GLENDALE, Ariz. – Eddy Alvarez won an Olympic silver medal in short track speed skating at the 2014 Sochi Games and a World gold in 2009.
But getting a call from the White Sox with an invitation to start a professional baseball career topped both of those thrills.
“I broke down,’’ Alvarez, a 5-9 switch-hitting shortstop, said. “I cried – I did.
“In all honesty I felt happier getting that call than standing on that podium for that [Olympic] medal.’’
The son of Cuban immigrants, Alvarez grew up in Miami playing baseball and roller skating, performing jumping tricks on weekends at South Beach.
He poured himself into skating but never lost his desire to play professional baseball, something his brother Nick was able to do for seven seasons in the minor leagues. After winning a relay gold in 2009, he played shortstop at Salt Lake Community College in 2011 and made all-conference. He returned to skating, won the silver with the U.S. 5000 meter relay team and then got that call from the Sox.
Alvarez picked up a bat for the first time in more than three years, reported for extended spring training and was assigned to rookie ball in 2014. He has steadily climbed the farm system ranks, with rather surprising speed, finding himself but a step away from realizing his major league dream.
In all likelihood, Alvarez will open the 2017 season at AAA Charlotte, where he was promoted for 12 games last year after a strong second half lifted his slash line to .263/.339/367 with six homers and a team-high 62 RBI at AA Birmingham.
“He’s a very athletic kid who can do a lot of things on the baseball field,’’ said third base coach Nick Capra, the Sox director of player development the last five years. “He can play shortstop, second and we can throw him in the outfield if we need to. He’s good on the bases [53 Class A stolen bases in 2015]. He’s a baseball rat.’’
Alvarez is not in major league camp but he has appeared in three Cactus League games this spring. In his first at-bat against the Rockies last Sunday, the Sox dugout came alive with chants of “Eddy!’ – a tip of the cap to his likability and popularity. Alvarez doubled.
In his second at-bat against the Angels’ Justin Miller Saturday, Alvarez hit an opposite-field inside-the-park homer, finishing with a head-first slide.
This guy has flair, and more “celebrity” swag than most minor leaguers. But Alvarez is well-liked around camp because he resists VIP status. As he stood near the Sox clubhouse giving an interview, almost every coach and player passed by acknowledging him.
“He’s loose around the clubhouse; he seems like he’s been around the game a long time,” Birmingham teammate Nicky Delmonico said.
At 27, Alvarez knows he’s on the clock.
“I’m going to push till I can’t any more,’’ he said. “I love baseball.’’
Overcoming double knee surgery as a skater and competing at a world class level have toughened and honed him for this.
“The advantage I have over other minor leaguers is I understand what it took to reach the highest levels in a sport,’’ Alvarez said. “In big situations, bases loaded two outs, it doesn’t matter, I’m capable of controlling my heart rate, controlling the situation because I understand what failure is. That’s my slight edge.’’
He also knows there is another at-bat and another game the next day if he fails.
“You have to play for today but in skating you may have four years for your opportunity,’’ he said.
Alvarez’s opportunity is now. Perhaps not as an everyday player but as a utility guy. But he has a shot, and that’s all he ever dreamed of.
“It’s more than a nice story,’’ Capra said. “He’s a competitor with a high baseball IQ. We’ve got small sample sizes of him coming up here but you can see he’s a baseball player.’’