John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
If there was a moment that perfectly summed up Pete Alonso's momentous season, one that was capped off Monday with the announcement of his National League Rookie of the Year Award, I would argue that it wasn't one of his record-breaking 53 home runs, eye-popping as some of them were.
Instead I'd say it was his bases-loaded walk, of all things, in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 6 that forced home the game-winning run against the Phillies -- largely because it left him doing TV interviews on SNY and then MLB Network shirtless, after his jersey was ripped off him by teammates in celebration.
Yes, there he was, in all his bare-chested glory on a chilly night in New York, when MLB Network host Greg Amsinger lightheartedly asked the Mets' first baseman if he needed a blanket.
"No, I'm good," Alonso said with a smile. "I'm a polar bear."
And with that Amsinger, Harold Reynolds, and Dan Plesac howled in laughter from the MLB Network studio, instantly charmed by the Mets' slugger in the same way that so much of New York was over the course of the 2019 season.
Indeed, it was Alonso's likeability that made him practically a folk hero, in addition to the MLB home run champ, by season's end. Whether it was pledging a percentage of his winnings from the Home Run Derby to the Wounded Warrior Project or having special cleats made for all the Mets to wear at Citi Field on 9/11, the rookie oozed authenticity in a way that seemed as special as his prodigious power.
The more you saw and heard from him, in fact, the more obvious it became there was nothing phony about Alonso. If anything, there was something of a goofy earnestness to him that made him popular with teammates, even with the constant media attention he received, and allowed him -- and a few others -- to create a new, fun, let's-do-this vibe in the Mets' clubhouse.
As such it already seems inevitable that Alonso eventually will succeed David Wright as the next captain of the Mets. Toward that end, Carlos Beltran, on his first day as the new manager, all but put the "C" on his uniform.
"He's such a humble guy," Beltran said. "I want to empower Alonso to become a leader on our ballclub, in our clubhouse."
Suffice it to say it has been quite a year for Alonso, one made a little more special by Monday's announcement, as he joined some elite company in becoming the sixth Mets' player to earn Rookie of the Year honors, following Tom Seaver in 1967, Jon Matlack in '72, Darryl Strawberry in '83, Dwight Gooden in '84, and Jacob deGrom in 2014.
Alonso was the frontrunner from the start, earning NL Player of the Month honors in April, and he pretty much went wire-to-wire, finishing strong in September to set the single-season rookie home run record with his total of 53, one more than Aaron Judge hit in 2017.
Along the way he obliterated the Mets' rookie record of 26, set by Strawberry, as well as the club's single-season record of 41, set by Todd Hundley in 1996 and tied by Beltran in 2006.
And though it should be pointed out that a record number of home runs were hit in the majors this season, seemingly because the ball was juiced, it doesn't diminish Alonso's accomplishment, considering that nobody else even hit 50 this season -- the Reds' Eugenio Suarez finished second with 49.
But if you watched Alonso do his thing this season, you know it wasn't only the number of home runs that was impressive. It was how he hit them, showing off his astonishing power, either with lasers that left the ballpark in the blink of an eye or towering moon shots that were practically the definition of majestic.
The longest home run he hit was 474 feet, according to MLB Statcast, a ball he hit way into the upper deck in Target Field against the Twins on July 17 and seemed to take forever to finally land.
The most memorable for me, however, was the line drive he hit just a couple of weeks into the season, on April 11 in Atlanta, that kept going and going and finally landed in the water fountain in center field.
Statcast calculated that one at 454 feet, but most impressive was how hard Alonso hit that ball. The exit velocity of 118.3 mph tied him with Gary Sanchez and Aristides Aquino for the highest of any home run hit in 2019.
It created quite a buzz, to say the least. Bobby Valentine compared him to Mike Piazza, telling me that Alonso's laser "reminded me of the most incredible home run I ever saw Mike hit, way up in the second deck in center field of the Astrodome. Their ball comes off the bat in very similar fashion."
Soon Mark DeRosa was doing a breakdown on MLB Network comparing Alonso in style to Mark McGwire, noting there was nothing fluky about the Mets' rookie's early success because of how well he used the entire field rather than trying to pull everything.
And there was another factor at play: More than a bomber, Alonso was a thinking man's hitter who took notes on his at-bats and went to the plate with a plan. On May 4 in Milwaukee, for example, he hit a first-pitch curve ball to right field off Junior Guerra for a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth, leaving a scout I talked to utterly impressed.
"You see that and you're thinking, 'what's he doing sitting on a first-pitch curve ball there?'" the scout said. "But Guerra had pitched the eighth inning and started three hitters off with curve balls, so Alonso went up there looking for one and he got it. That's pretty savvy for a young hitter."
The praise kept coming as Alonso kept hitting, all the more so when he proved he could fight his way through slumps and make his own adjustments to the adjustments pitchers made trying to find a weakness in his game.
Finally, even when he badly wanted the record 53rd home run, Alonso got it with a shot just right of center field at Citi Field off Braves righthander Mike Foltynewicz, one that looked a bit like that his water fountain-blast in Atlanta.
That was noteworthy because even with nothing on the line for the Mets at that point, Alonso was staying true to his all-fields approach, hitting the ball where the pitch took him.
Of course, Alonso is nothing if not true to himself, which was as much a part of the fun as watching him hit this season. Suffice it to say that not many guys can get away with referring to themselves on national TV by their nickname without sounding suspiciously self-absorbed, at the very least.
Alonso did it during that rather famous shirtless interview on MLB Network, and somehow made it sound endearing instead. All hail the polar bear.