PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
My first pitch to Pete Alonso on Friday was designed to get a feel of what he might be thinking after a pandemic-warped 2020 that took a toll on everyone and was especially turbulent for him.
As if Alonso didn’t already have enough on his mind, the news that the baseball will be deadened this year (think de-juiced) loomed as another mental curve to the upcoming season. For a slugger like Alonso, the potential of losing home runs because of MLB tinkering with the ball has to be somewhat deflating, right?
He didn’t blink.
"If I hit it on the sweet spot," he said, smiling. "it’s gonna go a long way."
So . . . does that mean you don’t think about the changes very much?
"No," he replied.
That particular topic prompted the shortest answer of the day from the usually loquacious Alonso, who spoke for close to 40 minutes on everything from shutting down his social-media accounts ("I want to live in real life") to the black-jersey debate ("I just have this vision . . . bring that swagger back"). Dismissing the baseball controversy probably is a good indication that Alonso has his head in a good place again, cleared of last year’s frustration and any other distractions on the horizon.
The Mets need that Alonso back. Not necessarily the 53-homer Pete from 2019, but someone much closer to All-Star Alonso than the demoralized version from the first half of last season.
That Alonso looked as if he were carrying the full weight of the Apple on his shoulders. Through his first 35 games, he batted .208 with six homers and a .700 OPS.
At that point, the narrative was impossible to escape. Alonso, with so much pressure to follow up his record rookie season, was being consumed by the failure. The pitchers had figured out his weaknesses. The Polar Bear was on thin ice.
And that’s how the story could have ended. But Alonso pulled himself back from the brink, regrouped mentally and put together a September that helped change the conversation (a little) heading into the winter. In his last 22 games, he hit .265 with 10 homers and a .992 OPS, a welcome return that let him exhale some. It also became a valuable lesson for a 26-year-old still figuring out life in the majors despite his remarkable early success.
"I learned to give myself a little bit of grace," Alonso said. "That’s kind of the little bit of the mental part of the offseason where I feel like I’ve matured because baseball is such a game of failure. In a 60-game season, failure is bound to happen. Whether it’s 162 or whatever, failure is going to happen.
"I feel like for me, that game sample, yeah, I know the numbers are there. Do I like all those numbers? No. Do I like some of those numbers? Yes. But I feel like that doesn’t define who I am as a player.
"I’m really happy that last year happened the way it did because I feel like I’m very prepared for this year. Last year exposed a lot of things I needed to get better at. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to have fun and go out there and play."
The talented, talkative Alonso remains the face of this franchise. Sure, Jacob deGrom has the more accomplished career, with the back-to-back Cy Young Awards and sustained excellence, but he’s not an everyday player. And because Alonso is saddled with that responsibility, what the Mets did this winter had to help ease some of the burden that naturally comes along with it.
By adding one of the game’s most electric talents in Francisco Lindor, strengthening the rotation and creating a deeper, more versatile roster overall, the Mets won’t always be leaning on Alonso to supply another dramatic blast to bail them out. They have plenty of other ways to win. But Alonso, with his mind right and the swing to match, will be there to provide the thunder as well.
"For me, if I didn’t try hard or if I was slacking, then I could be mad at myself and keep myself up at nights, like, listen, why was your effort not there today?" he said. "But because I prepare, because my effort is always there, whether it be mental or physical, I can sleep at night. It’s like, you know what? I put it all out there. It just didn’t happen.
"The good thing about baseball is there is a lot of games. You can quickly turn around and learn from those mistakes."
Ideally, Alonso and the Mets will get the full 162 this year. The last time they did, it was a historic season for Alonso, who appears to have that swagger back again — along with the same hunger for hammering baseballs, deadened or otherwise.