Global support, a father's love propel Alvarez

Rookie's long, winding journey continues in ALCS

October 15th, 2019

HOUSTON -- Agustin Alvarez plans on watching Tuesday's Game 3 of the American League Championship Series sitting next to his wife and youngest son in the living room of their modest home in Las Tunas, Cuba.

They might watch it a day or two after the last out, when the video clips of the game are shown on the state-run channel. They could view it in bits and pieces if the spotty internet could hold a signal long enough to allow him to track the At Bat app on his phone. One way or another, they’re going to follow it. But they won’t be viewing it in real time.

Agustin always has been there for his son, Astros rookie slugger , and he’s not going to let little things like technology, or a few thousand miles, keep them from sharing momentous experiences. Together, the father-son duo are legends in their neighborhood, and their story has spread all the way to Texas. The Alvarezes put everything on the line to chase a dream. They made it big, but they are paying an enormous price.

“The greatest pain in my life is not having my son by my side, but it also brings me so much joy to see him happy and grow as a man,” Agustin said in Spanish from his home in Cuba. “As a father, I’m so proud of him. He is on his own and walking on his own two feet. That’s what you want, and you want what it is best for your children. He made all of the sacrifices. We just supported him.”

Years before he became the favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award with the Astros, Alvarez was a child star on the diamond in Cuba. He was just a timid teen with lots of room to grow when he first spoke up about his big league dreams. His father took them to heart, and together, they worked to make them come true. In late 2014, Agustin -- along with his wife, Mailyn, and youngest son, Yonder -- departed Cuba on an exploratory mission to Santiago, Dominican Republic, in search of a baseball program to train his oldest boy.

There, Agustin found former White Sox Minor League hitting coach Aldo Marrero, who had a reputation for developing young international players, particularly prospects from Cuba, with a knack for turning good hitters into great ones. A former member of the Dominican Republic’s national baseball team, Marrero began training international prospects at his baseball academy in 2008 after 10 years of coaching in the White Sox Minor League system.

Marrero was waiting for Yordan when he arrived in Santiago in April 2015.

“We spent a lot of time working hard and getting better, but it was hard to get tryouts with teams,” Marrero said in Spanish from the Dominican Republic. “Scouts said he looked lazy and he wasn’t athletic enough. They said he doesn’t have enough power to be a corner [outfielder]. They would say things to me like, ‘Aldo, he has a good bat but no position,’ and, ‘Aldo, we are out of money.’ I heard it all.”

Marrero recalls the White Sox, Mariners, Rangers and Yankees as the only teams to invite Alvarez to their academies in the Dominican Republic for full workouts. Alvarez later participated in two open showcases with the International Prospect League, an organization that showcases prospects in games, but the teen never generated much buzz. In 2016, a frustrated Marrero partnered with agents Barry Praver and Scott Shapiro of Magnus Sports to expand his reach. What followed was a series of spring showcases across the United States and a renewed interest in a bigger, faster and stronger Alvarez, who by then was hitting with power.

Scouts from the Tigers, Blue Jays, Reds, Padres, Giants and A’s watched Alvarez work out in Florida in early March. Representatives from every team attended an open tryout at San Diego’s Spring Training complex in Arizona later in the month. Before he could travel to the United States, Alvarez met with immigration officials in Haiti, where he had established residency. While there, he bumped into current Astros teammate Yuli Gurriel and his little brother, Blue Jays outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The brothers had just defected from Cuba and were secretly working on their paperwork.

The brothers asked to keep their meeting a secret. Alvarez obliged. He had other things to worry about, like his swing.

“When Yordan got to the Dominican [Republic], he just curled up and swung the bat as hard as he could,” Marrero said. “I worked on his balance and rhythm. I got him to raise his leg and use his hands properly to get the launch angle. He always had the ability to hit, but now he was being coached for the first time. Everyone saw what we knew was inside of him.”

Among the most interested were Astros evaluator Charlie Gonzalez and international director Oz Ocampo, now a special assistant to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Houston, though, was not in a position to make him the type of offer Marrero sought. Besides, the Dodgers were now officially in play, and on June 14, one day before the final day of the 2015-16 international signing period, Los Angeles made him an offer. The next day, Alvarez accepted the $2 million deal.

A few months later, the Astros got their man in a trade with the Dodgers for reliever Josh Fields in what could be one of the most lopsided deals in franchise history. Alvarez had a breakout 2019 season, with 27 home runs after getting called up in June. He ranked among league leaders in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel-per-batted-ball rate and barrel-per-plate-appearance rate.

“If it was up to Charlie, he would have signed him right then, but the timing was not right,” Marrero said. “He kept telling me that one day the Astros would get Yordan in a trade, and he wasn’t going to give up. He told me he would get him, and he did.”

Alvarez’s family returned to Cuba from the Dominican Republic shortly after he signed with the Dodgers in the summer of 2016. They have not seen him play in-person or live on television because the games are not broadcast on the island. Agustin, who dedicated his life to Yordan’s success, is sometimes among the last to know about his son’s accomplishments.

Sometimes, news about his son’s home runs makes its way to Agustin as he runs around town, completing his daily errands. Almost every day, the father searches for videos of his son by scouring Facebook for videos of the Astros. He relies on talking to fans and catching highlights on sports shows that air in Cuba at noon and 9 p.m. Agustin talks his son by phone almost every day.

“We have such a special relationship, and my father means everything to me,” Alvarez said in Spanish. “He’s been there for me. Whether it’s baseball or life, he is there. Everyone who knows me knows how special my father is to me and how I have always relied on him.”

Agustin’s focus has shifted to developing his youngest son’s baseball skills and helping him achieve his dreams. He’s going to give him the same attention he gave Yordan at the same age. That’s his priority now.

As for Marrero, he still trains players in Santiago. He claims to have found the next Alvarez in a 6-foot-4, 210-pound 14-year-old outfielder from Cuba named Lazaro Montes. When he isn’t working with players, Marrero is reassuring parents that they made the right choice to entrust him with their sons’ futures. He often brings up Alvarez as an example of his success.

The fathers always believe him.

“Aldo is a tremendous person and tremendous trainer,” Yordan said. “From the first day I met him until now, he has been there for me and the family. He helped us a lot. I can’t say enough good things about him.”