- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Infinitely Polar Bear

This starts as a story of incrementalism in action, or the inaction of incrementalism, and how what had been the case practically forever was suddenly no longer the case at all. To appreciate how spectacular the eventual great leap forward in question was, we shall travel back, as we so often have in 2019, to 1969.

You shouldn’t mind. It was a very good year.

Of all the moments that live on in collective memory from the Mets’ magnificent 1969 season, the top of the seventh inning at Dodger Stadium on September 1 isn’t one of them. Little wonder, in that the game was pretty much a lost cause from the bottom of the first on. After being staked to a 2-0 lead, Jerry Koosman imploded, facing five batters whose efforts resulted in four earned runs. By the end of the first, the Dodgers led, 5-2. Come the seventh, L.A. was ahead, 9-4.

Yet what the second batter in the visitors’ half of the inning did put an end to an era that likely not even the most data-driven Mets fan of that pre-analytics period knew existed. Tommie Agee, up with one out, drove a pitch from Jim Bunning out of the ballpark for his 23rd home run of the season. Everybody who cared about the Mets cared only about making up ground on the Cubs, something the Mets didn’t do in that Labor Day matinee. The eventual 10-6 defeat at the hands of the Dodgers cost the Mets a half-game in the standings, leaving them at 76-55, 4½ back of Chicago with 31 to play. It also lowered Koosman’s won-lost record to 12-9.

You know the Mets wound up winning 100 of 162 games in 1969, so a little math suggests this game was barely a speed bump on the road to ultimate glory. You also know after a half-century of paying attention that Koosman’s final mark fifty years ago was 17-9, thus we can ascertain Jerry’s case of the Mondays had no effect on his pennant-drive performance, except perhaps to motivate him to go 5-0 the rest of the way; each of those five was a complete game victory, three of them were shutouts, and the one on September 8 — in which Kooz brushed back Ron Santo — is a verified legend. Perhaps you know that Agee, who also stole two bases on September 1, hit 26 homers in all in 1969. With the fiftieth anniversary of that golden season in the books, you surely know it was Agee who was brushed back by Bill Hands on the Eighth of September, precipitating Koosman’s response at Santo’s expense.

But what do you know about Agee’s 23rd homer, other than what is mentioned above? Well, know this: When Tommie hit it, it narrowed the gap between the most prodigious home run-hitting seasons by a Met from 12 to 11. Until September 1, 1969, with Agee sitting on 22, Tommie trailed Frank Thomas’s team-record total of 34 by a dozen. Agee had hit No. 22 on August 21, at Shea, versus Ron Bryant of the Giants. He hit No. 21 on August 19 in the bottom of the fourteenth to beat Juan Marichal and San Francisco, 1-0. That one is a legend because it beat a future Hall of Famer, broke up an extraordinarily lengthy dual shutout and added to the mounting evidence that the 1969 Mets were a very serious enterprise.

No. 21 also had the distinction of adding up to the second-most prodigious home run-hitting season by a Met. Agee surpassed Charley Smith’s total of 20 from 1964. Until August 19, 1969, Smith was the runner-up in the then-thin Met record books’ even thinner chapter on dingers. It went Thomas 34; Smith 20; and everybody else 19-or-under. The gap between largest and second-largest quantity had been 14 for five years. When Agee went deep to start September, the difference had dropped beneath 12. We’ve made that clear already.

But why are we dwelling on this? Because of the following:

• When Agee finished 1969 with 26 home runs, the gap between best and second-best single-season Met home run totals was reduced to eight: Thomas 34; Agee 26. That remained the order of things through 1974.

• When Dave Kingman set up shop at Shea in 1975 and popped 36 home runs to establish a new Mets single-season record, the order was overturned and the gap shrank: Kingman 36; Thomas 34.

• A year later, in 1976, Dave topped himself by one: Kingman 37, Kingman 36.

• Six years later, in 1982, Dave tied himself: Kingman 37; Kingman 37.

• After a half-decade pause, a new champ announced his presence with authority. Darryl Strawberry set the new Mets home run mark in 1987 by two: Strawberry 39; Kingman 37 (twice).

• Straw would match his best in 1988, leaving the top two Met home run-hitting seasons as Strawberry 39; Strawberry 39.

• Then, in 1996, emerged a man in full — a catcher named Todd Hundley — to upend the top of this chart: Hundley 41; Strawberry 39 (twice).

• Between 1996 and 1999, something that seemed incredibly unlikely happened. Hundley, the toast of Flushing, was replaced behind the plate by all-world All-Star Mike Piazza. Piazza couldn’t quite usurp Hundley’s most cherished record, but he did take the 2 spot in the single-season home run standings from Darryl, just as he had taken the 2 spot in the lineup card from Todd: Hundley 41; Piazza 40.

