After the husky blond goofball and New York Mets rookie Pete Alonso hit his first major league home run early this April—a 9th-inning three-run blast on the road in Miami—he galloped chest-first around the bases, skip-hopped onto home plate, tore off his helmet, jogged through a gantlet of high-fives and yeah bud!s and butt-pats, and then finally glimpsed the face that made him truly light up. Alonso was so thrilled to see his Triple-A and spring training best buddy Dominic Smith that he stuck out his tongue and began lunging around the dugout in celebration, looking like a cross between a sweaty, stoked man with his tie wrapped around his head at a wedding and a baby dinosaur learning to roar.
“Atta boy! Hell yeah, baby!” hollered Smith, who earlier in the inning had delivered a pinch-hit single. Alonso responded by shoving him, proudly and lovingly, in the back. Like Alonso, Smith made New York’s 25-man roster after a strong showing in spring training. Like Alonso, Smith is 24 and plays first base. Being the same age and position as one of the most highly anticipated Mets prospects in years could be a recipe for resentment or anxiety, but there was no trace of either on that April afternoon, as two friends delighted in one another’s success.
On this most recent Saturday night, at Citi Field, Alonso hit his 53rd bomb of his first season, breaking Aaron Judge’s 2017 MLB record for most homers by a rookie. (Alonso and the Yankees outfielder are the only two freshmen in baseball history to have crossed the 50-home run mark.) As Alonso rounded the bases, a watch-the-ball stalking gait gave way to a victory lap gallop. “Rounding the bases, that lasts maybe 20 seconds,” Alonso said after the game. “I just really wanted to enjoy that as much as I can. It’s not every day that happens. It’s just a magical moment.” When he went out to first base to start the next inning, he was twitching and sniffling away the tears. “I didn’t know I was going to be overcome with all that emotion,” Alonso said. “At that point, I might as well just let it out. It was crazy.” While the Mets were formally knocked out of the playoffs this week, Alonso’s record-setter was a thrilling late-season moment, putting a cap on one of the most joyful individual baseball seasons in recent memory.
With one day left in the regular season, he leads all MLB players in home runs. He has hit splashdowns and wallscrapers and line drives that look like they’re never going to stop screaming and high fly balls that look like they’re never going to drop. Mets broadcasters have compared him to Giancarlo Stanton and Harmon Killebrew. He has ripped the shirt right off one teammate, Michael Conforto, whose walkoff in early August kept the Mets in the wild-card race, and kindly alerted another teammate, Noah Syndergaard, that he had a bat in the cave. In spring training, he looked like a linebacker, barely reacting as another human body bounced off him. In June, he acted like the head of the grounds crew, helping convince the officials to order the tarp off the field so play could continue. He has shaved his mustache midgame for luck and celebrated Mercury coming out of retrograde; he has a slugging percentage of .586. He is only the ninth NL player in history to reach the 53-homer mark.
He has been a bright light for a franchise that has a tendency to get real dark, real fast. And so much of what he has accomplished this season was already right there in that very first home run, a preview of everything that Alonso would bring to the Mets this season: jolly vibes, shirtless displays of fraternal affection, an almost violent glee, and now, more home runs than any other rookie in MLB history.
The Mets organization has not exactly built up a great deal of good karma. The franchise has a history of being pennywise and pound foolish and petty as hell. Developments this season have included awkward trade talk surrounding Syndergaard, shady puppetmaster-like meddling with Edwin Diaz’s pitch count, and a beef between manager Mickey Callaway and a reporter that culminated in then–Mets pitcher Jason Vargas trying to fight the scribe. But coming out of spring training, the Mets, to their credit, made a few good decisions that have been paying off for the team all season long.
For starters, they resigned ace Jacob deGrom, who has sparkled again this year after winning the Cy Young last season. And rather than start Alonso in the minors for a few weeks, a not-uncommon move designed to extend a team’s service-time control over elite prospects, Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen made good on his offseason pledge, calling it “our mission to take the best 25 players north with us.” When the season began in late March, one of those players was indeed Alonso. (And Smith was another.)
