NEW YORK -- Upon returning to Citi Field for the first time last week following Major League Baseball’s coronavirus shutdown, Pete Alonso walked over to his position at first base, reached down and picked up a fistful of dirt just “to make sure it’s real.” Alonso, one of the growing faces of baseball, had not played at Citi in roughly 10 months.
He had missed it.
“I’ve found such a higher appreciation for this game, for this opportunity,” Alonso said a few days later in a Zoom interview. “I loved what I did before, but now with this hiatus and everything that’s going on … I have just this love affair with baseball, and it’s made my love for it grow even more.”
It would be difficult to find a player more enthusiastic for the 2020 season than Alonso, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year Award winner who, in his words, is “geeked up to play.” Those curious about the statistical anomalies of a 60-game season have focused intently on Alonso, who hit a Major League rookie record 53 homers in a full campaign last year. Teammate J.D. Davis quipped that Alonso could probably hit 30 over 60 games. The Mets would be happy with far less.
For them, Alonso has rapidly become the focal point not just of a vastly improved offense, but also a youthful clubhouse. Frequently, those in and around the clubhouse mention him as a potential future captain. He is an All-Star and a philanthropist. He has become the team’s de facto spokesman, creating the rallying cry “LFGM” and speaking eloquently on topics ranging from the Mets’ playoff chances to racial inequality in America. Earlier this year, Alonso used a spring press conference as a forum to discuss his favorite types of wine.
“I’m very proud in how he carries himself,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said, “very proud in how he represents the team everywhere, on and off the field.”
So much of what Alonso has done to endear himself to Mets fans, however, he has done through methods that are temporarily prohibited. Ripping Michael Conforto’s shirt off following a dramatic walk-off hit at Citi Field? Can’t do that while observing social-distance protocols. Chest-bumping Noah Syndergaard after a diving play at first? That’s not six feet apart, but zero. Delivering an emotional postgame speech to fans? There won’t be any fans at Citi Field to hear it.
Still, Alonso believes his impact in an abbreviated sophomore season can be just as pronounced.
“I know that every single New York Met fan is going to be watching at home,” Alonso said. “You can have hundreds of thousands of people, putting a smile on their faces every single night. … I feel like right now, as a whole, people need something to lean on, to help cope.
“I know we’re not going to be able to do the chest bumps, the pregame handshake rituals and the ripping shirts off after walk-off wins, but we’ll figure something out. I mean, we have a really good chemistry. We’ve got some good things going in the clubhouse and we’ll figure something out. … You’ll see some pretty fun antics during the season.”
What’s clear to Alonso is that the Mets will have plenty to celebrate. Spending his time off in the Tampa, Fla., area, Alonso worked out regularly in a specialized barn where his training regimen included walking on a mat covered with rocks, flipping oversized tires and using a virtual reality machine to simulate live pitching. He continues to work on his defense almost daily, using a miniature glove to snap up ground ball after ground ball on the infield grass.
During a round of batting practice on Tuesday, Alonso hit three home runs, including one that struck a railing in the second deck in left. The resulting clang reverberated through an otherwise quiet Citi Field, providing a loud reminder of Alonso’s capabilities.
“No momentum has stopped,” Alonso said. “It’s just a longer waiting period. The whole goal of this thing is to win a World Series, to win a championship. Just because it’s a smaller sample size doesn’t mean that it’s not that same type of season. I just want to have the highest impact as I possibly can. During this 60-game season, I am so, so prepared for this.”