• Seven years later, however, it was Piazza who was nudged aside. Carlos Beltran equaled Todd Hundley’s Mets-best total in 2006: Hundley 41; Beltran 41.

For the longest time thereafter, nobody challenged Hundley’s 41 or, for that matter, Beltran’s 41. All that incrementalism that followed in the wake of Agee moving within 11 home runs of Thomas on September 1, 1969…

Thomas by 8 over Agee at the end of 1969;
Kingman by 2 over Thomas at the end of 1975;
Kingman by 1 over himself at the end of 1976;
Kingman tied with himself at the end of 1982;
Strawberry by 2 over Kingman at the end of 1987;
Strawberry tied with himself at the end of 1988;
Hundley by 2 over Strawberry at the end of 1996;
Hundley by 1 over Piazza at the end of 1999;
and Beltran tied with Hundley at the end of 2006

…added up to little in the way of fundamental change at the top of the Mets’ single-season home run leaderboard. The record that was 34 in 1962 inched up to 41 thirty-four seasons later and remained stagnant for twenty-two seasons beyond that. There was, for thirteen years, no daylight between the top two power campaigns in Mets history, and for almost exactly fifty years, the difference between the top and next-to-the-top had never measured a distance as vast as a dozen home runs.

Then along came Pete Alonso.

Pete came, Pete saw, Pete conquered.

Pete came and kept coming.

By the time Pete Alonso finished arriving, he grasped everything within his expansive reach. The last two items that were up grabs in 2019 have just now become Alonso’s as well.

First, as voted on by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and revealed Monday night, Pete is the National League Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year [1], winning the award almost unanimously over a strong freshman slate that, honestly, didn’t seem particularly imposing by comparison to the man known popularly as the Polar Bear. Twenty-nine voters out of thirty listed Alonso atop their ballots; a lone misguided soul strained for a reason to stand apart from his colleagues and placed Pete second (there’s one in every crowd). Lack of unanimity notwithstanding, Alonso is the sixth Met to win the BBWAA’s NL ROY, following in the hallowed footsteps of Tom Seaver in 1967, Jon Matlack in 1972, Darryl Strawberry in 1983, Dwight Gooden in 1984 and Jacob deGrom in 2014.

Second, though not least by our reckoning, Pete Alonso is Faith and Fear in Flushing’s choice for the Richie Ashburn Most Valuable Met award. Pete is the second rookie in the fifteen-year history of the award to earn FAFIF’s official kudos, joining Jacob deGrom, who was so recognized by us five years ago. Pete also breaks deGrom’s recent stranglehold on the Ashburn, an honor the pitcher took home in 2017 and 2018. Alonso is our first position-player MVM since Asdrubal Cabrera in 2016 and the first full-time first baseman to receive the nod.

Pete Alonso, you might have heard, socked 53 home runs in 2019, the most of any major leaguer in the past season; the most of any rookie in any season; and 12 more than any Met before him. Outhomering the field was outstanding. Elbowing aside every erstwhile freshman was appreciated. But the complete renovation he undertook of the Mets annals was utterly astounding.

The Met rookie records are practically all Alonso’s: hits, extra-base hits (he has the overall franchise record there with 85), runs, runs batted in (120, tied for third-most among Mets in general), total bases (348, another team mark), at bats, plate appearances, games played, slugging percentage, on-base percentage…though he only tied Ike Davis and Lee Mazzilli for most first-year bases on balls with 72. The rookie home run record, of course, also belongs to Alonso. It used to be held by Strawberry, with 26. That seemed like a lot in ’83. It seemed like a lot until ’19. Pete surpassed Straw on June 23. Even allowing for Darryl not debuting until May 6 of his rookie year, that represented an awfully quick revision.

Ditto for the team record for home runs by rookies, veterans and everybody in between. Pete blasted his 42nd home run on August 27. That left him more than a month to run up the score on Hundley, Beltran and history. Pete proceeded to use September to generate a lifetime’s worth of dust in which to leave the old mark of 41.

The difference between Alonso’s Mets record of 53 home runs and the version that preceded his isn’t the sole reason he is our Ashburn of the moment, but it illustrates just what a difference maker he was. A difference of 12 home runs between the all-time team standard and the second-highest total, even in a vacuum, is enormous. Mets fans had devoted themselves for fifty-seven years to a cause whose power was more spiritual than actual. Power pitchers we had. Power hitters we graded on a curve. Through 2018, our single-season record was the second-most modest in all of baseball. That figured. We were gobsmacked when Kingman eclipsed Thomas when he got to 35. We were thrilled when Hundley reached and nosed past 40. The first climb took thirteen years, the second required another twenty-one, and nobody took a higher step for the next twenty-two. We resisted the temptation to hold our breath that anybody would ever top Todd. We were conditioned by experience to not peer particularly high.

