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Mets rookie gets Opening Day MLB debut

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What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale on how the New York Mets clubhouse is relieved that Jacob DeGrom signed an extension with the team.
USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON – The big business of baseball has no conscience, its data-heavy, risk-averse, always-optimized mainframe never hesitating to end careers prematurely, to strip away passion in the name of efficiency, to deny or defer the most innocent dreams of those who play the game.

Pete Alonso fought the machine all spring, hoping he’d be deemed worthy of breaking camp as the New York Mets first baseman, but knowing that the franchise’s best interest may lie in shipping him to the minor leagues, the better to harvest a seventh year of control over their power-hitting prodigy.

Even as spring training ended and the Mets prepared to hopscotch from Florida to a workout in Syracuse and finally to the nation’s capital to begin a season of great expectations, Alonso did not believe he’d be at Nationals Park for Thursday’s Opening Day.

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And so when manager Mickey Callaway gathered Alonso and fellow on-the-bubble players Dominic Smith, Tomas Nido, J.D. Davis and Luis Guillorme after a workout and told them they were not headed to Class AAA Syracuse, but rather sticking with the major league club, it jarred the Bunyan-strong, 245-pound Alonso.

“I got misty-eyed,” Alonso said Thursday morning, a couple hours before taking his first major league at-bat against three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. “It’s still unreal that I’m here. I got misty-eyed. Everybody was like, ‘Don’t cry, Pete!’ I was wearing sunglasses at the time, thankfully.

“I was beyond excited. I can’t really explain it in words. Just the most incredible feeling in the world.”

Such joy has been starched from the game in recent years. Alonso was expected to be in a trio of budding stars shipped to the minor leagues to start the season, along with Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the White Sox’s Eloy Jimenez.

Guerrero got hurt, but not until after the Blue Jays admitted they were going to deny him his debut. Jimenez broke camp with the White Sox – but only after bending to the team’s will and agreeing to a contract that could bind him to them for eight seasons.

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Alonso, 24, merely did everything the Mets asked of him this spring, improving his defense, showing off his impeccable plate discipline and impressing Callaway with the baseball knowledge of a player far more seasoned.

After slamming 36 home runs at Class AA and AAA last season, and then batting .368 with four more home runs this spring, Alonso forced the Mets into introspection.

Are they trying to win this year? Can they afford not to put their best 25 men on the field all season in a National League East where four loaded teams have significant expectations?

With an ownership group often knocked for its penurious ways, the answer came in a wham-bam 48 hours to close spring training.

Ace Jacob deGrom agreed to a contract extension that guaranteed him $137.5 million. And Alonso’s name is in Thursday’s lineup, batting second, against Scherzer, 2025 be damned.

“It shows our players that it is about winning,” says Callaway. “We’re here to win ballgames. We’re not worried about an extra year of service, we’re not worried about what’s gonna happen with Jacob two years from now.

“We want Jacob here for a long time. They got that done. We have the best first baseman in our organization at first base, today, starting, and we got that done. I think that our front office and our ownership has kind of paved the way for us to go out there today and the rest of this season and understand this is about winning for our fans.”

That didn’t stop Callaway from messing with the process. Before their final preseason workout, he moved Alonso, Nido, Guillorme, Davis and Smith in the first batting practice group. The fake reasoning: They had to hurry to catch a flight to Class AAA Syracuse.

 “He was like, ‘All right guys, in an hour and 45 minutes there’s a flight to Syracuse,’” Alonso said. “All of us got really quiet. He dragged it out.

“Finally, he was like, ‘OK, you guys are going to miss the flight. Because you are big leaguers.’ It was not cool at first. But it was kind of a funny joke.”

And so Alonso woke up at 6 a.m. Thursday morning, unable to sleep longer. He probably could have sprinted to Nationals Park, but rode the bus with teammates and promptly changed into his pregame clothes upon arrival.

“I’ve been antsy, like a kid on Christmas,” he said. “My body just woke me up at 6 and said, ‘Let’s goooo. Let’s goooo.’”

The hard part begins now. Oh, it will get easier after Scherzer, but Alonso still must hit to stay here. Callaway indicated he’ll likely get the majority of at-bats at first base, in part to balance a lineup heavy on lefty swingers like Robinson Cano, Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto.

Should he struggle, a three-week trip to the minor leagues would, in fact, cost Alonso a year of service time. Those worries were for another day, however. Alonso is a Met, maybe forever, and possibly the most excited guy at Nationals Park on a gorgeous Opening Day.

“For all the fruits of my labor to come through and pay dividends,” he says, “it’s incredible. It isn’t easy getting here. Hopefully I can play well – and stay.”

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