|Eddy Alvarez skates during the men's 1,000-meter quarterfinal at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Feb. 15, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
In June, for the first time in three years, Eddy Alvarez found himself back in a batter’s box.
The Miami native, who won an Olympic silver medal in short track speedskating during his sabbatical from baseball, decided to go back to his other favorite sport after the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. So on June 11, he signed with the Chicago White Sox organization.
A few days later, when he faced his first fastball in Arizona, he flinched. The second one, also down the middle of the plate, produced the same result.
Alvarez dug in. He worked the count to 2-2.
His first professional at-bat was for naught, but the experience was enough to bring Alvarez to the unmistakable conclusion that he could handle adversity and possibly thrive in a second sport.
“Baseball right now is my main priority,” Alvarez, 24, said in an interview with TeamUSA.org from Arizona, where he is playing in the Arizona Instructional League. “No doubt I was scared at first. But what I’ve accomplished in a short time, it just kind of shows me that I really can take this somewhere.
“As of right now, I’m putting speedskating aside — maybe for a rainy day.”
Alvarez laughs here, because he’s clearly been given the gift of sunshine as an athlete. He even taught himself to play guitar while he spent time healing from an injury a few years back.
That’s why Nick Alvarez, Eddy’s older brother and a former minor league baseball player, believed in Eddy.
“I knew how tough it was going to be to get back to it,” Nick Alvarez said. “That said, I always knew if someone could do it — it would be him. He just has this very unique quality. It’s work ethic, and sheer passion for the sport and getting better.”
Eddy Alvarez, who last played baseball full time in high school, was a free agent. Skilled but never a top prospect (he was offered a scholarship out of high school to play at St. Thomas University but declined), Alvarez didn’t have the résumé to demand a signing bonus. He was just grateful to learn that the White Sox were interested in pure athletes, like him, and they were willing to give a rusty 5-foot-9 Olympian a chance.
He played 27 games at the lowest rookie level in the Arizona desert — basically, glorified scrimmages with hardly any spectators — before getting summoned to the Single-A Kannapolis Intimidators in the South Atlantic League.
“That’s actually a funny story,” Alvarez said. “I was pretty ticked off when I got called in to see the manager. I thought I was getting cut.”
To the contrary, and Alvarez thrived in the South Atlantic League. He had hits in 13 of his first 28 at-bats, including a pair of home runs in his debut. That even shocked his loyal and proud brother, who is built more like a home-run hitter.
Nick Alvarez recalled how his brother could barely take 20 swings last February without calling it a day. His body was built on leg power for speedskating, not upper-body strength for home runs.
But ask people who have seen Alvarez during his darkest hours — spectacular crashes on ice, recovering from surgeries — and the fact that he quickly got back into the swing of baseball wasn’t any more surprising than the fact that the same guy from Miami went on to become an Olympic speedskater.
More than Alvarez’s family has followed his baseball exploits.
“I can’t say I know a ton about baseball, but I heard how well he was hitting and knew it was just amazing that Eddy got off to that good of a start for as long as he was away from baseball,” said Stephen Gough, the former US Speedskating national team coach. “But that’s Eddy for you. He’s got a contagious positive attitude. He’s good-natured. And he’s not too precious to have a laugh at himself when things don’t go well. He’s always disciplined, and he puts in the work.”
While training for speedskating in Utah, Alvarez briefly attended Salt Lake Community College. In 2011, he walked on to the baseball team, where he hit .303 and even made the all-conference team. He underwent two knee surgeries in 2012 that seemingly put his future in both sports in doubt.
But regaining his form never proved to be a problem. Gough recalls trying a new training game to break up the practice monotony. It involved a hockey-style setup with sticks and a plastic ball. Alvarez mastered the game in no time.
Alvarez, who won a silver medal in the 5,000-meter short track relay in Sochi, has his hardware tucked away at his family’s Florida house in a “safe within a safe.” The only gear tribute to his previous life is an oft-worn pair of compression shorts.
Now, he’s just a baseball player. That may come more naturally. Nick Alvarez played seven years in the minors and in his final year reached Triple-A — one level below the majors — before calling it quits at age 29 in 2006.
Eddy Alvarez calls speedskating “a young man’s game.”
Gough counters slightly, noting that his native Canada has elite skaters in their early 30s.
Devastated to miss the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Alvarez called making the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games “an absolute relief.”
He’ll be rewarded with a break soon. Fall ball ended in mid-October, and he will spend winter in the warmth of both coasts. It’s been three years since he’s had a vacation.
Before he can do that, however, he will be in the batting cage.
“And it’s nice, let me tell you,” Alvarez said. “It’s nice knowing if you failed your first at-bat, you get another one, and another one and another one.”