There was no question Alonso had a good bat. In January, when MLB Pipeline released its top 100 rankings of major league prospects, Alonso was the no. 1 first baseman, even if, according to MLB.com, he was “the only first baseman who’s not a two-way performer on the list.” But he has proven to have even more power and consistency than anyone probably would have predicted, the kind of talent (top 10 in wRC+!) that rarely comes along for a franchise and typically costs $300 million in free agency if it ever does. During his sixth career home run, in Atlanta this April, the ball cracked off his bat at 118 miles per hour, had the looks of a line drive, and then splashed down in a novelty water feature more than 450 feet dead center from home plate. “It’s hard to believe,” exclaimed a bewildered Gary Cohen as Alonso and Brandon Nimmo exchanged an exuberant high-ten down on the diamond, “there will be any more impressive than that.” He could not have been more gloriously mistaken.
A week later, when Alonso hit his seventh home run, he didn’t even seem to be following through all the way with his swing. Kneeling low and finishing high, he looked more like a golfer attempting an 80-yard knockdown wedge than a soon-to-be MLB Rookie of the Month ripping another 400-plus-foot dinger for New York. Home run 11, on May 7, tied the game in the ninth, gave Alonso four RBI for the day, and was described on the Mets broadcast as “monstrous” and “majestic.” In late May, Keith Hernandez was in the middle of a strange story about how he’s stepped on a nail through the sole of his shoe “a half dozen times” in his life (?) when he was interrupted by the sweet lightning crack of the ball off Alonso’s bat for home run 17.
On and on it went. While there has been evidence, for several years now, that a juiced-up ball has helped boost home run totals leaguewide, Alonso’s body of work suggests that he’d thrive even if he were swinging at a sack of potatoes. A “Bunyonesque” long ball in mid-June was homer no. 24. A moonshot that landed only about six rows shy of leaving the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field altogether was Alonso’s 31st—and at 474 feet, it was the longest home run by a Met in the Statcast era. He won the dang Home Run Derby, wielding a bat named “Haley’s comet,” for his fiancée.
He went through the longest slump of his nascent career, nine dingerless games, and then broke through with a game-winning two-out solo home run on August 5 that had Cohen quoting Springsteen. (“Scooter and the Big Man bust the city in half!” he crowed.) That was home run 35, and it was particularly illustrative of the right-handed Alonso’s impact on the Mets lineup. All season long, nestled in the batting order among lefties like Conforto, Robinson Cano, and Jeff McNeil, Alonso has forced opponents to make a tough choice with their pitching decisions, particularly late in the game. Marlins manager Don Mattingly’s decision to keep his right-handed pitcher in the game just a little bit longer to get a better matchup against Alonso backfired when the lefty Conforto—sorry, Scooter—hit a home run of his own first.
Anyway, Alonso hit that little pond in Atlanta again for no. 39. His 42nd home run was a new Mets single-season record, which meant that Alonso became the first MLB rookie since 1938 to set a new high-water home run mark for his franchise. Number 43 inspired ESPN’s Alex Rodriguez to describe Alonso as “much like a great golfer.” On September 9, in a 3-1 Mets win, Alonso hit two long balls (46 and 47) and set a new Mets record, having gotten on base for the 34th straight game. When he got to 48, it was with a swing that sounded like shattering glass. If baseball had ASMR, this would be it.
If there was anything to complain about when Alonso broke Judge’s record on Saturday night, it was that Mets fans didn’t get to experience it alongside the SNY team of Gary, Keith, and Ron. Not only was the game broadcast nationally on FOX, the booth was in the midst of interviewing Braves pitcher Dallas Keuchel when Alonso was at bat, making for an extremely less-than-historic call. But the absolutely classic footage from Alonso’s record-tying 52nd homer on Friday night definitely helped soften the blow.
