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Road to Rookie of the Year, Part II: College

An in-depth look at Pete Alonso’s rise to being selected 2019 National League Rookie of the Year.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs Texas Tech
Pete Alonso
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Located in Gainesville, the University of Florida is just two hours north of Tampa, a straight run up I-275. Though “culturally country”, a term coined by his little brother, Alex, the move to the University of Florida campus was not a jarring experience for Pete. While an avid outdoorsman with a love of hunting and fishing, among other pursuits, Tampa is a metropolitan area home to roughly 400,000 people of different and diverse backgrounds. Though he embraced one side more heavily, Pete was every much as city-slicker as he was country-boy and life on the University of Florida would present no challenge.

Academic life, on the other hand, would. A member of the National Honor Society while in high school, he now had to juggle tests, papers, and homework with batting practice, fielding drills, and game prep. “I had to worry about turning in a paper on the French Revolution the day we are playing number one ranked Texas A&M. We’ve gotta face a first-rounder on the mound, and I’ve gotta crush a paper”, he told Sports Illustrated on the challenges of juggling his athletic and academic lives while at Florida. Ironically, in a class entitled “The Good Life”, he received a C on an essay where the assignment was about writing on what your ideal future looks like. Including in his paper that he was going to be a Major League Baseball player, Alonso received feedback that such a goal was “not realistic enough.”

In 2014, his first year with the Gators, Alonso was solid-if-unspectacular. Playing in 60 games for Coach O’Sullivan as the team’s first baseman, third baseman, and designated hitter, he hit .264/.344/.376 with four home runs. Alonso chipped in with more than a few clutch hits, and did his part to help the Gators go 40–23. The team won the SEC regular-season title but got eliminated in regionals after consecutive losses to the College of Charleston and North Carolina.

That summer, he played for the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League. In 59 games with them, he hit .354/.419/.624 in 59 games, belting a team-record 18 home runs and winning the Northwoods League MVP Award. Returning to the Gators, Alonso seemed primed to have a monster 2015 season but fate seemed to be conspiring against him. He broke his foot in practice roughly a week before the season started, causing him to miss the team’s first 30 games. He returned in early April and was able to get roughly a month of play under his belt, but on May 5, he suffered yet another freak injury. During batting practice, a ball that he hit on the ground ricocheted back up and hit him in the nose, breaking it.

“I don’t even remember falling,” he said of the incident. “I’m on the ground, then I get up and the machine is still going so I’m like, ‘Get out of the way.’ My hand is soaked from blood. I’m like, ‘Oh crap! My nose is crushed.’ I run into the training room yelling to Jon Michelini our trainer: ‘Jon! Jon! I hit a ball off my face.’ At this point I’m about to pass out because I’m swallowing blood, spit, snot, whatever. It’s a terrible feeling.”

A normal player would have taken their time recovering from such a painful and noticeable injury, but Pete Alonso is no normal player. He beat himself up that he was unable to play in the game against the University of South Florida later that night, and returned to the lineup two days later, wearing softball helmet with a face mask attached. He faced Vanderbilt ace and future first-rounder Carson Fulmer in his first game back, and while he did go 0-4, he was the only player on the Gators did not strike out. Given the circumstances, Alonso hit well in his final month, ending the season with a .301/.398/.503 batting line in 39 games, hitting 5 home runs. With their 52–18 record, the Gators made it to the College World Series but were eliminated after losing twice to the University of Virginia, placing third in the tournament.

That summer, he elected to play at the prestigious Cape Cod Collegiate Baseball League in order to make up for the playing time he missed during the season. Playing for the Bourne Braves, Alonso didn’t exactly impress in his time there, hitting .257/.353/.267 in 30 games, but when he returned to Florida for the 2016 season, he put those struggles behind him. He began the season on a tear and let nothing slow him down. On May 13, in the bottom of the seventh in a tight 2-1 game against Vanderbilt, he was hit in the hand by a 96 MPH Jordan Sheffield fastball, breaking the fifth metacarpal in his left hand, the bone that connects the pinky finger to the wrist. The Gators took the lead two batters later and ended up winning the game 4-2, but Alonso was unsure if he would be able to get back on the field and play again for the season.

Being a gamer, Alonso’s first priority was to his team. Instead of sitting on the sidelines until whatever MLB selected him in the upcoming draft deemed him healthy enough to return to the field, the slugger pushed to return to the lineup despite the risk of doing more damage to his hand and his draft stock. The 2016 Florida Gators were an extremely talented team, with a rotation that included Dane Dunning, A.J. Puk, Jackson Kowar, Alex Faedo, and Brady Singer, but Alonso was the team’s primary power bat. Coach O’Sullivan resisted at first but eventually acquiesced to Alonso’s hounding, and on June 3rd, against Bethune-Cookman during regionals, the slugger returned to the lineup. He homered in his first at-bat and hit a second one later in the game. In his seven final games with the Gators, he went 13-28 with 4 doubles and 3 homers, giving him a .374/.469/.659 batting line in 58 games, with 14 home runs, 31 walks, and 31 strikeouts.

The Gators finished seventh at the 2016 College World Series after losses to eventual national champion Coastal Carolina and Texas Tech sent them home, meaning he would never get to hoist the College World Series trophy, but Alonso had nothing to be disappointed about. In his three years at the University of Florida, he hit .316/.407/.517, slugging 23 home runs, drawing 68 walks, and striking out 88 times.

In his last game as a Gator, he committed a throwing error in the top of the ninth that allowed Texas Tech left fielder Tyler Neslony to score, giving them a 3-0 lead. In the bottom of the inning, after center fielder Buddy Reed singled, Alonso hit a homer to left, making it a 3-2 ballgame; if he hadn’t committed the error, he would have tied it.

Despite his gamer mentality, reputation for playing the game the right way, and propensity to hit tape measure shots thanks to some prodigious power, his defense continued weighing him down. Only five to seven teams showed interest in him in the lead up to the 2016 MLB Draft. The Mets were reportedly interested in drafting Wake Forest slugger Will Craig with their first-round pick, but ultimately selected University of Boston right-hander Justin Dunn. Craig was selected a few picks later, by the Pittsburgh Pirates, leaving the Mets looking to select a different slugger. With their second-round pick, they selected Pete Alonso, the sixty-fourth player drafted. He signed with the team in late June for $909,200, roughly $100,000 less than the assigned slot value of $1,009,200. Not only did they get a better value, as Craig signed with the Pirates for exactly the slot value of $2,253,700, but they would end up with the better player.