Alvarez's English-language journey from Chipotle to TV interviews

February 25th, 2024

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Late last season after a game against the Nationals, was conducting a group interview alongside his interpreter when a reporter asked him about the first stolen base of his career. Alvarez, who had quietly been working on his English in hopes of one day becoming fluent in his second language, blurted out an answer before the interpreter, Alan Suriel, could even relay the question.

“Lo hice en inglés, vistes?” Alvarez said, turning to Suriel. “I did it in English, you see?”

Suriel broke into a wide grin and clasped Alvarez’s hand, as both men began laughing. For the reporters present and the fans who watched the interview, it was a moment of comic relief from a promising young player. For Alvarez, the meaning ran so much deeper: his first time feeling comfortable enough to speak his second language on camera.

For the better part of five years, the Venezuelan native has worked tirelessly on his English. During his first Minor League camp with the Mets in 2019, a 17-year-old Alvarez learned to survive by trailing his friend, teammate and fellow Venezuelan José Butto around Port St. Lucie. Butto, who is almost four years older, knew a bit of English. Alvarez spoke almost none.

“I didn’t know how to say anything,” Alvarez recalled, describing his difficulties during a trip to the local Chipotle. “I would just say, ‘Same thing, same thing.’ And I didn’t like what he picked, but I didn’t know how to say it.”

He relayed that memory last week as part of a lengthy interview with, which Alvarez conducted in full without an interpreter. Still just 22 years old, the promising young catcher has become comfortable enough with his English not only to deal with pitchers and coaches in that language, but to answer questions from reporters and to live his daily life. More than that, Alvarez seeks out chances to improve his skills and has even inspired other Latino teammates, such as Butto and Ronny Mauricio, to speak to the media without an interpreter.

“It’s like every single year he comes back, he’s better and better and better,” said longtime teammate Brett Baty, who had trouble communicating with Alvarez when both played as teenagers at the lowest rungs of the Minors. “Even my parents have noticed that, too. They’ve been here. He’ll go up to them and he’ll talk to them in English. They’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, his English is so much better.’”

For Alvarez, immersion has been crucial. When he first arrived in the United States, Alvarez began learning English from Neskys Liriano, the Mets’ education and life skills manager. During the pandemic year in 2020, he continued those lessons on Zoom, missing just two classes all year -- “a very, very good student,” Liriano said. Alvarez eventually received his high school diploma from the Mets’ academy.

But Alvarez did not enjoy learning in the traditional ways -- reading and writing and mapping out conjugations. As an alternative, Liriano sometimes let him go to the front of the class and sing songs in English, which he considered a nerve-wracking experience but better than the books. During his free time away from the ballpark, Alvarez began listening to American music, particularly from the 1980s and ’90s. He binged English-language television shows, taking a particular liking to “Narcos,” about Pablo Escobar’s exploits, as well as similar criminal dramas “El Chapo” and “The Queen of the South.” He watched movies from the Marvel and DC universes.

“He’s very kinesthetic,” Liriano said. “For him to learn through a regular, traditional process of writing and reading, it wasn’t that easy. That’s why he learned through doing. ‘Show me, and I’ll do it.’”

Where Liriano’s formal lessons stopped, coaching from Alvarez’s teammates began. On bus rides to and from the ballpark or flights across the country, Alvarez frequently sat next to Suriel and Rafael Fernandez, the latter a coaching assistant who spoke no English himself upon joining the organization as a player in 2006. Those two would quiz Alvarez on questions he might hear from reporters, asking him how he might answer. Another teammate, Baty, served as a human thesaurus.

Eventually, the group began pushing Alvarez to conduct interviews in English. Although Alvarez wanted to, he feared embarrassing himself in front of a public audience.

“We felt like we needed to challenge him a little bit, almost like to dare him to do it,” Fernandez said. “Typically for the Latin guys, they don’t want people to laugh about them trying to do stuff, or mis-saying a word, whatever. We were just like, ‘Dude, don’t worry about it. Just go ahead. Dale.’”

Late in the year, Alvarez approached SNY field reporter Steve Gelbs to ask if he could practice a mock interview without any cameras. A few weeks later, he slipped an English answer into his interview in Washington. Then, on the final day of the regular season, Alvarez completed an entire postgame interview in his second language.

“I want to communicate with everyone,” he said. “The majority of players are American. I think the best part when you know English is how they look at you different. They think you are their friend.”

Watching from afar, Liriano rejoiced. Others who had helped him along the way shared in the moment. Alvarez considered it the capstone to a successful rookie season, giving him a similar sense of confidence off the field that he had already developed on it.

“We don’t want them to become doctors or engineers, but we want them to become professionals and understand the importance of getting with press, fans, teammates, managers,” Liriano added. “That’s what we’re doing. Alvarez, Butto, Mauricio and many other guys, they’ve just been supporting us by completing their programs and doing the right thing.”