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.

The Washington bury-go-round

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Five

In his potentially final appearance as an Astro, Gerrit Cole pitched a Game Five masterpiece.

Hours before Game Five, the World Series weight on Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s shoulders went from that of the world to that of the universe. Scheduled starting pitcher Max Scherzer’s Saturday night neck spasms turned into a Sunday wakeup with his neck locked so tight he couldn’t lift his right arm and needed his wife’s help just to wash and dress.

Putting the Game Five fate of the Nats into the hands of Joe Ross. Who pitched a gutsy turn ruined only by a pair of two-run homers en route a 7-1 Astro win. On yet a third straight night in Washington that suggested the Nats left their offense behind in Houston after Games One and Two.

Hadn’t they manhandled Gerrit Cole in Game One? Hadn’t they out-scored the Astros 17-7 in Houston? That was then, this was Sunday night, and the Nats’ futility at the plate since the Series moved to Washington remained chronic enough to consider fitting them with GPSs to find their directions home when they did get men on in Game Five.

Now three games worth of the Astros outscoring the Nats 19-3 in Nationals Park suggests this World Series still has a chance of being only the second Series ever in which no home team wins a single game. Maybe an outside chance, but a chance nevertheless.

Ross brought the house down just walking out of the dugout for a pre-game round of stretches and limberings-up in the outfield. He sent it nuclear when he shook off George Springer’s leadoff walk to lure Jose Altuve into dialing Area Code 6-4-3 in the top of the first.

But after Yuli Gurriel bounced one high off Ross’s own glove for an infield hit leading off the second, Ross couldn’t stop Yordan Alvarez—getting his first start in the Washington leg after sitting two out due to the lack of designated hitter in the National League park—from hitting a 2-1 pitch almost into the middle of the left center field seats.

It was something Alvarez only waited for all Series long. “All my teammates were saying: ‘Today’s your day. Today’s your day’, ” he told reporters after Game Five. “And it happened.” Nobody ever accused his teammates of being dummies.

And in the fourth, with Alvarez aboard on a two-out single, home plate umpire Lance Barksdale called ball on what should have been strike three, outside corner, side retired with Carlos Correa at the plate. Two fouls and a wild pitch later, Correa hammered one into the left field seats.

Barksdale has a reputation as one of the better plate umpires in the business, but on Sunday night he called enough balls strikes and enough strikes balls against both the Nats and the Astros that calls began ringing out of the park and aboard Twitter for everything short of a federal investigation.

Postgame, the calls began ringing forth all over the Web to get the robots perfected, calibrated, and into service as soon as feasible. Who knows whether the Astros will get jobbed on critical calls in Houston? Who wants to take that chance too much longer?

“Just because the game itself is full of errors shouldn’t give leeway to its arbiters to be judged by that standard,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “Baseball is an extraordinarily fast game—so fast that umpires should have assistance. Technology has made their jobs even more difficult, exposing them when they miss a call and airing their conversations about those missed calls. Automated balls and strikes are their savior, not their enemy.”

With Donald Trump himself in the ballpark watching the game, it was tough to miss the irony when fans began chanting, “Lock him up! Lock him up!” in the bottom of the seventh. Not at President Tweety but at Barksdale.

Juan Soto, the Nats’ young star who’d found the home leg of the Series as trying as he’d found Game One a personal party in Houston, caught hold of enough of a 2-2 Cole service with one out to launch it just past a leaping Jake Marisnick’s reach and over the center field fence in the bottom of the seventh. A ground out later, Ryan Zimmerman worked a walk on a ball four that looked like it should have been an inning-ending strike.

Up stepped Victor Robles, heretofore one of the Nats most prominently seen in Washington with an invisible bat. In a Series full of full counts as it was, Cole and Robles wrestled to yet another full count with Anthony Rendon on deck. Then Cole threw Robles a nasty looking slider. The ball clearly crossed out of the zone off the low outside corner. Barksdale decided ball four was strike three, side retired.

If you were watching the game on television you could hear an extremely audible, “Come on, Lance! It’s the World Series! Wake up!” That was a miked Martinez. Even Astro fans in the stands—and there were many, including one wearing a Nolan Ryan jersey from his tour with the 1980s Astros, when their jerseys looked like striped orange-shaded pajama tops more than baseball uniforms—joined the calls to lock him up.

There wasn’t a Nat in the house who’d accuse Barksdale of costing them Game Five; Cole especially, but with just a little help from his friends Joe Smith and Ryan Pressley in the final two innings, did a splendid enough job of that. The third highest-scoring team in the Show on the regular season looked so lost at the plate in Game Five, with or without men on, that the GPS couldn’t help.

“Lance didn’t lose us the game tonight,” Zimmerman said. “Gerrit Cole beat us.”

The Nats’ bullpen did a splendid job of holding the fort after Martinez decided Ross had had it for the night. In a slightly surprising move, after Tanner Rainey all but zipped through the sixth with three fly outs, Martinez reached for Sean Doolittle, one of his only two reliable back-of-the-game men, for the seventh. And Doolittle coaxed Correa into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 after a leadoff single before shaking off a walk to get the side without damage.

