Medal stand to the majors: Eddy Alvarez joins Marlins after competing as Olympic speedskater

On the Sunday afternoon they told him he was going to the big leagues, Eddy Alvarez drove to the house he grew up in. Over those five blocks he thought about how to tell his parents, Walter and Mabel.

Not the words. Those he’d known for about forever, had even once practiced before, after those few minutes up on an Olympic podium. This, him, whatever would come of him, would honor them first.

But how, exactly, in a pandemic, like from how far away, when a phone call wasn’t near good enough, not when he’d been talking about this day since he was 6 years old, not when they’d committed to the same dream.

So he rapped on the window. His mother looked up, saw it was him, and mouthed, “What are you doing here?”

Eddy smiled, held himself together for a few more seconds, waved and mouthed back, “Can you come outside real quick?”

They stood in the backyard, long ago cemented over so the boys could play their basketball, their football, their soccer, so they could skate and race and roughhouse.

From 20 feet away, Eddy began.

“It’s happening,” he said.

He took another breath.

“I got my phone call,” he said. “We did it.”

At that, Eddy began to cry. So did his mother.

Not Walter, though, who said, “What do you mean? What is happening?”

Eddy laughed.

“The only thing I’ve been working for,” he said. “That we’ve been working for!”

Eddy Alvarez, 30, former Olympic speedskater, six-year minor-league infielder, scouting report underdog, son of Walter and Mabel Alvarez of Miami, significant other to Gaby Pearson and father to be, was going to the major leagues for the first time, and as a Miami Marlin.

JUPITER, FLORIDA - MARCH 11:  Eddy Alvarez #65 of the Miami Marlins runs against the New York Yankees during the fifth inning of a Grapefruit League spring training at Roger Dean Stadium on March 11, 2020 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

From a distance, they raised their arms toward each other, drawing the energy of their bond across the concrete, of the early mornings and late nights and long drives, of the heartaches of near misses and howls of conquest, of conjoined lives spent in pursuit of something special. Something really special. Again.

He sat Tuesday afternoon in a Baltimore hotel room. It had rained all morning. The sun broke through just after noon. Looked like there’d be a ballgame.

“It is a lifetime of hard work,” he said, “finally paying off. It is a testament — to anyone, it doesn’t have to be in athletics — that if you put your heart and soul into something, it’s achievable.

“I kept going. The decisions I’ve had to make, the setbacks, the feeling of having my back against the wall, I was determined that I had the grit. And I made it happen. To be honest, I feel like just an average human being. I feel like anybody could’ve done this. That it is … possible.”

If you’ve wondered lately what baseball was doing standing out there in the middle of a pandemic, well, it’s possible, among other things, it was waiting on someone like Eddy Alvarez.

Their roster routed by the coronavirus, the Marlins included Alvarez in their rebuild-on-the-fly, continuing a story that began in the hours after he’d won silver in Sochi. He’d said before the Games that if he medaled, he intended to return to baseball, a sport he loved and played in high school and junior college before shelving it, for more than three years, for skating.

The message waiting for Eddy the next day was from Carlos Castillo, former big-league pitcher, an old family friend and a high school teammate of Eddy’s brother Nick. It read: “So when do we start?”

Within weeks of his return from Russia, Castillo and Alvarez, then 24, drove around Phoenix, seeking tryouts at major league spring training facilities. They stopped in Glendale, at Camelback Ranch, home of the Chicago White Sox, for whom Castillo pitched for three seasons. Mike Gellinger, a minor-league coach, agreed to have a look. Alvarez ran to the parking lot, changed into his baseball pants and cleats, and clattered back. He fielded a few ground balls, ran to first base twice and took some left-handed swings. Gellinger thanked them for coming.

“Wait,” Alvarez said. “I hit righty too.”

Shortly after the draft, he signed with the White Sox and reported back to Camelback.

“We did a lot of work to get him ready,” said Castillo, who owns the Kachi Baseball academy in Miami. “Everybody talks about the story, skater to ballplayer. But it’s really not the story. The story is the work he put in. The strength he added. The perseverance. It was impressive. He is absolutely the best athlete I’ve ever met. He can do anything.”

The White Sox told him when to show up, to wear a collared shirt and to bring shower shoes.

“What he’s become is incredible,” Gellinger said. “Actually, it’s not. Because he’s a special human when it comes to competing. Creating discipline and routines is hard for young guys. He had those things because of the skating.”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 10: Eddy Alvarez of the United States  competes in the Short Track Speed Skating Men's 1500m qualifying on day 3 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace on February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Alvarez competed and won a medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The next six summers brought eight different minor-league teams. The Marlins, who played two miles from that house with the concrete backyard, traded for him last March. He leaned into the ground he’d need to gain from the years he’d spent skating, he climbed to Triple-A with the White Sox, then Triple-A with the Marlins, turned 30 in January, and kept leaning. “Eddy the Jet” on ice, Alvarez grinded through the lessons of each day of each summer on dusty baseball fields. He read the scouting reports, the ones that said he was too small, didn’t hit for enough power, was too old and would top out in Double-A, and he kept going.

His father, Walter, who’d fled Cuba with his brother many years before, was a hard man who’d driven his children to aspire to more, and so it did not occur to Eddy that one of those summers would not find him in a big-league batter’s box.

“He hated to see us fail,” Eddy said, adding with a soft laugh, “He’s definitely softened up over the years.”

They would be in the ballpark on the day he arrived, of course. That was the plan. He would find them in their seats, give them a wave and a smile, the kind that says, “We made it. We really made it.” They’d get pictures on the field afterward and remember to let go of the hugs before they embarrassed the young man, and they’d probably all cry a little more. Nick, his older brother who played seven minor-league seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers (“I wanted to be like him,” Eddy said), would be there, as would be his sister, Nicole, a radio DJ in Los Angeles and one of Eddy’s fiercest allies.

The world doesn’t work like that today. Instead, the stands would be empty at Camden Yards, same as they were on those back fields at Camelback Ranch and as they were in plenty of minor-league towns, on the way here.

It’s OK, Eddy Alvarez said. He gets it. So maybe when he stands in the batter’s box for the first time, and they call his name, and someone wonders, “What are you doing here,” he’ll have an easy answer.

“We did it.”

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