“He clearly is trying to hit home runs right now and maaay be overswinging a tad,” said Cohen as Alonso stood at the plate, having accumulated some huge a-swing-and-a-misses in the days since he recorded no. 50. “Yeah,” agreed Hernandez, “he has looked as bad as he’s looked all year.” Of course, when you’re having the kind of year Alonso has had, that doesn’t mean much, and Hernandez had barely finished his sentence when Flushing’s burly boy mashed his Judge-tying tater. “I was rudely interrupted by that swing,” Hernandez joked, and there are dozens of MLB pitchers this season who have probably thought the same thing.
Through this season Alonso has more than kept pace, home run wise, with the likes of Mike Trout, and has done so with a markedly different persona from the quiet, unassuming Angels MVP. He bounces around and is often filmed giggling with a pal in the dugout. He has tossed lacrosse balls around during batting practice and chatted with former NFL coach Mike Shanahan during a game. He bought his entire team custom cleats to honor 9/11 victims, risking fines, and called out MLB for having stonewalled various players’ attempts to wear custom hats in the years since the attacks. (He has also called out, in an affable but satisfying way, team owner Jeff Wilpon: once for motivating him to hit the ball even further, and once for being a Michigan man.) In the middle of this season, as the Mets were suddenly making a wee bit of noise in the standings, Alonso broke out the Apple Notes app to write a tweet exhorting fans to get back to the ballpark, and to turn the customary #LGM—Let’s Go Mets—hashtag into the more passionate #LFGM. “The boys are hot and we’ve been working our asses off,” he wrote. The Mets went 10-1 in their next eleven games.
Some things, once noticed, can never be unseen, like the arrow in the FedEx logo, or the way Alonso, nicknamed “Polar Bear” by his teammates, genuinely does share a physique with the sleek, sturdy beast. (It’s the thicc neck that does it.) He has leaned into the moniker, wearing polar-bear-themed T-shirts on the regular and putting the name on the back of his Players’ Weekend jersey. (In that particular white helmet and white uniform, he looked even more like a polar bear than usual as he hit home run 41.) Last week, when his teammate J.D. Davis crashed hard in the outfield, Alonso ran all the way out from first base to make sure that his pal was all right. Davis later recapped the conversation:
The conversation, per J.D. Davis:— Tim Healey (@timbhealey) September 17, 2019
Davis: "What are you doing out here?"
Alonso: "I gotta check out the Sun Bear."
Davis: "You’re ridiculous. Go back to first."
(Yes, Pete Alonso now calls Davis "The Sun Bear" — as in, the opposite of The Polar Bear.) https://t.co/1XHPfH4a15
(Pete, “Solar Bear” was right there in front of you!)
While it looked, for a time, that the Mets might pull off another 2015-style run to the postseason, the team ultimately fell a few games shy of sneaking in as a wild-card berth. It’s disappointing that a team with both Alonso and deGrom playing their best, not to mention guys like McNeil quietly putting up outstanding batting numbers, could not take advantage of disappointing showings by rivals like the Phillies to make the playoffs, but this Mets season nevertheless somehow turned out to be a mostly hopeful and fun ride. Baseball is a dispositionally slow sport, but sometimes it can move way too fast: It was only four years ago that Matt Harvey led this team. For Alonso to show up a year after Mets legend David Wright shut it down feels like a “Lightning Crashes” verse.
The best part about all of this, though, is that Alonso is almost freakishly aware of just how cool it is. Several interviews with his mother, Michelle, have referenced a piece of her life advice: Don’t act like you’ve been there before, act like you haven’t. Alonso has done that about as well as he has played baseball this season. In mid-July, during a long, sprawling rain delay interview with SNY, Alonso was asked what his very best moment of the season had been thus far. His answer had to do with that first homer, when he knocked in three runs and danced around with Smith.
But it wasn’t the home run itself that Alonso most enjoyed, or even the dugout celebration; it was what happened after the game. His teammates placed him in a laundry cart, he said, and wheeled him into the shower, and gave him the high school freshman treatment from Dazed & Confused. They covered him in mustard, and shaving cream, and chocolate sauce. It was disgusting. “I loved every single second of it,” he said. “It was like, you’re part of this now, kid. And I’m like, yeah. I’m here. I’m here.”