POLAR EXPRESS: The Mets' Pete Alonso Rewrites the Record Book with a Rookie Season Like No Other.
Alonso and his pal, Jeff McNeil, were going at it from the opposite ends of a ping-pong table on this September afternoon in New York. They would soon be heading out to center field at Citi Field to strike a pose with the rest of the Mets for the 2019 team photo. Hence the full uniform.
The clubhouse game soon came to its conclusion. Alonso won.
"But he'll talk smack to me, saying it's like, 'Oh, we had to go for the team picture so it doesn't count,'" Alonso said, having exchanged his No. 20 jersey for a blue Mets T-shirt and now sitting by the entryway to the clubhouse after the photo session. "It's almost like a brotherly competitiveness."
Alonso's competitiveness on the field showed throughout his debut season. So did his immense power. Mets fans were hoping he would become the next big thing after tying for the minor-league high with 36 homers and leading with 119 RBIs in 2018. But he turned out to be bigger than the next big thing.
After making the Mets out of spring training, the right-handed-hitting first baseman experienced everything that can happen at the intersection of physical ability and intense preparation.
That translated into ball after ball soaring into the day or night. Alonso became the first rookie in a modern era that dates to 1900 to claim the majors' outright home-run title and the Mets' first-ever major-league home-run champ in their 58th season. He broke Aaron Judge's MLB rookie record of 52 homers, sending up 53 among his Mets-record 85 extra-base hits. Those went with 120 RBIs--second to Albert Pujols among rookies in National League history--and a .260 batting average.
Alonso beat Carlos Santana, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in Cleveland to join Judge as the only rookie winners of the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby, then donated $100,000 of his $1-million prize to Wounded Warrior Project and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. The next night, Alonso delivered a two-run single in the All-Star Game.
He led major-league rookies in nine major offensive categories and shattered a lengthy list of Mets rookie and overall records, along with some MLB and league records. It was one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. So it's little wonder why he is unanimously Baseball Digest/eBay's National League Rookie of the Year. He also received 29 of 30 first-place votes for NL rookie honors in BBWAA balloting.
"It's all the hard work," Alonso said. "All that's justified. For my entire life, I've wanted nothing more than to be a baseball player. This is all I've ever wanted to do in my life. I told myself from a very young age that I'm going to be a baseball player and I'm going to do anything I possibly can to do that.
"For me, I'm really blessed with being strong and having really good hand-eye coordination. With that strong building base, if you're given a gift, if you're given an ability and you don't work and try to maximize it and hone it into a skill, I think then it's just kind of a waste."
"I'm just really driven," he added. "I'm just extremely competitive. I just want to win. I feel like it doesn't matter what sport or what field of work someone's in, but if they have the drive and the perseverance and dedication, it's not necessarily the product of what happens in the lights. It's about all the prep work that I've done pretty much in the shadows, so to speak."
So he began his workday five hours in advance for this night game, as usual. Besides the typical batting and fielding practice, he studies a lot of video, looking at the starter and the relievers, looking for an edge.
"His prep for a rookie is top notch," Mets third baseman Todd Frazier said. "He talks in the meetings like he's been a pro for seven, eight years. He understands what he's supposed to do already. It's a little bit of raw talent and doing your homework."
Frazier was in the clubhouse one day during spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He took a look over at Alonso, who happened to be stretching his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame.
"Dude, you look like a polar bear right now," Frazier said to him.
A nickname was born. The "Polar Bear," who grew up in Tampa, was on his way to becoming a breakout star.
So what's it like to walk the streets of Manhattan where Alonso lives during the season, and dine in its restaurants as one of its famous new residents?
Kind of nice.
"Being here, it's awesome," Alonso said. "For the most part, everyone's been extremely respectful. They've shown their support. Let's say me and my fiancee (Haley Walsh) are out to eat somewhere. A waiter or waitress that will be waiting on our table will say, I'm a huge Yankee fan, but, God, I love what you're doing. I love the way you're going about it.' For me, that's extremely rewarding."
When he speaks of Haley--he called her "an angel" for being his behind-the-scenes support system--his parents, Pete and Michelle, or just meeting a random star-struck child, there's a special passion in his voice.
"Let's say I see a kid," Alonso said, "and they say, 'You're my hero. I want to grow up to be like you.' I remember when I was a kid, I had those guys I looked up to my entire life."
"The first word out of his mouth that he said was 'ball,'" said his dad, an executive business consultant.
Father and son began playing out in the driveway early on, the father pitching with a Wiffle ball. He has the video. Little Pete is a year and 10 months. The future major leaguer connects one-handed to the right side and then happily flips his plastic bat over his head.
The father would do more throwing to the son over the years. A few times, when Dad had to travel for work, Mom would stand in and throw batting practice to their Little Leaguer.
"Our joke of the family was: 'If you can hit your mom's junk, you can hit anything,'" Dad said.
Alonso appreciates both of their efforts along the way.
"My parents have sacrificed so much time to help me facilitate my dream, and I'm forever grateful for that," he said.
He didn't just want to take on the challenge of hitting. He wanted one in the classroom, too. His parents also wanted that for him. That's why he transferred after two years from Jesuit High to Plant High.
"I was a really good student," said Alonso, who made the change after Jesuit wouldn't let him take advanced classes. So he moved on and took an Advanced Placement and Honors curriculum. "I think I had a 4.2 GPA at the end of my high school (time), and I had 12 college credits going into school. A lot of people were scratching their head at (transferring), but I knew it was the best move for me and I didn't look back."
His next school/team was the University of Florida. Freshman year, he took a course that required a paper on how he would define a good life for himself. He mentioned becoming a major-league player. He didn't get a good grade. The professor didn't see it as an attainable goal.
