A principled Peter

2019-11-12 PeteAlonso
Pete Alonso hit one for the record book on 28 September, but the NL Rookie of the Year struck a bigger blow for respect on the 9/11 anniversary.

It’s not that Pete Alonso didn’t have the kind of season that deserved the honour. But sometimes baseball award voters are human enough to pick a winner based on something equal to and maybe a little better than his performance—even performance that would blast in neon, as Alonso’s did this year.

Voting Alonso the National League’s Rookie of the Year, they may have thought both.

Alonso’s season performance by itself would have been enough to nail him the award, even if you can make the case that Braves pitcher Mike Soroka—who got the one first place vote Alonso didn’t get—had at least an equivalent season on the mound.

Breaking the rookie season home run record (with a major league-leading 53), creating 126 runs and using only three outs a run to do it, and producing 220 (100 scored, 120 driven in) runs on the season, gets you attention in a big enough hurry. So do three out of a possible six National League Rookie of the Month awards, which Alonso won in April, June, and September.

So does helping put the game back into the game with your enthusiasm, on a team that needed it in the worst way possible this side of the world champion Nationals. The Mets lacked for sharks, baby and otherwise, but thanks to Alonso they became abundant in jersey stripping on game-ending, game-winning hits during their surprising post-All Star break run.

So does a shameless and welcome display of emotion such as Alonso—who’d made the Mets out of spring training on a non-roster invitation—showed when he nailed Soroka’s rotation mate Mike Foltynewicz on the next to last regular season night in New York for the record, then couldn’t hide the tears when he returned to first base.

But so does finding the way to elude baseball government’s edict against special haberdashery commemorating the 9/11 atrocity, as Alonso did for that very anniversary. The Mets and a few other teams wanted to wear such hats; baseball government said no, stick with the official commemorative patches on the sides of the uniform hats.

Alonso said not so fast.

Telling no one but his fellow Mets what he was up to, Alonso gathered up the shoe sizes of his teammates, manager, and coaches, then arranged for special commemorative cleats to be made for the game by Adidas, New Balance, and other top athletic shoemakers. It isn’t every major league rookie who delivers the kind of audacity that ennobles his team and his game.

2019-09-13 Mets911Shoes
The shoes that put the Mets’ best feet forward on 9/11.

The cleats featured American flag striping, the initials of first responder agencies, a small image of New York firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero, and a silhouette of the Twin Towers. Making the major league rookie salary of $550,000 for the season, not to mention winning $1 million as this year’s Home Run Derby champion at the All Star break, Alonso paid for every pair of the special cleats himself.

“For me, this season has been an absolute fantasy. I just want to give back. I want to help,” said Alonso, a Florida first grader when the atrocity happened. “I don’t just want to be known as a good baseball player, I want to be known as a good person, too. And I just want to really recognize what this day is about. I don’t want it to be a holiday. I want it to be a day of remembrance of everything that happened. It was an awful day.”

He hatched his podiatric plot well in advance of the 9/11 anniversary, and it’s not exactly impossible that the Mets being so unified as a team on the matter might have kept baseball’s customarily capricious official leadership from sanctioning the team.

It probably didn’t hurt, either, that a little favour fell upon the Mets from the Elysian Field gods that night. Their surprising bolt out of the post All-Star gate could only get them to within three games of the National League’s second wild card, proving that even the subordinate gods work must work within a budget, but they could at least spend a little extra on the 9/11 anniversary itself.

Thus did the Mets, wearing Alonso’s subversive commemorative cleats, shut the Diamondbacks out on . . . nine runs and eleven hits, including six home runs, two (Todd Frazier, Brandon Nimmo) back-to-back in the Mets’ five-run first, and with Frazier and Jeff McNeil each hitting a pair of them before the carnage was finished.

The following night, the Mets again nailed eleven hits off the momentarily hapless Diamondbacks, but this time they were good for eleven runs, the big blow the first of Juan Lagares’s pair of blasts, in the bottom of the third. The center fielder checked in with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Mets up 1-0 on an unearned run, then hit a full count service from Alex Young into the left field seats.

And any threats of fines or disciplinary measures against Alonso or the Mets over the commemorative shoes went unfulfilled.

Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ phenom bombardier, was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year unanimously, beating out Orioles pitcher John Means, Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez, and Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio—the son of Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.

By arriving in a June callup after decimating the two highest minor league levels, Alvarez has the second-shortest Rookie of the Year season behind Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. And, as Alonso did in the National League, Alvarez won a trio of American League Rookie of the Month prizes. (June, July, August.)

He premiered by teeing off against another Oriole pitcher, Dylan Bundy. He went on to tie the rookie record for the most home runs in 100 games or fewer, hit righthanders and lefthanders with equal deadly force, and followed an almost invisible American League Championship Series by hitting .412 with one bomb in the Astros’ seven-game World Series loss.

The third Rookie of the Year in Astro history—Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell won the award in 1991; Carlos Correa (2015) became the first Astro to win it after they were moved into the American League—Alvarez is Alonso’s near-opposite, the strong, silent type. He shares Alonso’s essential humility, but you’re not likely to see him shred the jersey away of any Astro nailing a game-ending hit. Yet.

“He’s a quiet man by nature,” says his manager A.J. Hinch, “and his demeanor is very low key. But he’s always in tune with other players and other people and the information.”

Alonso is the Mets’ sixth Rookie of the Year, following Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (1967), Jon Matlack (1972), Darryl Strawberry (1983), Dwight Gooden (1984), and Jacob deGrom (2014), and only the second Mets position player (after Strawberry) to win the prize. His race for the prize might have been a lot closer, maybe even lost by a hair, if the Padres’ phenom Fernando Tatis, Jr. hadn’t been held to 84 games thanks to the injured list.