Alonso changed all that. He gave us a telescope and taught us how to navigate the stars, Ursa Major (“the great bear”) the brightest among them.

What Pete did surely wasn’t accomplished in a vacuum. Inside a year’s time, with zero major league credentials established in advance of Opening Day, Pete asserted himself as the visage of the franchise before anybody had a chance to fret over service time concerns. As a rookie, he made himself the focal point of New York National League baseball. He did it by force of a mighty swing and a mightier personality. He did it naturally. In a sport where youngsters are traditionally instructed to know your place, rook, Alonso saw his place as front and center on a team striving to rise above low expectations and shake free of stubborn mediocrity.

Pete staked out his place and pace early and often. Nine homers in April. Ten more in May. Twenty-eight before the Fourth of July. Almost every one of them stirred the skies. It’s hard to say what was more fun: counting them or watching them. Before the second half kicked in, we were assured we wouldn’t waste our summer prayin’ in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.

By midseason, there was no question the Polar Bear was The Man in Queens. He took his burgeoning reputation to Cleveland for the Home Run Derby in July and increased it exponentially. The 57 home runs he blasted out of Progressive Field may not have counted toward his 162-game total, but geez they made an impression. Winning the Derby in a Mets uniform presented us with a gratifying exhibition achievement. Immediately announcing he’d be donating a significant portion of his million-dollar winnings to the Wounded Warrior Project and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation confirmed we had somebody special swinging for the fences.

Alonso was the head-to-toe package. Especially the toes, as we learned from the story of the special shoes he commissioned for him and his teammates to wear on September 11. It was a brilliantly conceived heartfelt tribute to the first responders who gave their lives eighteen years earlier, to their families who go on without them, “to all the ordinary people who felt a sense of urgency and an admirable call of duty. It’s for all the people that lost their lives and all the people that did so much to help.”

Pete was 24 when he expressed those sentiments after the game with the shoes, a game when MLB, in its infinite wisdom, forbade the Mets from wearing the first-responder caps they wore in observance of a terrible municipal loss from 2001 through 2007. Pete, a six-year-old on 9/11/01 but by no means born yesterday, knew how the Torreadors over on Park Avenue could be about enforcing pointless regulations, so he strategized a workaround, got every one of his teammates on board and paid for a roster’s worth of footwear.

And he’s still 24.

The 24-year-old says thoughtful things, introspective things, hilarious things and pithy things. The briefest of his remarks, articulated in July, as the Mets were finding their competitive footing, was simply “LFGM.” We all capeeshed. LFGM became a hashtag, a rallying cry and the backbeat to a playoff chase surge almost nobody anticipated. Nobody but Pete and his co-workers, perhaps. Directly preceding his four-letter declaration of contention, Pete spelled it out in a tweet:

“Our goal is to make history. We strive every day to be great and nothing less.”

The 2019 Mets flirted with something historic, at one point pulling down fifteen wins in sixteen games and fleetingly turning Citi Field into a summer festival. From wallowing eleven games under to reveling ten games over, they didn’t get quite where wanted them to be, but Pete and his pals took us a lot closer than we dared hope. Before the team got going, Alonso’s rendezvous with destiny had already come into focus. He kept it going and going.

50…51…52…all the way to 53.

Now, we are delighted to believe, all the way to next year.

A difference maker in so many ways. A freshmaker in a Mentos kind of way. As valuable as we could have imagined had our imaginations spanned as broad as a Polar Bear’s back, something we got a good look at thanks to those shirt-ripping walkoff celebrations he somehow thought to initiate when he wasn’t thinking up and doing everything else.

Our MVM. Our Em-Vee-Pete.

2005 [2]: Pedro Martinez
2006 [3]: Carlos Beltran
2007 [4]: David Wright
2008 [5]: Johan Santana
2009 [6]: Pedro Feliciano
2010 [7]: R.A. Dickey
2011 [8]: Jose Reyes
2012 [9]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [10]: Daniel Murphy, Dillon Gee and LaTroy Hawkins
2014 [11]: Jacob deGrom
2015 [12]: Yoenis Cespedes
2016 [13]: Asdrubal Cabrera
2017 [14]: Jacob deGrom
2018 [15]: Jacob deGrom

Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2019.