As MLB begins its grand pandemic experiment of a season, including the Mets’ Opening Day on Friday against the Braves at Citi Field, the bizarre will be obvious.
The stands will be empty. Fake crowd noise will be piped in over the public-address system. It will be the first of just 60 games, the usual pennant-race sprint constituting the entire season. And, oh, all this is starting in late July, delayed four months by the (ongoing) coronavirus crisis.
But for Pete Alonso, a second-year first baseman and the face of the franchise, some things won’t change. He plans for his on-field behavior to be the same as always.
“Pay attention to details,” he said, “and play with your hair on fire.”
What Alonso does as an encore to his historic rookie season will be among the biggest stories with the Mets this year. Along with Jacob deGrom’s quest for the Cy Young three-peat. And how manager Luis Rojas does in his first year in the majors. And how Yoenis Cespedes fares after an absence of two years and four days if he plays as expected Friday. And if Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia can bounce back. And, of course, whether the Mets can return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
In this world filled with shades of gray, sports is an oasis of black and white. You win or you lose. You’re the champion or you’re not. It’s that simple. Right? Maybe not.
General manager Brodie Van Wagenen pushed back on the idea that the Mets’ season is a failure if they don’t make the playoffs. Even if the goal is, obviously, to win it all.
“I’m not going to define success or failure by any one definition,” Van Wagenen said. “We want to give the fans the same excitement level that we experienced last year towards the stretch. Every year, they go into it believing we have a chance to make the playoffs, and we want to deliver them a championship. It’s a very simple effort. And until we accomplish that goal, we won’t be satisfied.”
Are the Mets the team to beat in the NL East? “I believe so,” Alonso said.
Van Wagenen, full of bravado in his first year as GM, was outwardly less confident.
“We are going to go wire to wire here and not quit,” he said. “We believe and expect that we should be able to contend. We know that every team is feeling that way in a shortened season, but it’s going to be our belief that we should win and can win on every night.”
Of course, the subtext to all of this — the Mets’ opener, playoff hopes, the entire season — is that nobody is sure how long the season will last. It could get shut down, again, at any point. The coronavirus is a constant threat, as the Nationals learned Thursday when, hours before their own opener, they lost their best player, Juan Soto, who tested positive for COVID-19.
At least for now, though, baseball is tenuously back.
“I still expect jitters,” Brandon Nimmo said. “It's still the beginning of something new, a new season and a championship season that we're looking forward to. We all have the same hopes and desires that we'll be the ones standing at the end as World Series champions. With that brings jitters and brings expectations on yourself, and you want to compete and fulfill those.”
Van Wagenen added: “Look, I love baseball. The fact that we get to play it now is a huge positive in all of our lives.”