The fish pounce on everything thrown at them, and Pete Alonso and friends haul in reds, snook and trout from this semi-secret spot off Tampa Bay like they're grabbing M&M's out of a bowl. A catch-and-release derby is suddenly on, and Alonso starts happily handing the rods to the interlopers on the boat, cameraman Logan Cascia, sound man Greg Ellis and me. Pete's having a blast and wants to share the joy because, well, that's how he's wired.
I've fished a little, but my movement to throw out the line is -- well, deliberate. Imagine Bartolo Colon's home run trot and you get the idea. Pete probably has reason to be concerned that three more generations of fish might spawn and die off before I get my line in the water. Like a cheerful dad, he grabs the rod out of my hands and, with a snap of his right wrist, he launches the bait dead center into the distant rippling that is generated by the movement of fish.
I'm kind of pouting internally -- I wanted to throw my own line -- but when the snook hits, I stop caring about inadequacy and haul it in, slowly, and once it's in the boat, I follow Pete's instructions to kiss it on the nose, to show proper respect. Before I know it, he has thrown another baited hook into the water for me, and bang, there's another fish on the line, the pull addictive.
The six in the boat probably combined for something in the range of 50 fish in less than two hours, and as we steer back toward Tampa, Pete looks at Logan, who has repositioned his camera. "Did you have fun?" he asks cheerfully above the rumbling of the motor, before posing the same question directly to Greg, and then to me.
The grin Alonso wears is the same one you see every time he's in a Mets uniform, every time he gregariously greets opposing players at first base as if he's welcoming them through the front door of his home. When he hit his 53rd homer of 2019 and broke Aaron Judge's rookie record last September at Citi Field and was saluted by fans, he absorbed the experience and reflected on the journey he had made. Did you have fun? And Pete began to weep openly, joyfully. "It's like, 'Holy s---, I did it,'" he said in a January interview. "That's it. It's like I can't believe it. And then seeing all the fans there, I was looking around and everyone's going crazy and I just couldn't believe it. Just the positive energy, the energy that the fans were giving off, I felt the love, I felt the energy, I felt the true passion and I felt that that home run meant so much more, so much for the city of New York."
If you want your heroes to love what they do the way you imagine you would if you traded places, then you love Alonso. The word earnest seems to have been imagined for the 25-year-old first baseman of the New York Mets. "He's a natural," said the Rangers' Todd Frazier, a mentor to Alonso in 2019. "He's funny in his own little way, with a little goofiness added to it, and people see that quickly and they clam onto him. New York has a really good one there, and I hope he stays there for a long time because he's going to make the city really happy."
There could be a tendency for a young player having success, teammate Robinson Cano said, to drift into a mindset of, "Like, 'Oh, I'm the man,' if you hit 30 home runs. Well, he hit 50, and that's on another level. And he comes in here and he's the same guy. He's so humble."
"The happiest person in the clubhouse," Cano said. "He's always happy talking to everybody, and I love that. He makes sure that he gives everybody attention."
Everybody. When he was invited to last year's Home Run Derby in Cleveland, he asked his cousin Derek Morgan to throw to him, as he had always envisioned, and mapped out how much of his winnings he would donate to charity. In the days leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, Alonso planned, ordered and paid for baseball cleats specially designed to honor the victims and first responders of that day. The gesture touched a city, and of course Alonso donated a pair of the "Never Forget" cleats to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Frazier pinned him with the nickname the Polar Bear, for his size and garrulous personality -- a baseball teddy bear seemingly so unaffected you might assume he lacks scars.
But you would be wrong. He has been hurt, and Pete Alonso remembers all of it, and to this day, he seethes as he recounts some of the mistreatment. Most ballplayers don't look anything like Alonso. He is 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, and unlike his mostly lithe peers, he is more warehouse than skyscraper. When the Astros' Josh Reddick collided with Alonso in spring training of 2019, Reddick dropped like he had run into the first story of a building. Alonso reached down to help him up, but Reddick lay on his back, gasping for breath.
