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Mets’ Pete Alonso could always hit, even as a South Tampa kid

The success of the Plant High alumnus doesn’t surprise his youth baseball teammates.
Pete Alonso, holding plaque, is pictured in his early years with members of the Tampa Heat travel-ball team. From left, Matt Lipinczyk, Drew Sassone, Will Jennings, Alonso, Spencer Trayner and coach Mike Friedlein. [Courtesy of Will Jennings]
Published Jul. 8

Spencer Trayner looked on from the parking lot as a young Pete Alonso, a teammate on the Salty Dogs, climbed out of his car and tumbled face-first to the asphalt at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota.

Unscathed, Alonso picked himself up and went 4-for-4 for his travel-ball team on that summer day in 2006.

That’s just what he always did in the batter’s box.

Former teammates recalled quirky childhood scenes of the Tampa native and current New York Mets first baseman, but memories of Alonso with a bat in his hands are far more prominent.

Alonso, a 24-year-old Plant High graduate, has 30 home runs with the Mets this season, including a two-run shot Sunday against the Phillies that broke up Aaron Nola’s no-hit bid in the sixth inning.

Alonso is the first rookie to hit 30 homers before the All-Star break since the Yankees’ Aaron Judge in 2017. Only Mark McGwire has hit more as a rookie before the break, 33 in 1987. Alonso also set the National League rookie record with 68 RBIs before the break and most extra-base hits with 53. And last month he broke Darryl Strawberry’s Mets record for most home runs (26) by a rookie … for a season; Alonso hit No. 27 in just his 77th game.

But Alonso’s hitting prowess became clear in his earliest days of travel ball.

From natural to methodical

Alonso’s approach at the plate grew more methodical as he progressed through the University of Florida and the professional ranks. Now the slugger takes notes in a composition book to track his major-league plate appearances.

“The Pete I knew would have colored in that book with crayons,” Trayner said recently, with a laugh. “He had so much fun out there, playing baseball all the time.”

So it came as no surprise to Trayner when Major League Baseball selected Alonso, that once-goofy kid who occasionally tripped over his own feet, to this year’s All-Star Game and Home Run Derby in Cleveland.

Trayner, a Tampa native living in Chapel Hill, N.C., said that Alonso’s fun-loving personality and lighthearted moments are part of why he is so great.

“He never took it too seriously,” said Trayner, now 24. “I think that’s part of why he developed into such a good hitter. He never overthought it.”

Former teammates and coaches said Alonso didn’t tower over other players, but he was a man among boys when he stepped up to the plate. Even when he was only 12 years old, the now 6-foot-3, 245-pound first baseman made hitting look easy.

Putting barrel on ball

Mike Friedlein coached Alonso with the Tampa Heat from ages 12 to 14. He said that Alonso naturally developed elite bat speed and exceptional hand-eye coordination in his early teenage years.

“He puts the barrel on the ball, and that’s a hard thing to do,” Friedlein said. “We just kind of left him alone and said, ‘Pete, you do what you do.’ ”

Alonso regularly hit the ball hard, and home runs became a natural result. That trend of barreled balls continued for Alonso in his high school freshman year at Jesuit.

Freshman Daniel Portales took the mound in his blue Jesuit shirt at a varsity tryout in January 2010. With the sun setting and the stadium lights shining overhead, Alonso stepped into the batter’s box. He pulled his royal blue socks up to the bottom of his knee, the same way he wears them now with the Mets. In his first varsity tryout, the righty slugger showed off his power against Portales.

“I got him into an 0-2 count, and he lifted a low changeup from 4 inches off the ground to the rightfield fence,” said Portales, now 23, recalling that day. “I never felt comfortable in any count. It was always tough facing him.”

Fielding a choice, not a chore

While Alonso always performed at the plate, he regularly had to work on other parts of his game to fend off critics. As recently as last August, the Mets hinted at Alonso’s defense as one reason not to call him up to the big leagues.

“He has listened to people, his whole life, tell him what he can’t do,” Friedlein said. “When people would be critical of his game, he would work to make it a strength, even at a young age.”

Former teammates and coaches said that Alonso’s determined work ethic and pleasing personality have persisted from childhood to the big leagues.

“He’s just a kind of kid that understands baseball is a very difficult game,” Friedlein said. “If you’re going to strike out or make an error and stress out about those things, then this probably isn’t the game for you.”

Will Jennings, a teammate on the Heat, said that Alonso spent more time in the batting cages than anyone he knew. When Alonso wasn’t in the cages, he was working on his fielding or throwing a baseball with his dad.

“A lot of guys would get on him for his ability to field, and I think that’s something that he made a big-time effort to improve,” Jennings said.

Team-first attitude

John Kilichowski, a former teammate at Jesuit who played against Alonso in travel ball, said the power-hitting first baseman was always an impressive hitter. But for as good as Alonso was on the field, he was always a more impressive teammate.

“He’s one of the more positive people you’ll ever be around,” said Kilichowski, now 25. “When I see his interviews and stuff, it doesn’t seem like he’s changed at all.”

“He probably thinks he’s never worked a day in his life,” Trayner said.

Friedlein, 39, said that Alonso thrives in New York because everyone who meets him, loves him. The second-round pick in 2016 out of Florida quickly became a fan favorite with the Mets, prompting Friedlein to compare him to another beloved New York figure.

“It’s almost how Mets fans fell in love with David Wright all those years ago,” Friedlein said. “That’s what’s happening with Pete.”

Alonso’s fun-loving personality and approach at the plate shook up the majors, and he now finds himself leading the race for NL rookie of the year.

On Monday night, the homegrown product has a chance to show out under a national spotlight in the Home Run Derby.

“What I’m looking forward to is Pete being Pete,” Friedlein said. “People in New York are getting to know him, so once he puts that on the world stage, people are going to love him just like we do.”

Contact Ryan Kolakowski at rkolakowski@tampabay.com. Follow @RyanKolakowski.

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