-year-old Frank Robinson played 155 games for his new team the Baltimore Orioles in the American League (after coming over from the Reds) and clubbed 49 home runs while driving in 122 runs in 680 plate appearances.
No advanced analytics are needed to spot greatness in those numbers.
Warning: In no way am I saying Alonso will have the same type of career as those Hall of Famers but the numbers he put up last year were legendary.
Now he gets another chance, another at-bat.
Alonso is so old school he would love to go back in time to talk hitting with Ted Williams. “Ted would be great to talk to,’’ he told me. “For a guy to go fight in a war, fly planes, and come back and hit well over .300, just be a dude, that’s pretty darn impressive, mind-boggling.’’
Williams was a lifetime .344 hitter and batted .406 in 1941.
As for 2020, this Covid Season is a much different year, of course, with only 60 games (at best) and a sprint to October. Alonso’s over/under for home runs is 18.5, according to www.BetOnline.ag.
Alonso’s Mets will be fascinating to watch this season – with Jake deGrom going for his third straight Cy Young Award, even if this one will have an asterisk next to it, and if Yoenis Cespedes can be healthy, adding that power bat to a lineup that includes Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto will unquestionably make for a fearsome lineup.
Alonso has never been in the same lineup as Cespedes and he can’t wait.
“Seeing what he can do to a baseball and how he can just pulverize and absolutely send a ball over the fence, all fields, he’s such a dynamic hitter,” Alonso said of Cespedes. “He can hit for power and he can hit for average. That’s a helluva bat to have in the lineup. That’s advantage us.”
There also is the under the radar bat of J.D. Davis, who is essentially a mini-me version of Alonso. Let Pete explain.
“J.D. is just an incredible worker,” Alonso said. “He is a great teammate and his attitude is infectious, it’s a great attitude and if you combine those things together that is conducive to having a good season. I know he was flying under the radar in Houston. When he came here, he earned his way into the lineup on a consistent basis and he capitalized on his opportunity. Kudos to him. He’s always in the video room, always studying opponents. That man creates his own scouting reports. And also, the man can hit. I think he is poised for another hell of a year.”
Alonso creates his own scouting reports as well and as he first told me in the spring of 2019, he keeps a grade school composition notebook on opposing pitchers. Old school style.
The extra work is not surprising. When Alonso was at the University of Florida, former assistant coach Brad Weitzel gave Alonso smart advice about getting as much information as possible and keeping your own book on opponents. Noted Alonso: “He used to say all the time: ‘You got to give yourself a chance to get a chance.’
“I’ve always found it helps to write things down,” Alonso said. “It’s all baseball and mentality stuff. I want to stay as consistent as possible and if something goes wrong, I can go through a checklist and say, ‘Okay, am I doing this? Yes, check. Am I doing this? Ahh, maybe.’ Then I will watch video to make adjustments. You have to go numb when you are at the plate. You can’t be thinking in the box because if you are thinking in the box the ball is going to be in the catcher’s mitt before you finish your thought.”
Do your homework.
Have a plan.
Be relaxed at the plate.