NEW YORK – Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States and perhaps the most famous New Yorker of all time, once wrote a phrase that would go on to define not only himself, but his foreign policy as president.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
Nearly 120 years later, two of Teddy’s Big Apple brethren are embodying that principle.
One of them, Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, burst onto the Major League Baseball scene in 2017 with one of the greatest rookie seasons in professional sports history. Yet he remained humble and kind; a favorite among fans and in the clubhouse.
Two years later and one borough over, Pete Alonso – who announced himself on the national stage Monday night with his victory in the Home Run Derby – is giving Judge a run for his money while following in his larger-than-life path.
“New York needs this,” said Alonso’s Mets teammate Todd Frazier, who was a member of the Yankees during Judge’s rookie season. “To have two guys like this, who’ve taken the city by storm, hopefully for eight, 10 more years – it can only be good for New York.”
Alonso’s 30th home run of the season came on Sunday, in the final game of a frustrating first half for the Mets. Phillies ace Aaron Nola tried to sneak an 0-2 curveball past Alonso, and 396 feet later, the ball landed.
That one didn’t have the searing exit velocity of many of Alonso’s first-half homers. It didn’t travel 454 feet like his 27th of the year off Cole Hamels on June 23. It didn’t smash the facing of the third deck like No. 23 off Michael Wacha on June 15. But it was gone, and it put Alonso in rarified air.
The raw numbers are astounding. Alonso’s 30 jacks before the All-Star Game are tied with Judge’s 2017 effort. The only rookie to hit more homers in the first half was Mark McGwire (33) in 1987.
Alonso has also broken the National League record for RBIs by a rookie before the break with 68, and for extra-base hits with 53. Among all NL players, he ranks second in both home runs and extra-base hits, third in RBIs, OPS+, and WAR for position players, and fourth in slugging percentage.
This would all be unbelievable – almost unfathomable – had the same thing not happened across town two seasons ago.
When Judge started crushing balls in the Bronx, he became the latest sensation in a city that craves and invents heroes – in sports, in cinema, on Wall Street, and on Broadway.
It began with a brief MLB cameo during 2016, when he homered in his first at-bat, and then again the next day. When Judge homered in three straight games early in 2017, his official rookie season, his legend in the city began to grow.
He’d go on to hit seven more home runs in April, and another seven in May. By the middle of that month, fans were going to Yankee Stadium wearing judge’s robes and white wigs.
At 6-foot-7, 282 pounds and built like a defensive end or a power forward, Judge soon captured the attention of baseball fans everywhere. He finished that 2017 season with new rookie records of 52 home runs and 127 walks while hitting .284 with 114 RBIs and a 1.069 OPS. He also won the Home Run Derby.
As far as openings go, this was Hamilton, front row.
“I played with him in Triple-A, too, and you knew what was in store,” Yankees catcher Austin Romine said. “Immediately when he came in and started doing well, he became a star in the game. Guys who played with him knew what he was going to be.”
They didn’t know what he’d be like in the major-league clubhouse, though, and that’s what impressed them even more.
It’s also yet another reason Judge and Alonso are cut from the same cloth.
On a sweltering Tuesday night in early July, New Yorkers descended upon Citi Field to watch the two hulks swap long balls before a Yankees-Mets clash.
For either Judge or Alonso, batting practice is an event. But both of them on the same night? It’s Ali-Frazier at the Garden; Pacino and De Niro at the same movie premiere.
Earlier in the day, Alonso had taken some extra hacks with his cousin Derek Morgan to prepare for Monday’s Home Run Derby. But that was before the gates were open to fans.
He was now in front of a growing crowd, and for those on the field watching him hit, it was a real treat. Fat Joe’s “All The Way Up” played on the loudspeakers as Alonso delivered souvenirs into the bleachers. Eyes were transfixed, with phones up, hoping to capture just a small piece of the prodigious power. He absolutely destroyed a ball on his last swing, and as another hitter walked into the cage, everyone returned to their conversations.
More surprisingly, instead of hurrying back to the clubhouse, Alonso lingered.
A young boy in a Michael Conforto jersey was too shy to ask for an autograph, so Alonso approached him and asked for a pen. A young girl, half the boy’s size and sporting a pink flamingo pin in her hair, didn’t quite grasp the enormity of the occasion. So, Alonso dropped to a knee and asked for the ball that barely fit her hand. He signed it, then took a picture with the two of them. Their father beamed. And get this: Alonso thanked them for the photo.
Next, he strode off, but not before chatting with another fan, and not before fist-bumping a security guard along the way. Near the Mets’ dugout, a group of supporters waved at Alonso and he paused to wave back. A reporter from SNY asked for an interview, and Alonso granted him a full 15 minutes.
Suddenly, I was reminded of the summer of 2017, when I first wrote about Judge. It was almost the same scenario, only at Yankee Stadium. Judge was five days away from adorning the cover of Sports Illustrated, but he still mingled with fans, signed autographs, and smiled for cameras. Like Alonso, he stopped to chat with a reporter for 20 minutes, offering more and more time. It was a window into the mind of the gracious, young slugger.
That day, Judge said he never gets too high because baseball is a humbling sport, and that it’s a privilege to be a Yankee.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Romine said. “He’s just a good dude, man. There’s nothing negative about the way he approaches the game and life. Whether he went 4-for-4 with four homers or 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, he was the same guy. He treats every single person he encounters the same exact way, with the same amount of respect, from the staff down to the guys who scrub the cleats. He commands the room in every aspect, no matter where he is. One of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
Frazier sees the same qualities in the Mets’ young slugger, who pledged to donate $100,000 of his $1-million Derby prize to be split between the Wounded Warrior Project and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
“Pete is a quiet guy, too, but he speaks well, he crushes balls just like Aaron does, he’s a big boy, and we call him Polar Bear for a reason,” Frazier said. “But I’ll tell you, I saw him yesterday standing next to Aaron and he looked more like a baby bear.”
Every so often, you’re reminded that Alonso is still a kid, much like Judge was in his rookie year.
Last week, there was a giant stuffed polar bear in a No. 20 Alonso jersey next to his locker. The former University of Florida star still has a pair of Gators cleats in his tidy locker. And on Saturday afternoon, a Seinfeld bobblehead remained from the giveaway the night before, when the comedy icon threw out the first pitch and got a signed bat from Alonso.
It’s all part of the rookie’s key to success.
“Staying true to myself, not deviating from who I am,” Alonso said last week while sporting a pair of blue Captain America socks. “I’ve been the same guy. I can have a great career, and I can have great numbers that look really nice on a baseball card, and that’s a dream of mine, but at the end of the day, I want people not to remember me for my numbers. I want to be known as a good teammate, a good friend, and a good person. I’m happy I’ve been playing well, but for me, there are a lot more important things than baseball.”
This is a 24-year-old with perspective. He’s engaged to be married. He’s focused. He’s found a way to jettison the rookie jitters. “No bad days” is a motto.
“I learned really quick, there’s always another at-bat,” Alonso said. “I realized the sooner you stop being your own worst enemy, the better. You can beat yourself up or take a million swings in the cage after the game, but that still ain’t gonna change anything.”
When Alonso returns from his All-Star appearance this week – where he’ll be a reserve for the NL squad – he’ll need 23 more home runs to break Judge’s rookie record. That’s a lot of long balls, but it seems like anything is possible in New York.
“He’s kind of made for this city,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said of Alonso. “He loves the energy of it. It makes him a better ballplayer. He comes to the field every day to win and it’s fun to watch. He feeds off that fanfare and the big moment. You can see it. Runs around third, fans going wild.
“He’s perfect for New York.”