Here's what Polar Bear has planned as encore

February 24th, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Pete Alonso was ahead of the team bus in getting to the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Monday morning. It figured. Alonso started being ahead of schedule last season, his rookie season, when he started hitting home runs and never really stopped, including when he won the Home Run Derby. There was no better individual story in baseball last season, and no player more valuable to his team than the kid they call Polar Bear was with the Mets as he became the home run champ of the game.

"Not gonna lie,” Alonso was saying now outside the visitors’ clubhouse just as the team bus did arrive and his teammates were filing past him and Mets owner Fred Wilpon. “Last year was pretty fun.”

So the guy who hit 53 home runs as a rookie and broke the rookie home run record that Aaron Judge had set on the other side of New York City just two years ago, was asked if he believes he can be an even better hitter this year than he was last year.

“Absolutely,” he said.

Then Alonso was asked if he has set statistical goals for himself. He said he had not. Instead he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the back field where some of the Washington Nationals were working out, at their end of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, and said, “I want what they have. I want us to win the last game in October. You want to know what my goal really is? That’s my goal. I want to do enough for this team that we get to be them this year.”

Alonso did not just set the all-time rookie home run record last season. He smashed the Mets' all-time record for home runs, the 41 that Todd Hundley and Carlos Beltran had hit in the past. He more than doubled the Mets' rookie record for home runs, the 26 that Darryl Strawberry hit when he was a kid. It took Alonso 77 games to break Strawberry’s rookie record, with a 454-foot shot off Cole Hamels on June 23.

“Things were pretty much magical the whole season,” he said.

In the same way that Jacob deGrom carried the Mets' pitching staff on his way to his second consecutive National League Cy Young Award, Alonso carried the Mets' offense as they came back from a 40-50 record at the All-Star Break to finish with 86 wins last season, chasing an NL Wild Card all the way into September, even though their season was declared over in July. It doesn’t happen without Alonso turning his whole season into a Home Run Derby.

It’s why I always thought it was too limiting to just think of him as a near-unanimous winner of the NL Rookie of the Year Award. I thought Alonso was every bit as valuable to the Mets as Cody Bellinger was to the Dodgers. The Dodgers would have been something to see even without Bellinger’s spectacular season and spectacular slash line. But you tell me if the Mets would have been a Wild Card contender without the kid from Tampa doing what he did, and becoming the most exciting home run hitter in his team’s history, and the most exciting rookie they’d had since Doc Gooden in 1984.

“Now, I just want to take everything to the next level,” Alonso said. “I want to do that for myself and I want to do it for our team. Basically I want to make pitchers as uncomfortable this season as I did last season.”

He grinned then and said, “I love what I do and I love playing where I play.”

Alonso hit the 53 home runs with 120 RBIs and a batting average of .260. His slugging percentage was .583 and his OPS was .941. Bellinger, of course, had 47 home runs and 115 RBIs and a batting average of .305, a slugging percentage of .629 and an OPS of 1.035 that felt as if it gave off a beam of light. But Bellinger had a lot more help around him in L.A. than Alonso did on the other side of the country. It is why what Alonso did at Citi Field goes down with the great slugging rookie seasons in baseball history.

On Monday morning, Alonso didn’t talk about hitting 40 homers this season, or 50, or getting his batting average up. He talked about process, about staying with his process “every single day.”

"Be as tough an out as I can be, every single day,” he said. “If I do that, numbers will take care of themselves. I’ll be the hitter I’m supposed to be and we’ll be the team we’re supposed to be.”

Alonso said all the right things after he won the Home Run Derby, and then donated $50,000 to the Wounded Warriors Project and another $50,000 to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. It is a hard thing for a rookie to become a team leader. Alonso became one for the Mets. He even gave out custom-made shoes on the anniversary of Sept. 11 that honored first responders, and he wore a pair himself. Somehow, he showed up with a wonderful understanding of the city in which he became a star last season.

Alonso was 0-for-3 against the Nationals on Monday -- fouled out and flied out and hit into a double play, a long season just beginning for him and everybody else. But everybody else wasn’t the home run king of baseball last season. Pete Alonso was.