Among the moments that have marked Pete Alonso’s rise to stardom — to the Home Run Derby title and All-Star Game, to all sorts of major-league and franchise records, to his expected National League Rookie of the Year coronation Monday night — was a plate of lamb adobo outside Phoenix early last November.
Alonso was excelling for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League. His new boss, Brodie Van Wagenen, hired as Mets general manager only a few days earlier, was in town watching the club’s AFL prospects. As part of his introductions to his new players, Van Wagenen took the unusual step of seeking a one-on-one meeting with Alonso, who to that point wasn’t even on the 40-man roster.
Their ensuing dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant helped to set the tone and the stage for Alonso’s remarkable year since. It also served as the first tangible evidence of Van Wagenen’s players-first mantra.
“I certainly don’t want to overvalue one particular meal,” Van Wagenen said. “But I would love to believe it had some positive impact. That would be a great result of a first meeting.”
Said Alonso, “It was comforting and it was interesting because I talked to my agents and they said they’d never seen a GM reach out [like that] and that’s good practice by him, reaching out and trying to put things in a positive light and set expectations for the following year. I thought that was really cool.”
To understand the significance of Van Wagenen extending an “olive branch” — Alonso’s phrase — remember where Alonso was at about this time last year. He led the minors with 36 home runs in 2018, including mashing with the Mets’ Triple-A team, but did not get promoted to the majors. A frustrated Alonso vocalized his disappointment. The Mets brought him to Citi Field, but only to accept an organizational award for his phenomenal season and to participate in a weeklong prospects camp.
Then the Mets sent him off to Arizona, where he said he “didn’t want to leave anything up to chance.” He hit six more homers, drove in 27 runs in 27 games and even stole four bases. He heard a rumor that Van Wagenen was attending the league’s All-Star Game, and Alonso put on a show.
“Other people told me he was there and I’m like, all right, well, let’s do this,” Alonso said. “Homered and made some really good plays in the field. I walked twice, too, so good day at the plate, and I thought I made a really good first impression.”
Their dinner was the next day. Alonso appreciated the gesture.
“He was just like, ‘Hey, listen, I know you don’t want to be here,’ ” Alonso said. “ ’You would’ve rather finished up the season in the big leagues. But here’s what we’re going to do, I’m really happy to meet you.’ ”
Van Wagenen’s goal, according to the general manager, was to outline his offseason expectations for Alonso and make it clear that he would be given a chance to win the Mets’ first-base job come spring training.
The Mets’ hopes for Alonso before camp had two focal points: defense and conditioning.
“Defense had been well-chronicled and, frankly, well-criticized,” Van Wagenen said, noting that Omar Minaya, one of the Mets’ top talent evaluators, was impressed by Alonso’s defensive progress in Arizona. “We wanted to make sure that he understood the importance of continuing that progress and had a plan in place for him to continue to develop.
“We also talked to him about the importance of his conditioning and his mobility so that he wasn’t going to come into camp just as a slugger trying to hit as many home runs as possible, but that he can be a well-rounded player from an athleticism standpoint.”
Van Wagenen said he made sure to express “very directly” that the Mets wouldn’t play any more service-time games with Alonso. If he deserved a major-league job coming out of spring training, he would get a job. The Mets wouldn’t keep him in the minors for the sake of keeping him under team control for an extra season, a loophole teams frequently exploit.
“It was an important message that I wanted him to know,” Van Wagenen said. “I’m sure if you gave him truth serum, he’d probably question whether that would be a reality or not. But it certainly was genuine on my part.”
Alonso left satisfied that he and Van Wagenen got “off on the right foot.” Van Wagenen left having successfully explained that the Mets were going to be different now and that Alonso had a chance to be a part of that.
“I wanted him to be focused less on the past,” Van Wagenen said, “and more about what he could do in that moment to help prepare himself for a real opportunity that was going to exist in spring training.”
Pete Alonso’s 2019 season with the Mets:
No. Category NL Rank
53 Home runs 1st
120 RBIs 3rd
103 Runs scored 9th
85 Extra base hits 1st
348 Total bases 2nd
.583 Slugging 6th
.941 OPS 7th