CLEVELAND — Mike Trout is 27, the same age as Jeff McNeil. This is Trout’s eighth All-Star Game, coming off a $430-million contract extension signed this winter. He’s universally considered the planet’s best player.
McNeil, making his All-Star debut this week, got to fly to Cleveland on a private jet, also a first for him. Last year, around this time, McNeil was batting ninth for Double-A Binghamton.
He’s currently hitting 48 points higher than Trout.
In fact, McNeil’s .349 average means that none of the All-Stars surrounding him Monday, or anyone in baseball for that matter, was a better pure hitter in the first half of this season.
I asked him how that felt, to look around the spacious banquet hall, amid the game’s elite players, and know that he was the best at that one important thing. Arguably the most difficult thing to do in sports. McNeil smiled.
“I was always the smallest kid on the field,” McNeil said. “I just tried to get the bat on the ball and not strike out.”
A simple plan, and one that McNeil has turned into an art form over the years, through talent but also steely perseverance. Sidelined by numerous injuries early in his career, McNeil finally got his shot with the Mets last season, when he batted .329 over 63 games. That was two points better than what he did for Binghamton, and his buddy Pete Alonso thought he was unstoppable then.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Alonso said Monday. “He’s raked everywhere he’s been, and now that he’s an All-Star, other people are starting to discover him. It’s really special that people are giving him the recognition, because he’s worked his tail off.”
Alonso’s tail metaphor was fitting for McNeil, known as Squirrel. But after getting the All-Star nod, didn’t McNeil’s nickname deserve an upgrade? Perhaps something, I don’t know, less rodent-like?
“Flying Squirrel,” Alonso replied.
McNeil didn’t really embrace the moniker at first, but it’s stuck. And despite his low-key persona, he’s no longer under the radar. How can he be when chasing a batting title? It’s never been harder to put a ball in play, with analytics-manipulated defenses foiling hitters in tech-fueled ways that weren’t even imagined a decade ago.
“Jeff, I mean, he’s a master at hitting it where people aren’t standing,” Jacob deGrom said.
McNeil keeps finding holes, the empty tracks of dirt, the small patches of grass left uncovered. It’s not as sexy as smashing a baseball 500 feet. There’s no Batting Average Derby during All-Star Week. But McNeil excels at doing what others can’t — or don’t prioritize as much. He’s hitting nearly 100 points above the MLB average (.252) and reaching base at a remarkable .409 clip, which ranks fifth overall.
“I think getting a hit is one of the best things in baseball,” McNeil said. “It means you beat the pitcher.”
Those hundreds of one-on-one battles all added up to McNeil being on that private jet Sunday night, along with Alonso and deGrom. McNeil recalled deGrom telling them “how much we’re going to sign” during the All-Star festivities, and for someone who had been a career minor-leaguer, it made sense that particular advice left the biggest impression on him.
Other than the plane, of course.
“The flight was awesome,” McNeil said. “That was really cool. I could get used to that.”
And that was just the commute from Flushing. The All-Star experience itself had yet to begin, and when McNeil finally was seated at his podium — again, a first — he had nothing in the memory bank to compare it with. From a baseball standpoint, the Mets calling him up stood out as the most life-changing moment of his career, but this week was gaining.
“It’s been quite a journey,” McNeil said. “All the way through the minors, having to re-prove myself last year. I think the best baseball I’ve ever played was in Double-A last year.”
Really? Better than this, right now?
McNeil had to think for a moment. “The competition was not as high,” he said.
Despite everything going on Monday around McNeil, the dozens of cameras and microphones, the crowd of his fellow All-Stars, what made McNeil smile?
Remembering the joy of a midsummer hot streak at Binghamton. His bat making contact with the ball, over and over again. Could there be a more perfect ambassador in Cleveland than McNeil, someone who loves that basic element, in a sport desperately hoping to recapture it?
“I take a lot of pride in batting average,” McNeil said. “It’s kind of a dying thing.”
Not when McNeil is standing at the plate. Or on this stage.