When Alonso sprints, his feet flip up behind him so that you wonder if he'll kick himself in the ass. "His arms and legs are everywhere," Frazier said. "That's just Pete, man ... he runs funny." Alonso doesn't have the graceful, angular movement of first basemen like the Padres' Eric Hosmer or the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo. Alonso is different.
In January, Alonso was honored at Tampa's Academy of Holy Names, where he attended middle school, and in a question-and-answer session with students, he talked about hitting against the Atlanta Braves, about fame, about being recognized on the street in New York and being chided for swinging at a bad pitch.
And, wearing a light blue suit over a collared shirt, he talked about being different in middle school. "I was kind of a weird guy," he said. "But being weird is cool. Don't change for anything."
He had always stood out as a boy growing up in a well-to-do area of Tampa, the kid who was taller than his peers in the class photo, the kid who was heavier. Alonso and Michael Pepe had been part of the same baby playgroup, traveled in adjacent infant carriers, went to school together, battled in paintball, fished off the dock of Alonso's grandfather. "He was always the biggest kid in the room, the goofiest kid," Pepe recalled, "and always had a heart of gold."
Alonso played baseball all the time and even when they were kids, Pepe remembered, his athleticism was apparent. But he wouldn't grow into his body until about the time he was a junior in high school. Before that, he was bullied for years about his weight and shape.
Fatso. Fatty. Fat boy. To hear his friend taunted by other kids in this way, Pepe said, "hurt me on the inside. It really did. It hurt me for him. It made you want to get angry, but Pete was never the one to get angry. That was something I had learned from Pete, was to control my emotions and to not get angry, and Pete never got angry. No matter what you said to Pete, he would just shrug it off.
"He grew to accept it, just like he has anything. That was something that he worked on. He was like, 'OK. I'm a little big. I'm a little chunky. I'm a little slow.'"
In spite of his relative size and strength. Alonso might have been a perfect target for those taunts, because of his earnestness, because his emotions are apparent, and because he wouldn't retaliate. Alonso did not deflect those experiences -- he absorbed them. "I internalized a lot of things," he said. "I didn't fight back. I also have a high pain tolerance, [if] I was punched or kicked or something like that before, it didn't hurt physically. But it hurt mentally. That's stuff that I still remember who exactly did it. I still remember who and I remember what."
Alonso remained tethered to a simple dream, something he envisioned as a child and would write about in school repeatedly -- in the seventh grade, in later years: He wanted to play major league baseball, and he wanted to do what he needed to do to make that happen. Once, when he and Pepe were just starting high school, they were at a Brazilian restaurant and Pepe asked his friend about the possibility that baseball might not work out. "Is there a Plan B?" Pepe inquired.
"There is no Plan B," Alonso replied.
"Nothing wrong with it," Pepe said, assuring his friend. "Keep rolling. Keep doing you."
Alonso's perspective about the baseball future he envisioned, Pepe said, never wavered. "Nothing changed him."
Alonso says now, "It's being stubborn and just a very strong inner belief because if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will."
People kept telling Alonso how different he was, how inadequate, and he retains every bit of it. The high school coach who, when Alonso decided to switch high schools, told the teenager he'd never be good enough for college. The professor who returned his essay about aspirations with a C grade and a comment that his dream of playing baseball was not realistic. The scouts, many of whom saw the body and the way he ran and didn't envision a pro ball player.
Alonso's agent, Tripper Johnson, a former No. 1 pick of the Orioles who got to know Alonso in high school, saw raw tools that he thought would eventually translate. Johnson remembers one scout, the Pirates' Nick Presto, telling him he had something special in Alonso, but the majority of others doubted whether he could play Division I for Florida, even after Alonso committed to play for the Gators. "A bunch of them said, 'There's no way he's going to survive there,'" Johnson recalled. "'He'll go there for a semester and have to transfer out. His game's not going to translate there.'"
Alonso played three seasons for the Gators, his average climbing from .264 in his freshman year to .374 as a junior. But there was a time when he felt backlash from teammates -- more specifically, roommates -- over his long-distance relationship with Haley Renee Walsh. Alonso met Walsh when he was playing summer ball in the Cape Cod League. She was enrolled at Michigan State and is now Pete's fiancée. They talked all the time over the phone. "I just couldn't get enough of her," Alonso recalled. "For me, this was the one."
