By Joe Rini
Jeff McNeil’s nickname may be the “squirrel” but unlike those feisty creatures that zig zig and then zig zag again as they crisscross in front of your car as you negotiate the roads of Rockland County, he was cool as a cat in the shade when we chatted on Friday July 26 in the Mets clubhouse…well, at least he until a found a puppy before game time.
McNeil has gone from a little known minor leaguer to NL All-Star and batting title contender in barely a year, yet he seemed to take everything in stride as we chatted before the Mets 6-3 victory over Pittsburgh. With his ability to go the other way and hit behind the runner, he’s a throwback in an era of exit velos yet when I asked him about it, he mentioned how he had to master these skills in college ball in order to get playing time.
The hard work continues at the major league level as McNeil mentioned the use of video, not so much as to study his own swing, but to learn how the opposing pitchers pitch in specific situations. For instance, if a team is going to shift the defense when he’s up, he may look for something off-speed that he can hit to the opposite field. The California native said division teams know each other well, so success “comes down to execution.”
Whereas many players might struggle at the plate when getting used to a new position at the major league level, McNeil has thrived despite being moved to the outfield this season. “I had played it in college. It wasn’t a lot to get used to,” he said although having played only eight games in the outfield in six minor seasons, the 26-year old is probably being a bit modest.
When I asked who’s been instrumental in his success so far, he mentioned Todd Frazier and quality control coach Luis Rojas. Rojas has also coached him at several levels of the minor leagues and helped him with the “mental approach” to the game, including how to handle failure.
Pete Alonso also mentioned to me in May how much Frazier had helped him this season and I had the opportunity to ask Frazier about it outside the Mets dugout after batting practice. He was flattered when I told him how both players had credited his role with their success and the Toms River native said he approaches them the way his father approached him as a young player. Interestingly, rather than dictate to the young players beforehand, if he sees them make a mistake, he’ll ask them, “What was your approach at the plate?” or “Describe your thought process” in a situation.
Later as the team took batting and fielding practice, the North Shore Animal League was on the field with rescued dogs looking for adoption. One of the dogs appeared to be an Alaskan Husky mixed breed, and McNeil enthusiastically video chatted his wife about adopting it. With Mickey Callaway good-naturedly needling McNeil that he’d adopt the dog because he didn’t need to get his wife’s permission and the adoption pending a visit by the McNeils on Saturday, the Mets outfielder slugged a three run homer in the Mets 6-3 win and after the game he joked, “Hitting a home run after holding a puppy, I think that gives me a little bargaining chip. My wife wants more homers, then we have to get a puppy.” Happily, the pup officially joined the McNeil family on Saturday.
Although McNeil said the team hopes to get back in the wildcard race, the Mets were expected to be sellers at the trade deadline. However, after a sweep of the Pirates this past weekend, GM Brodie Van Wagenen and the Mets stunningly acquired All-Star pitcher Marcus Stroman from Toronto for two minor league pitching prospects on Sunday. With the 4:00 PM July 31 trade deadline tick tocking as we go to press, and Jason Vargas dealt to Philadelphia on Monday, questions swirl about whether Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, or Edwin Diaz will be dealt to replenish a farm system that’s dealt three former first round draft picks in the brief Van Wagenen era or whether the Mets will hold onto the veterans for a potential stretch run in 2019.
Finally, there was a ceremony in the pressroom before Friday’s game as Pete Alonso presented $50,000 donations to both the Wounded Warrior Project and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation after Major League Baseball presented him with his $1 million check for winning the Home Run Derby. Sharing the stage with WWP CEO Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mike Linnington, Tunnel to Towers CEO Frank Siller, and beneficiaries of these foundations, Alonso spoke movingly of this nation’s military members and first responders, saying, “I have a very strong passion for those people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice every single day.”