Then Martinez decided Daniel Hudson was good to go for a second inning’s work after Springer’s leadoff double led to taking third on a ground out, an intentional walk to Michael Brantley, and Gurriel punching him home with a single through the right side of the infield. Despite having Wander Suero warm and ready.

A four-run deficit is still manageable after seven and a half. Except that the Nats once again couldn’t do anything with a man on base, this time Yan Gomes leading the bottom of the eighth off with a single. But it’s still manageable in the ninth. Until Martinez sent Hudson back out for the top of that inning.

And after a one-out single and a swinging strikeout, Hudson threw Springer a fastball with plenty of speed but no movement down the middle of the plate. Springer practically had no choice but to send it into the left field seats. Leaving even gimpy-kneed Astro reliever Ryan Pressly to put the Nats out of their miseries in order in the bottom of the ninth.

Forget the home run for a moment. The Nats would surely need Hudson in Games Six and (if the Series gets there) Seven. Suero took over after Springer’s launch and coaxed Altuve into an inning-ending lineout on a measly two pitches. They’d better hope they find their bats in Houston and make Hudson unneeded too soon in Game Six even with Monday’s travel day.

For Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who’s one of the more thoughtful men in his job today, it was simply a question of keeping his and his players’ wits about them no matter how badly they’d been bopped until they dropped in Houston last week.

“We feel like we’re in every game,” Hinch said. “We’ve had games where we’ve come from behind. We’ve had games where we’ve stretched the lead. We’ve had games like today where we just methodically kept going with big swings and we look up and we have a comfortable win.

“We took a pretty heavy punch in the gut when it came to the first two games,” he continued. “The Nats came out hot . . . And when you take a step back, and you’re like, ‘We’re still in the World Series and it’s still a race to four wins.’ You win that first win.” And the second. And the third.

It’s even easier when you have an Altuve hitting .360 in the Series and still threatening to break Darin Erstad’s record for hits in a single postseason. And, when you have Brantley hitting .400. And, when you have super-rook Alvarez and cagey veteran Springer re-discovering their previously missing batting strokes.

And, when you have a Cole—in what was his final performance as an Astro, potentially—who tightens up his case for the largest free-agency contract for a pitcher in the game’s history yet with a masterpiece of a Sunday night soiree.

But it still ain’t that easy, Clyde. “When we won in 2017, and then didn’t win last year, you remember how it feels,” Springer told The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark. “You remember the goodness that comes. The fun. The honor. To celebrate with your teammates and your friends and all that stuff. Once you get a taste of that, you never want it to go away.”

The Astros yanked themselves back to within a game of their second such taste in three years on Sunday night. And there went Martinez’s likely pre-Game Five hope that Ross and/or someone else could or would prove as surprise a World Series hero as had such previous until-then obscurities as Howard Ehmke (1929), Johnny Podres (1955), Don Larsen (1956), and Moe Drabowsky (1966).

No Series record-setting strikeout performance for Ross, as the end-of-the-line Ehmke did in Game One of the 1929 Series for the Philadelphia Athletics. No shutout heroics, as Podres, the number four man in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ rotation, did in Game Seven of the 1955 Series. Don’t even think about a perfect game such as Larsen delivered for the Yankees in Game Five, 1956.

And don’t even think about a Nat reliever, any Nat reliever, delivering what Drabowsky—until that point a veteran relief rat and superior prankster—delivered for the Orioles in relief of Dave McNally: eleven strikeouts, including striking out the side back-to-back in the fourth and fifth innings, in Game One, 1966.

Martinez wasn’t destined to be that fortunate. But now a World Series that went into Game Five at Defcon Three, before Scherzer’s literal pain in the neck bumped it up to Defcon Two-Five, goes to Houston with the Nats at straight Defcon Two. Even with Strasburg, taking a lifetime 1.34 postseason ERA into Game Six, starting the first of two potential elimination games.

As always, history doesn’t always favour one or the other going to Game Six. Ten teams have lost the first two World Series games before winning the next three, and three—the Cardinals (1987), the Braves (1991), and the Yankees (2001)—lost those Series, anyway. The Cardinals’ loss remains unique in World Series lore: every game won by the home team.

But so far so does this Series: it’s only the third time the road team has won the first five games. It last happened in the 1996 Series that the Yankees eventually won in Game Six, when the set moved back to New York. Now, for the fun part, or at least the part the Nats hope to make fun: they’d like to be the first to win a World Series entirely on the road.

The real road. The 1906 Series between the 116 game-winning Cubs and the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox was not only one of the greatest Series upsets of all time, the White Sox winning in six, but almost every game in that Series was won by the visiting team. (The White Sox won Game Six at home.) But let’s be real: it’s not as though the White Sox had to jump anything traveling farther than a crosstown trolley car to get from one ballpark to the other.

So if the Nats find a way to pillage and plunder the Astros in Games Six and Seven the way they did in Games One and Two, they’ll become the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the bona fide road, with miles and miles between Nationals Park and Minute Maid Field. It ain’t just a trolley hop, kiddies.

But if Strasburg proves too human and the Nats don’t find the bats they left behind on Tuesday night, forget the trolley hop. They’ll go home for the winter in hearses.