The Mets did their best to turn the penultimate game of the 2018 season into a celebratory occasion. But there was no avoiding the sadness at the surface – the reality that game no. 161 for a sub-.500 team mattered only because it was a chance to say goodbye to David Wright, whose opportunity to perform one more time for family, friends and a sellout crowd was also a reminder that what was once a Hall of Fame-caliber career was ending far too soon because his body betrayed him.
The Mets didn’t have to try to do anything to try to generate a buzz prior to the penultimate game of the 2019 season. That was all Pete Alonso’s doing. And Alonso took care of attaching celebratory meaning to game no. 161 for a better-but-not-yet-a-playoff-team Saturday night, when he broke the rookie record for homers by hitting his 53rd round-tripper of the year in the Mets’ 3-0 win over the Braves.
“This kid has done amazing things this year,” Mickey Callaway said afterward. “The fans came here to see something historic, and they got what they wanted to see. It’s like he never lets you down. “Man, he’s a fantastic guy. You can see it in his face, how genuine everything and every emotion he has is. It’s a fun sight to see.”
If you are of the belief that baseball is a metaphor for life, Saturday night was a heartwarming reminder of what lies beyond difficult times, and how sometimes the brightest sun is waiting to peek out from behind the darkest clouds.
Never mind the Mets – New York has not seen a star with the sustained brightness of Alonso in at least a generation. Jeremy Lin came and went in 49 days and 26 games. John Tavares was stoic and played in anonymity on Long Island and in Brooklyn. Derek Jeter was cold and corporate from the moment he hit the Yankees’ starting lineup. Aaron Judge, whose rookie home run record lasted all of two seasons, sounded and acted like the anti-Jeter for most of his debut season, until he began to sound and act a whole lot like Jeter. It took Eli Manning five seasons and one miraculous Super Bowl victory to fully win over Giants fans.
Wright, who matched his elite play with a welcoming personality, is the closest thing we’ve seen to Alonso, but life was different as a rookie in 2004. Newcomers were expected to melt into the background, both in the lineup and in the clubhouse. Wright batted fifth or lower in 49 of his 69 appearances in his first season. For some inexplicable reason, he batted seventh into July of the next season under Willie Randolph, who apparently preferred Marlon Anderson batting sixth instead of Wright.
And a player who shared a locker room with future Hall of Famers Mike Piazza and Tom Glavine, as well as Mets icons Al Leiter and John Franco, went out of his way to not be seen. Legend has it that as a rookie, Wright used to be one of the last players to arrive at his locker following a game so that it didn’t seem as if he was seeking attention.
Alonso batted second in his big league debut on Opening Day. He has made 152 starts and batted lower than fourth once – when he batted fifth on Sept. 16. Of course, shattering the team record for homers by a rookie during the first weekend of summer, winning the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, breaking the team record for homers before Labor Day and shooting past the 50-homer mark with more than a week to spare will keep a guy in the heart of the order.
He also filled the leadership void that was created when Wright’s career was derailed in 2015, and he did so with a style unseen in decades, if not longer. In addition to handling team spokesman duties, it was Alonso who coined the hashtag LFGM, handed nicknames to Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis and decided it was a good idea to rip the uniforms off teammates who just collected walk-off hits.
There were other ways, small and large, in which Alonso exhibited leadership beyond his years. Todd Hundley, who shared the single-season home run record before Alonso shattered it, visited Citi Field for the first time in years on Sept. 13 and seemed hesitant to meet Alonso for fear he would be infringing on Alonso’s time. But Alonso bounded over to the dugout, sat down next to Hundley and chatted about power hitting for a good 10 minutes. By the time they were done, the two were exchanging their own handshakes and bro hugs.
The most impressive display of leadership happened two days earlier, when this 24-year-old from Florida bought first responder-themed footwear for each of his teammates and spoke with poignant eloquence about what it meant to him to play for a New York team on the anniversary of the terror attacks.
“It’s not just the victims, it’s the scars left behind, like someone missing their Mom or missing their Dad,” Alonso said. “For me, I can’t imagine what that’s like. The toll isn’t necessarily all taken on that day, it’s progressively after, because there’s not someone there in their family. It’s different from then on.”
Alonso showed up for an organization that specializes in awkward hellos and messy goodbyes and ham-handed everything else in between yet refused to let either its own dysfunction, or the constant attention of New York, erode his joy.
“I look at that guy right there and I see real,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who has been in pro ball since 1976. “I think what you see is what you get out of that kid. There’s no pretense. Just the enthusiasm and the energy. I look at him and I’m thinking ‘There’s a ballplayer.’ He really likes playing baseball. I appreciate the heck out of him, I respect the heck out of him, what he’s done this year. He’s real.”
And if you just like your baseball because it’s baseball and it’s the best sport in the world, well, Saturday night served as a reminder of the game’s regenerative powers, and its abilities to connect the past with the present even when we least expect it.
Just like 52 weeks earlier, there were loud ovations and tears shed in the stands and on the field Saturday night. But these ovations and tears were born of joy, not sadness, and a reaction to what is happening and what might lay ahead and not to what happened and what might have been.
“This place was absolutely buzzing, and to make people happy with one swing is a real special feeling,” Alonso said.
Wright wanted to have that one magical swing of the bat last Sept. 29, but his body, and the fates, would not cooperate. He walked and popped out before leaving the field in the fourth inning and shedding tears as he waved to the crowd and hugged the teammates waiting for him in front of the dugout.
Last night, after rounding the bases, exchanging hugs with teammates waiting for him in front of the dugout and doffing his helmet to the crowd of 32,310, Alonso went to first base and began to cry.
“It just means so much,” Alonso said. “Yeah, I didn’t know I was going to become overcome with all that emotion. And at that point, you might as well let it out.”
Though he didn’t play in the 2018 season finale, Wright remained in uniform 52 weeks ago today. That means his final game as a member of a major league team was followed by Alonso’s first game in the bigs. A year ago today, nobody knew who would replace Wright as the cornerstone of the franchise, or how long it would take to find that person. Who could have imagined the baton between eras and leaders would be passed so seamlessly, and to such a worthy successor?