In a normal summer, Pete Alonso would have solidified his place as a genuine baseball prince of the city. He is not yet an athlete imprisoned by the boundaries of gated communities, still enjoys the fringe benefits of being a 50-homer man in New York, still enjoys the give-and-take with his fellow citizens.
In this summer, Alonso walks his dog, Brodie — the Frenchy’s name predates the Mets GM’s tenure with the club — and while he does so wearing a mask, he is still recognizable from the nose up to most fans, has still been able to gauge that Mets fans are ready for baseball, however this 60-game variety of it will look. Even a burgeoning star like Pete Alonso cannot fully hide behind an N-95, after all.
“I haven’t met a Mets fan yet who isn’t excited about the season starting,” Alonso said Thursday, on the eve of the Mets’ long-awaited lid-lifter with the Braves at Citi Field. And he believes his teammates are channeling the same eagerness.
“Falling short of the postseason as we did last year leaves a sour taste,” the Mets first baseman said. “We don’t want to leave anything in question.”
Put another way?
“Play with your hair on fire,” Alonso said. “Play inspired.”
The Mets may well have received a victory 24 hours before ever taking the field for this 2020 season. With baseball agreeing to expand its playoff format from 10 to 16 teams for this season, suddenly the 60-game sprint doesn’t have quite the same feel of a football season, where every game feels like three.
Every team benefits from that rule, yes, but it is a general assumption that the NL East is the most loaded of baseball’s six divisions with four teams — Mets, Phillies, defending division champion Atlanta and defending world champ Washington — all looking closely bunched together talent-wise, at least on paper.
In theory, all four could now make an eight-team NL playoff, although if they spend the summer knocking each other silly the sheer arithmetic won’t let that happen; still, where before it seemed that one bad week could doom the rest of the season, there is, presumably, a little more breathing room for everyone.
And for a team like the Mets, which has made no secret of its ambitions for 2020, every little bit helps. After a summer camp 2.0 that went mostly drama-free, they did suffer some bad news at the last minute when Marcus Stroman’s calf muscle wound up torn, and what seemed like arguably the division’s best rotation even after Noah Syndergaard went down in March suddenly feels a lot thinner.
But the one-year (for now) addition of a DH would seem to benefit the Mets, especially if Yoenis Cespedes can regain anything close to his old swing. There ought to be enough offense, which is a departure from many of the lineups of recent vintage. And if Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia can have the bounce-back years the Mets are so desperately banking on, this is a team that does have October pedigree.
And it has October confidence. Alonso is chief at the head of that parade.
“We have what it takes,” he said. “Now we have to prove it on the field.”
And while Brodie Van Wagenen shied away from a “Come and get us!” encore, he refused to douse the optimism that crackles on his roster.
“We are going wire-to-wire,” Van Wagenen said coyly before releasing the bait, “and not quit.”
But he is not shy about his own hopes for this team, whose success or failure will almost certainly go a long way toward defining Van Wagenen’s future here, since the team’s new owner will be watching closely, whoever that mystery name may be.
“I love meaningful baseball games,” he said. “We got a taste of that last year.”
Can they get more than a taste this time around? They certainly will get a quick glimpse with their old tormenters from Atlanta in town for the first weekend. The Empire State Building will be lit up orange and blue. The fans — real ones, not cardboard — will be tuned in and curious.
“We are in a New York state of mind,” Van Wagenen said.
Ah, but as the song goes on to warn: It comes down to reality. Starting today, we get that part of the tune, too.
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