His roommates continued to make comments, and to this day, he harbors clear memories of what they said. He couldn't understand why they would badger him about working on a relationship, why they'd send illicit photos to his social media in the hopes of ruining his relationship. "It got bad to where they were totally tearing into me about it," he recalled. "And then I was really upset."
And Pete Alonso, the genial kid who had quietly absorbed a lot of words in his lifetime, stood up for himself. He confronted the person who had sent the images to his social media, grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him off a scooter. "Look," Alonso said to his antagonist, "you need to stop. Don't ever do that."
Asked about the confrontation, Gators head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said in a statement: "Pete was one of the most driven people I have ever coached and always used doubters to motivate himself. He uses that to his advantage. Pete came to the University of Florida undrafted out of high school, and worked himself into a 2nd-round draft pick in one of our deepest draft classes in my 14 years at Florida. Pete was arguably our hardest worker, and I always respected that. I really enjoyed coaching Pete, and I hope he follows up being Rookie of the Year with an MVP-caliber season."
There would be professional doubts that Alonso would have to overcome after being drafted by the Mets with the 64th pick in the 2016 draft. The most valuable commodities are pitchers or shortstops, and right-handed hitting first basemen are considered among the least valuable -- and for a National League team like the Mets, there was the inherent question about whether Alonso could improve enough defensively to be serviceable in the big leagues.
At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Alonso embraced the challenge of going through a defense boot camp with former Mets infielder Tim Teufel -- Alonso used the right-handed throwing Paul Goldschmidt as the model for what he wanted to become -- and improved dramatically in the field. But after hitting 36 homers and driving in 119 runs across Double-A and Triple-A in 2018, Alonso was not promoted to the big leagues in September -- it was far from certain that he was part of the Mets' long-term plans, as Brodie Van Wagenen took over as general manager from Sandy Alderson.
"There were some guys who did not think Pete could play first base," said J.P. Ricciardi, who worked in the Mets' front office at that time. "There were even some guys who talked about trading him, and they didn't really give him much credit as being able to go over and play first, and put himself in position to change their minds. There was some question if the power was going to be enough to keep him there with a subpar glove.
"I think he's erased that."
All of it. Every bit of it. He destroyed records in his first year, won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Ricciardi, who works for the Giants now, sought out Alonso last summer and congratulated him for the way he worked himself into excellence. "He's a sincere kid," Ricciardi said. "He really, really cares. He wears his emotions on his sleeves.
"I felt really bad for him [in 2018] when we didn't call him up ... I told him that he handled it very well. I knew he was seething inside. I felt for him because he deserved to be in the big leagues in September, and he wasn't called up."
Said Mets teammate Jeff McNeil, who met and played with Alonso in the minor leagues: "I think it drives him a lot. He wants to prove people wrong. I know he's read scouting reports [of himself] -- 'He's never going to be this, he's never going to be that.' I think he loves that. It fuels his fire and drives him to be the best player he can be."
Pepe attended the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game -- Alonso called him and asked, "Got any plans this week?" -- and witnessed how Pete's joy resonated for a national audience. Those goofy, vulnerable parts of Alonso's personality that made him more likely to be picked on when Pepe and Pete were kids -- more likely to be dismissed -- were now celebrated, and cherished.
They met at the team hotel after the Derby and the old friends were both crying. "Awesome job, dude," Pepe said. "You deserve everything from this. Every bit of this." They hugged and Alonso looked at Pepe and said, "There was no Plan B."
Pepe looked at the New York newspapers the morning after the Derby and thought: Oh, my God, Pete is the mayor of New York City.
"They love him. Rightfully so," Pepe said. "How do you not love him? He's positive, he's got a great personality. He leads by example, and his character just radiates throughout the room, throughout New York City. It just spreads joy and cheer for everyone. He makes people better people, just being Pete. That's just the way he is, and he's never going to change."