Interesting synergy. This year’s Rookies of the Year belong to a pair of teams born from the same expansion draft, for 1962. Neither of whom could possibly have imagined the day to come when one would be the team to be named later when a third expansion team, the Brewers, would be traded to the National League.

But Alonso played all but one game in 2019. And it took the Mets’ often-criticised general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, a former players’ agent, to convince the club to take Alonso north with them when spring training ended, rather than do as too many other clubs have done with promising youth and bury him one more year in the minors for the sake of extended team control.

Unlike in days of Mets future past, there’s a realistic chance that they might be able to lock Alonso down on a longer-term commitment when his first free agency comes within not-so-distant sight. They’ll be freed of major commitments to too-oft-injured Yoenis Cespedes (in danger of missing all of 2020 as well off multiple-ankle and knee surgery) and aging Robinson Cano well enough when that day arrives.

Assuming Van Vagenen makes no more trades that involve importing still-onerous contracts, such as the deal that landed Cano in the first place, the Mets would be able to keep Alonso in the blue and orange for a long enough time to come. Assuming Alonso continues the kind of performance he showed exponentially in 2019, it would be manna for a franchise that often forces its fans to dine on quail.

And in this case we’re not talking strictly about Alonso’s performances at the plate or at first base, where he shook away the periodic hiccup to establish himself as more than capable afield. Whether Alonso proves the equal of Mets legend Keith Hernandez, who revolutionised the position by making it one of infield leadership as well as fielding virtuosity, remains to be seen, but he showed the potential for either or both.

He showed more than the right stuff in uniform. First, he sent a tenth of his Home Run Derby prize money to a pair of 9/11-inspired charities, the Wounded Warriors project (which aids post-9/11 military wounded) and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for the firefighter who lost his life on 9/11 trying to save lives in the World Trade Center.

Then, he plotted and executed his end-run around official baseball’s official strictures against any 9/11 commemorative gear above and beyond the hat patches. The gesture couldn’t possibly restore the lives lost in the atrocity but they could and did at least indicate to the city battered by it almost two decades earlier that someone playing baseball in a New York uniform understood that baseball’s transcendence sometimes has to wait its turn behind spiritual transcendence.

It wasn’t given to Alonso to electrify the Citi Field audience this 9/11 the way Hall of Famer Mike Piazza did in the Mets’ first game back in the late Shea Stadium after the original atrocity. When Piazza swung on 0-1 against Braves pitcher Steve Karsay with pinch runner Desi Relaford aboard in the bottom of the eighth and hit it far enough over the center field fence to ricochet off a television camera posted on a scaffold. And, prove the game winner for the Mets.

With his family and his fiancee in the house, Alonso had to settle for sending Foltynewicz’s 2-1 service over the center field fence in the bottom of the third on 28 September, pushing him past Aaron Judge as the single-season rookie home run champion and bringing the Citi Field crowd to its feet not just because of the blast itself but because he couldn’t keep his emotions from overflowing in its immediate wake.

With the memory of his 9/11 commemorative subterfuge likely still fresh, the crowd refused to turn off the love as Cano flied out to deep center for the side and the Mets re-took the field. And Alonso stationed at first base finally couldn’t contain himself, lowering his head and crying shamelessly, the magnitude of his accomplishment overwhelming him in disbelief.

It was the perfect night for nice guys to defy Leo Durocher. While Alonso swung his way into the record book, on the opposite coast the Astros’ Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander threw his way into it.

Verlander struck out the Angels’ right fielder Kole Calhoun in the bottom of the fourth for career strikeout number 3,000, and struck Calhoun out again in the bottom of the sixth for season strikeout number 300. Lifting a page from the late Ernie Broglio, Calhoun can say at least that he played with a couple of Hall of Famers and helped put at least one pitcher there.

Unlike Alonso, alas, Verlander’s entry into history came with a p.s. The fourth-inning strikeout went for a wild pitch, enabling Calhoun to first base, where Calhoun stayed only long enough for the next Angel batter, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, to hit one into the left field bullpens. It didn’t stop the Astros from winning the game, but sometimes you just can’t slip further into the books without one misstep.

Verlander’s a very well seasoned veteran and Alonso is a freshly-initiated kid with, hopefully, a long enough career ahead of him. Maybe, if the Mets don’t relapse and see the core of Alonso, deGrom (still young at 31), McNeil, Nimmo, Michael Conforto, J.D. Davis, Seth Lugo, and Amed Rosario as a young enough core to build around and not fool around with, including a postseason or three.

Maybe even a postseason taking the Mets to face the Astros in a World Series. Maybe. If astronauts first walked the moon when the Mets won their first Series at the tender age of eight, and the Nationals could win this year’s World Series entirely on the road, it reminds you of one of baseball’s truly unimpeachable laws: Anything can happen—and usually does. So who’s to say?

Alonso’s uniform number—20—is deemed by Bible scholars to indicate the perfect waiting period, and by numerologists to indicate infinite potential in relationships and diplomacy. Of course. He fell into the perfect waiting period to make his Show debut this season—no waiting, right out of spring training—and, proving that good things indeed come to those who wait, to break Judge’s rookie home run record on the next-to-last day.

His potential on and off the field appears infinite enough. For now you get the parallel pleasure of seeing that not only does the right player swing for the record book, and play to earn a major award, but every so often he proves to be the right man for both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s