CLEVELAND — Part of the charm of Pete Alonso, the precocious and powerful rookie for the Mets, is that he is both supremely confident and utterly awe-struck. He knows he belongs at the All-Star Game, yet he also cannot quite believe it.
“For me, it’s like, I’m an All-Star and my idol, a guy I want to emulate, is Paul Goldschmidt — and he’s not here and I am,” Alonso said, referring to the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman. “That’s the most humbling thing about this.”
Goldschmidt made the All-Star team in each of the last six seasons, but has slumped a bit this year. Alonso, 24, earned a selection by slamming 30 home runs, matching the most any Met has ever hit before the All-Star break. He eagerly took a spot in Monday night’s Home Run Derby, an event he watched every summer as a boy in Tampa, Fla.
When Alonso was 7, Sammy Sosa captivated him by launching homers toward Bernie Brewer’s slide in the faraway reaches of Milwaukee’s Miller Park. Six years later, Josh Hamilton dazzled Alonso with majestic moonshots at Yankee Stadium.
“That first round was the best round of batting practice that’s ever been taken,” Alonso said. “He’s making balls disappear!”
For role models, though, Alonso chose players who matched his characteristics on the field, slugging first basemen who hit and field right-handed. At first it was Paul Konerko, the longtime Chicago White Sox star. Alonso admired Konerko’s bat but also his leadership, the way he guided a perennially overshadowed team in a major market (sound familiar?) to a World Series championship in 2005.
CreditKamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
When Konerko retired, Alonso focused on Goldschmidt, who is roughly the same size and has managed to win three Gold Gloves despite a bat-first reputation.
One difference, though, is that Konerko and Goldschmidt cultivated stoic, cerebral demeanors. Alonso exudes breathless enthusiasm, like a golden retriever who just wants to chase tennis balls around the yard all day long.
“Peter’s happy-go-lucky, he’s a teddy bear — so Polar Bear fits him perfectly,” said the former Mets prospect Justin Dunn, who was traded to Seattle last December, referring to Alonso’s nickname. “I never call him Polar Bear, but I definitely call him my big little teddy bear. He’s just something special. He’s amazing.”
Alonso flew to Cleveland with the Mets’ other All-Stars, starter Jacob deGrom and outfielder Jeff McNeil. Perhaps surprisingly for a team 10 games under .500, the Mets have three no-doubt All-Stars; deGrom is again one of baseball’s best starters, and McNeil is the majors’ leading hitter, at .349. DeGrom, who earned his third All-Star selection this year, told his teammates to relax and have fun, and he said they had gotten the message — especially Alonso.
“I think he has fun doing just about anything,” deGrom said, laughing.
At his interview table on Monday afternoon, Alonso gamely responded to waves of unusual questions. He professed his love for Chinese food to a reporter from Asia. He told another reporter that he prefers the Billy Ray Cyrus version of “Old Town Road” to the original. He said that if he had to get a tattoo of a teammate, he would want a “mean-looking squirrel” as a tribute to McNeil, whose nickname is Flying Squirrel.
Alonso also spoke at length about his respect for Mets fans, the way they stick with the team without jumping to support the Yankees. When asked for the craziest interaction he has had with a fan, Alonso gave a heartfelt reply.
“This little boy, he drew a picture of me — but I wasn’t me, I was a polar bear, and he had a ball and a bat,” Alonso said. “His name is Niko, and he’s like, ‘This is you, this is me. Here, it’s for you.’ I was like, ‘Do you want me to sign it?’ And he’s like, ‘No, this is for you to have.’ I thought that was really touching and cute. I grew up idolizing baseball players — and, I don’t know, it made my heart melt a little bit.”
Alonso put the drawing on his refrigerator at home. He and McNeil have captured the fans’ attention in this otherwise dismal Mets season, and teammates are just as enthralled.
“Whenever they come up, I think we’re thinking the same way: ‘I wonder how far he’s going to hit this ball?’” deGrom said. “Or with McNeil: ‘Here comes another hit.’ It’s exciting for us.”
Alonso is earning the minimum $555,000 this season, and had a chance to significantly boost his earnings with the Home Run Derby’s $1 million prize. He planned to donate 5 percent of his winnings to Tunnel to Towers, which supports fallen military members and emergency medical workers, and another 5 percent to the Wounded Warrior Project.
The Mets offered plenty of advice as he prepared, Alonso said. Teammates Robinson Cano and Todd Frazier are past winners, as is the injured Yoenis Cespedes, who won it with the Oakland Athletics when the Mets’ hitting coach, Chili Davis, worked there. Alonso drew a colorful analogy to explain his strategy.
“Basically it doesn’t matter how much jelly you have in the jar, it’s about how well you spread it on your English muffin,” Alonso said. “So it’s like, it doesn’t matter if you’re running low on energy, you need to conserve it and be as efficient as possible.”
Energy never seems to be a problem with Alonso, who said he barely even needs coffee to wake himself up in the morning. Every day is a new source of wonder, another chance to prove what he already knows: that he is extraordinarily talented at baseball.
“I always have this inner belief that I can do things,” Alonso said. “I feel like I’m very positive, very optimistic. Regardless of the circumstances, I’ve always felt like I can overcome anything. If I come in with that attitude and keep the fear out, anything’s possible.”