University of Florida

Former UF star Pete Alonso ‘living a fantasy’ as stellar rookie year with Mets unfolds

Mets’ Alonso talks about ‘surreal’ experience of winning Home Run Derby

Pete Alonso talks about beating Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the finals to win the MLB's 2019 Home Run Derby.
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Pete Alonso talks about beating Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the finals to win the MLB's 2019 Home Run Derby.

Pete Alonso’s first Major League Baseball home run was one to remember.

In the ninth inning against the Miami Marlins on April 1, the New York Mets’ slugging first baseman belted out a towering 444-foot shot to straightaway center field at Marlins Park to cap a four-run ninth-inning rally for a 7-3 Mets win.

Alonso, raised in Tampa and a former University of Florida star, has hit 29 more since then to open his rookie season. He cemented himself as one of baseball’s top power hitters and put his home run talents on full display at Cleveland’s Progressive Field on Monday night when he upstaged Toronto Blue Jays star rookie Vlad Guerrero Jr. to win the 2019 Home Run Derby.

He will continue his time in Cleveland on Tuesday night when he plays as a reserve for the National League team in the 2019 All-Star Game. He’s the first UF player named an All-Star since pitcher Darren O’Day in 2015.

“I’m living a fantasy right now,” Alonso said.

But Alonso always knew, at some point, this fantasy would be reality.

Call it stubbornness. Call it sheer determination.

Alonso refers to it simply as a “strong self belief.”

“Regardless of the circumstance, I always felt like I could overcome anything. That’s just my personal attitude,” Alonso said. “If I can come in with that attitude and keep the fear out, anything’s possible.”

It’s that sense of determination that turned the fun-loving, power-hitting 24-year-old into one of baseball’s faces of the future.

He plays hard. He stays positive in the midst of the Mets’ rough season, one that has them at 40-50 at the break — just six games ahead of the Marlins for last place in the NL East. The Mets and Marlins open the second half of the season with a three-game series at Marlins Park on Friday.

And he’s candid while staying true to himself.

He credits his hard hits to chocolate milk and squats.

He embraces the “Polar Bear” moniker given to him by teammate Todd Frazier during spring training. He wore customized polar bear cleats during Monday’s Home Run Derby.

He’s donating 10 percent of his $1 million Home Run Derby prize money — a reward that’s almost double his $550,000 rookie minimum salary — to charity. He’ll give $50,000 each to the Wounded Warrior Project and Tunnel to Towers. Both of his grandparents were in the military.

“There’s so many people that are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice every day,” Alonso said. “They don’t know what they’re going to go into when they go into work. A bad day at work for them is a lot different than me going 0 for 4 or getting booed off field.”

The rest of the prize money, he said, will help pay for his wedding.

He idolizes and emulates players like him: slugging first baseman who throw and bat right-handed.

Alonso on Monday specifically mentioned Paul Goldschmidt, the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman who was named to six consecutive All-Star Games from 2013-2018.

“He’s not here, and I am,” Alonso said. “That’s the most humbling thing about this.”

But it serves as another reminder: Alonso is here because he can compete against the best.

“For me, I just try to go out there and rip the name off the back of the jersey,” Alonso said. “It’s the big leagues for a reason. You’ve got to face the Strasburgs, the Scherzers, the Kershaws. You have to slay the dragon. In order to be successful, you have to beat those aces.

“As long as you’re in the big leagues, you have a chance to do something special.”

He’s exemplified that through the first half of the 2019 season as he makes his case for NL Rookie of the Year.

Alonso leads all rookies this season in homers (30), RBI (68), extra-base hits (53), on-base percentage (.372), slugging percentage (.634), OPS (1.006), total bases (206), runs scored (57), hits (91), multi-hit games (29), doubles (21) and walks (37).

His 30 home runs before the All-Star break are tied with Aaron Judge’s 2017 mark for the second most in MLB history by a rookie, behind Mark McGwire’s 33 in 1987. He’s also just the second player in Mets history to hit 30 before the All-Star break and is 11 shy of tying Todd Huntley (1996) and Carlos Beltran (2006) for the Mets’ single-season franchise record.

His 68 RBI before the All-Star break is an MLB rookie record.

But his baseball-mashing talents were on display long before he reached the major leagues.

As a sophomore at UF, he became the first player to hit a home run to straightaway center field at TD Ameritrade Park, doing so off the Miami Hurricanes’ Derik Beauprez in a College World Series elimination game in Omaha, Nebraska. The ball traveled an estimated 429 feet.

In the 2018 Futures Game, he hit a two-run homer with a 113.6 mph exit velocity and a launch angle of 46 degrees. It was the only ball Statcast had tracked to that point with an exit velocity over 113 mph and a launch angle over 40 degrees.

Now, the rest of the baseball world knows who Pete Alonso is.

Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.