Veronica Alvarez exudes passion for the game.
She has so much of it that you can see it on her face, whether she’s talking about her local baseball community in Miami, her tenure with USA Baseball’s women’s national team as a player or as its current manager, or her time at Spring Training on staff with the Oakland Athletics. You can hear it in her voice when she talks about the people she’s learned from along the way -- those she’s worked alongside and the ones she faces on the field.
They are the ones to whom Alvarez offers all the credit. She recognizes the former professional players she’s worked with, speaks of the love for the game she sees from colleagues, and talks about her players’ willingness to make adjustments and their sense of appreciation.
And while she is incredibly quick to recognize others -- “Whether you highlight them or not, I just want you to know,” she says -- it’s easy to see that the qualities she appreciates in those around her are the same ones she embodies for them.
“I only want one manager -- Veronica,” said baseball lifer Manny Crespo Sr., who spent time in the Tigers, Padres, Yankees and Marlins organizations before joining Alvarez’s staff with the women’s national team last year. “Wherever she goes, if she wants me to be one of her coaches, I would love to do it. When I came back after spending those 20 days with the team last year, my outlook of baseball completely changed.
“USA plays the way baseball should be played, and I only coach for Veronica now. I love the game, playing the game, coaching the game, talking about the game, but I had lost the drive I had for most of my career. And 20 days with those girls [I] got it all back. I have more energy now than I’ve had in years.”
Alvarez can have that effect on people, bringing an infectious energy and passion to the field, along with a focus, intensity and on-field seriousness that can intimidate opponents who line up across from her. She believes her Cuban background -- both of her parents emigrated to the United States as young children in the 1950s -- and her Miami upbringing are responsible for the fierceness she adds to the diamond. And it’s the combination of heritage that makes her proudest.
“Obviously every jersey is about the name on the front and not the name on the back,” Alvarez said. “But being able to see my last name on the back of the Team USA jersey is representative of the things that my grandparents gave up in order to give my parents -- and eventually me, even though they didn’t know I would exist -- this life. The first time I ever got my name on the back of a jersey was my USA jersey, and to me, it holds that meaning of being able to have better lives and a better future.”
Where her future takes her remains to be seen, but Alvarez’s present is not one she always saw coming. Though she’s been checking big-ticket items off of her to-do list -- being named USA Baseball’s Coach of the Year after her squad won gold at the Women’s Baseball World Cup qualifier in Mexico last year; becoming one of the first women to join a Major League staff during her time with the A’s and excelling in her chosen profession of firefighting -- there was a time when she was working a desk job in the local school system wondering if that was her path.
Alvarez began playing baseball when she was 5, following in the footsteps of her older brother. By the time she was off to junior high, she’d known nothing but playing on boys’ teams. But her new school had an opportunity in a sport she’d never tried before -- softball. She was hesitant to make the switch, and for the first she’d play baseball at the park and stick to softball at school. But eventually the newer venture landed her at Villanova University and then playing for a season in Europe.
She had interned for MTV and pondered spending the rest of her life in Spain, but a Google search led the bilingual catcher to discover the Colorado Silver Bullets, and subsequently the women’s national team. Alvarez got an opportunity to try out for Team USA in Kenosha, Wis., in 2008, and the experience was a game-changer.
“I am completely passionate about it,” she said. “I played in the World Cup in 2008 in Japan, in 2010 in Venezuela, in 2012 in Canada, and then … in 2015, I got to play at the Pan American Games.”
The Pan Am Games in Toronto were Alvarez’s swan song as a player, and there was no better way to go out as the team won gold. Leading up to the event, the squad got to play at Doubleday Field, stand on the lines for the anthem at Yankee Stadium and run to their positions with big leaguers. Throughout the Games -- which marked the first time women’s baseball has been part of a multi-sport event -- the women lived in the athletes’ village and were treated like sporting royalty. Alvarez often tells the “story about the Oakleys,” referring to the time when two different models of Oakley sunglasses were presented to them.
“'Which one are you going to pick?'” Alvarez recalls being asked. “And the woman handing them out said, ‘You can have both,’ and we were all amazed. They were treating us like world-class athletes. It was nice to be part of a multi-sport event, and everything about that trip was incredible.”
Alvarez understood throughout the tournament that her arm was not what it once had been, and surgery was off the table. The realization that her playing career was ending caused her some heartbreak, but it became easy to turn the page and focus on coaching.
Since then, she’s been part of the National Team Identification Series -- as an assistant coach in 2018 before taking over as manager in ’19. She also takes every opportunity to team up with Major League Baseball, working the Trailblazer and Breakthrough Series as well as GRIT: Girls ID Tour. Recently, she worked with USA Baseball at a 12U event, which she felt signified a shift in mindset.
“You could talk about working a 12U event dismissively, because they’re little boys, but it represents a lot,” Alvarez said. “Those boys eventually become Major Leaguers, with the history that USA Baseball has. And for them to see that USA Baseball has brought a woman out there, and that this lady knows just as much as the guys who are standing next to her and listen to her, that represents a lot. It’s nice for them to see that there’s someone different than them who knows the game and who they can learn from.”
As she continues to get opportunities to teach, Alvarez is constantly learning. Though her return to A’s Spring Training was cut short this year when baseball shut down in March, she began what she termed as “coaching development” last year with the organization. For three weeks, the former backstop worked and learned alongside Oakland’s staff, spending most of her time with the catchers, supervising bullpen sessions and throwing as much batting practice as possible.
“Right off the bat, it’s obvious she’s been around the game for a long time, so she has no problems speaking the lingo,” Oakland’s director of player development Ed Sprague said. “But more importantly, she came in and fit right in with our entire staff, in terms of being able to interact with the coaches and players, jumping right in and offering opinions. That was pretty impressive, to walk into a room full of old men, baseball guys, and fit right into the conversation was fantastic.”
Added Alvarez: “When I’m on the field, I’m so comfortable. I love being out there and I feel so at home and confident. … I was just one of them.”
Alvarez wishes she hadn’t been among the first women to have such experiences. She would much rather the novelty wear off. But she also wants other girls and women to know what’s possible.
“Seeing is believing,” she said. “Without seeing it, it’s hard to even think that you could accomplish that. I’m a big believer that even baby steps are steps forward, so it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small. Obviously, the desire is that there are leaps. But we’ll take what we can get until we get to those leaps. … We are showing that we do have a place in the game, and people are responding to that.”