"I didn't think anything of it because it was like a 500-person class," Alonso said. "The professor most likely didn't know my name."
But Alonso excelled during three years there. His steel will to win showed after his left hand was fractured by an errant pitch during his All-America junior year, when he batted .374. Alonso returned almost four weeks later for the NCAA Gainesville Regional.
The hand was still not right. The draft was coming. But Alonso wanted to help the Gators advance to the Super Regionals and make the College World Series for the second straight year. They did. He was named the regional's most outstanding player, going 8-for-13 with three homers and eight RBIs in three games.
"I mean, I was willing to risk personal health," Alonso said, "I was willing to risk money in the draft. I was willing to risk pretty much my entire livelihood. Every swing hurt, but I just wanted to compete because I knew if I wasn't in that lineup, we wouldn't have as good a chance to win."
Then baseball became his job. The Mets made him a second-round pick in 2016, 64th overall. In 2018, he was disappointed when they didn't make him a September call-up. Skip ahead to this past March. New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen didn't send Alonso down for a few weeks at the end of spring training in order to gain another year of control.
He earned the right to start at the beginning. At the end, he was the first rookie in major-league history to hit at least 50 homers and 30 doubles.
Records kept tumbling all around Alonso.
Cody Bellinger had owned the NL rookie homer record with 39 for the Dodgers in 2017. Judge had set the AL and overall rookie homer record in 2017 as well.
Alonso stood even with Judge heading into the penultimate game of the season, September 28 at Citi Field. Mike Foltynewicz was pitching for Atlanta with two outs and no one on and the Mets up 2-0 in the third.
The count went to 2-1 on Alonso. Then there was a swing and a drive. The ball headed high and veered a bit toward right-center. Alonso started walking toward first, watching flight No. 53.
The soundtrack of thunderous cheers and the theme from The Natural became mixed in the night air. Teammates emerged from the dugout to hug him. Alonso raised his arms toward the crowd, sheer happiness etched across his face. When he returned to man first the following inning, tears filled his eyes.
"To be a part of Major League Baseball history, to be No. 1 out of every single guy that played the game, it's humbling and it's just a ridiculously awesome feeling," Alonso said after the game. "I mean, that moment was just pure magic."
He had smashed the Mets' overall single-season homer record of 41, shared by Carlos Beltran and Todd Hundley, in late August. The franchise's single-season rookie RBI record of 74, belonging to Darryl Strawberry, had long been obliterated.
Alonso set another impressive Mets rookie record when he reached safely in 34 straight games. That also set the team's overall single-season mark.
He also countered his defensive reputation throughout the season, posting a .990 fielding percentage after pouring sweat into improving.
The Mets let manager Mickey Callaway go after the season, but he sure appreciated having Alonso on his side.
"There's got to be some anxiety when the pitcher is having to face Pete," Callaway said following one of Alonso's four two-homer games. "He's just a great hitter."
Alonso left positive impressions in the other dugouts, too.
"He's special, man," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "He's a fun player. Good joy to him, youthful enthusiasm."
Callaway said that Alonso was "all about the team." He helped this team make a run at drawing a wild card after it fell 11 games below .500 on July 12. The Mets finished 10 games over at 86-76, although the run came up short. Callaway said Alonso carried them "for most of the season."
"He's our guy," Callaway said. "He's what makes us tick. He's our energy drink."
His leadership ability was apparent, whether it was being accountable at his locker or taking charge like a captain would. A September 11 home game against Arizona stood out. The Mets all wore custom cleats to honor first responders as well as victims and their families on the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Alonso, making the major-league minimum of $555,000, decided to have the cleats made. He organized the process and footed the bill. He didn't ask for MLB's approval after it rejected his request for the Mets to wear caps to honor first responders. He just wanted to give back and do what he felt was right. He ultimately donated his cleats and a bat to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
"I don't just want to be known as a good baseball player," he told reporters after that game. "Hopefully, I want to be known as a good person, too."
The effort brought praise for how Alonso was raised.
"He feels very strong about helping the people and supporting the people that save lives around us," his dad said. "That doesn't surprise me at all. I've seen him do things like that in the past at a smaller scale, of course.
"There was the time where he had a teammate in the low minors that was still wearing his college cleats from two years prior, and (Pete) slipped a pair of cleats in his locker. Didn't really tell him it came from him."
He remembers Pete volunteering in the kitchen at the Boys and Girls Club and handing out food to the needy around the holidays during his youth in Tampa.
"If Pete sees something around him that he can make an impact and make better, then he does that," the elder Alonso said. "That's just kind of a philosophy that we have as a family. ... The need to do the right thing, that's our family values. That's just how we roll.... He's very focused, but he has a very big and light heart."
Alonso also invented a new Mets tradition: Deliver the walk-off RBI and get your jersey torn off right there on the field.
"The sky's the limit," Frazier said of Alonso's future with the Mets. "He's going to be the top dog. Everybody's going to look up to him because he's a guy who's going to lead this team in the near future. His presence, his attitude and the way he goes about playing the game, it's right where it needs to be."
Alonso turned 25 on December 7. He would love to spend his whole career in New York and always have his name associated with the Mets.
"I want to play until I'm 40," Alonso said. "At that point, the legacy I want is I just want to be the best I possibly can every single day. This is way, way, way down the road, but I want to leave this franchise better than what it was when I came in."
By Brian Heyman
Brian Heyman is an award-winning sports-writer based in New York City. He was an All-Star baseball player when he was 12 before turning to pursue a life in sports media. He has been covering Major League Baseball since the late 1980s.