Olympic medalist trying to make it to the Marlins
How the 29-year-old went from Olympic speed skating to the Marlins organization
MIAMI -- Arguably the best compliment you could give Triple-A New Orleans infielder Eddy Alvarez is that he looks like a baseball player.
Alvarez, 29, fits right in on the diamond, so much so that his teammates tend to forget about his prolific past: That of an Olympic silver medalist in short track speed skating.
"Just being around him, and playing with him, I would have never realized he was that, because he is such a natural baseball player," said Marlins utility man Jon Berti, who was a teammate of Alvarez's in New Orleans and once had aspirations of being a goalie in the National Hockey League. "He continues to work at it, and it seems to come pretty natural for him. I started asking him some questions because growing up, I played hockey. We talked about ice skating. Him and I had some conversations, just in general, about how meticulous he was with his blades, and stuff like that. He's similar with his bats now, he likes them a certain way."
Baseball, which Alvarez calls his true first love, runs in his blood. His older brother spent seven seasons in the Dodgers' system, and his father played in Cuba before coming to Miami. But one Christmas, Alvarez received a pair of roller blades. His parents would often take him to South Beach to cruise the streets, and the young boy grew fond of the thrill of it.
"I was swinging a bat before I could even walk kind of thing," said Alvarez, a longshot September callup candidate who is nearing the end of his first season in the Marlins' organization. "Then I fell into skating."
From that point on, Alvarez went back and forth between the two. He transitioned from the pavement to the ice with the help of Miami local and Olympian Jennifer Rodriguez as well as her inline coach. "Eddy the Jet" quickly began to win national age level titles until putting that career on hold to play baseball at Miami Christopher Columbus High School. There, Alvarez was a scrappy player who was "underdeveloped," not hitting his growth spurt until he was almost 18.
After turning down a baseball scholarship at St. Thomas University to focus on skating, Alvarez failed to make the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. He followed that up by walking on Salt Lake Community College's baseball team to give his knees a rest from chronic pain in '11, then underwent surgeries on them and decided to once again pursue his Olympic dream.
During this stretch, baseball took a back seat for 3 1/2 years -- the longest Alvarez has gone without playing his "one true passion" -- to train for Sochi. And it paid off, as he became the first male Cuban-American to earn a spot on the United States Olympic speed skating team in 2014 and was part of the medal-winning 5000-meter relay.
Less than four months after stepping on the podium, a 24-year-old Alvarez stood by his pre-Olympic decision to step away from the sport and pivot, signing a professional contract with the White Sox.
But one thing quickly became clear: There wasn't much physical overlap between speed skating and baseball training. As Alvarez tells it, the former requires being lower-body dominant and the "lightest possible human being in the history of the world."
"When I picked up a bat for the first time, it was heavy," Alvarez said. "It felt like home. I really missed it. I knew I wanted to give it a go. I didn’t know it was going to be professionally right away. I’m one of those people that always told myself that I didn’t want to have any regret doing anything in my athletic career. I did quit skating at the peak of my career to try and basically start over again at a different sport. I knew that if I didn’t try that, I would regret it."
It took Alvarez a couple of years to develop his upper-body strength, but the lower-half balance he developed in skating did help with his swing. And with turns left, he jokes.
"That exposure to that pressure of having that one opportunity every four years does translate into baseball," Alvarez said. "When you are in that pressure situation, I still get nervous -- don't get me wrong -- but I think I’ve been able to flip that more into an excitement that I’m in this opportunity instead of, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing here?’ kind of thing. I do owe skating a lot of that credit because skating is cutthroat. You fall, you make a mistake, and you’re out. It’s not like you have another at-bat or another game tomorrow. You had to bring it all together, and that’s definitely transitioned to baseball well."
Despite some of the differences, the split-second decision-making in short track -- what Alvarez calls the most unpredictable sport because of high speeds, bumps, spills and takeouts -- has helped prepare him on the diamond since things don't always go to plan despite preparation.
"You had to really think on your feet, and baseball’s kind of the same thing," said Alvarez, who likens baseball to a riddle. "You have to plan ahead, which is something I was never used to, but the decision-making I had to make in speed skating really helped my reaction time on the baseball field, where that ball you weren’t expecting does get hit and you have to make a sudden diving play and make the throw."
Entering his professional career, Alvarez had a trajectory for his baseball journey in mind. He acknowledged he could always go back to skating, but he also knew that if baseball went well, there was no way he would. And that's what happened.
Because of the amount of time away from the sport, Alvarez needed to figure out the type of player he wanted to be. He had been told his entire life to be a slap hitter due to his speed and stature (5-foot-9, 180 pounds). Instead, Alvarez approaches every plate appearance with the mentality "that first strike is mine."
By the end of 2016, a 26-year-old Alvarez had climbed the ladder relatively quickly by reaching the Triple-A level for a postseason push with future Major Leaguers like Leury Garcia. But after scuffling over the next two seasons, the White Sox dealt him to the Marlins on March 27.
"Just to get the opportunity and get traded to my hometown team is something that’s out of this world," Alvarez said. "Grew up watching the Marlins, and my family’s big Marlins fans. My godfather always has baseball on TV and is always talking to me about the Marlins. It’s crazy just to think that after everything that I’ve gone through with the Olympics and the traveling and everything, and for it to come around in a full circle and have my MLB debut [possibly] be in Miami, that would be unbelievable. It’s pretty nuts."
Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said Alvarez has been on the organization's radar as far as back as his high school days. A few months after returning from Sochi, Alvarez even participated in a pre-Draft workout at Marlins Park, which is around three miles away from his childhood home.
After breaking his right hamate bone in his Marlins organization debut, Alvarez has made up for lost time since returning on June 14. In 61 games at Triple-A, the switch-hitting Alvarez has slashed .312/.402/.567 with 15 doubles, two triples, 12 homers and 12 stolen bases to go along with a .969 OPS.
"Since we’ve gotten him, we’ve loved the offensive production that we’ve been able to get from him," Hill said. "We know he’s versatile, can move around the field. He can give us a quality at-bat every time up."
Alvarez is not on Miami's 40-man roster, which could hurt his chances of being summoned to the Majors when rosters expand in September. But his versatility can only help his case in the future. Though he has been a middle infielder for most of his career, he has also appeared at third base and left field in 2019. Showing consistency on defense has been a priority, especially of late, for Alvarez.
Hill mentioned that Alvarez has the ability to become a free agent at season's end, and the Marlins must decide if they want to bring back. The organization has certainly been pleased with what he has done this year.
As for Alvarez, his baseball goals go beyond simply reaching the Majors.
"It’s to be solidified. It’s to be an everyday Major League player, and one that is a difference maker, one that every team needs," Alvarez said. "I want to be that guy that can play defense, can hit, can baserun, can do all the little things. A team player kind of guy. I definitely want to be the everyday guy, and that’s what I’m working for. I don’t know what the plans are, and as baseball players, we just don’t have that control. But I’m working for that."