Eddy Alvarez poses for a portrait during the USOPC Portrait Shoot on April 23, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
There was a time when Eddy Alvarez’s future laid out before him in a straight line.
A line of plastic bottles, actually. Two dozen of them, maybe more, filled with beach sand or pennies, anything to keep them from getting knocked over. With the art deco strip of South Beach posing to one side, powdery white sand and the turquoise Atlantic spread out to the other, these bottles provided a playground for the beautiful people of Miami. Young women in their high-waisted bikinis, cassette players effortlessly balanced on one hip; shirtless men, tanned and muscled, wearing barely more than a suggestion of a bathing suit (this was, as Alvarez recalls, “the Speedo Era”) slalomed their way through the course, cruising up and down Ocean Avenue in the latest craze of the mid-1990s: inline skating.
Alvarez was there, too, bombing through the bottles, though he stood out from the other skaters: in part because of his lightning criss-cross moves, in part because of his comparatively modest attire (tank top, tight shorts, bandana). Mostly, it was because he was 6 years old.
“I used to be this little sideshow attraction,” said Alvarez, whose parents would drive him to the beachside skating strip every weekend.
One day, two women spotted Alvarez doing his thing, found his parents among the spectators, and suggested that their son try speedskating. Alvarez liked the idea and gave it a shot, launching his life onto a complicated path unprecedented in American sports.
Alvarez found himself reflecting on his unique trajectory one particular Wednesday afternoon this past summer, as another line stretched out in front of him: the third base line at Camden Yards. When he stepped out of the visitors’ dugout and jogged out to play second base for the Miami Marlins in the bottom of the first inning of the first game of an early August twi-night doubleheader in Baltimore, Alvarez became the first Winter Olympic medalist ever penciled into a major league lineup.
“When I stepped over the line, I was flashing back on everything I had to go through,” said Alvarez, who started at second base in his MLB debut and at third base in the nightcap. “All the decisions I had to make just to get to that moment.”
All. The. Decisions.
The course Alvarez’s life would take from that propitious South Beach encounter would never be quite so straightforward again. He spent his youth training five times a week on inline skates, one weekend day doing road work on a local high school track, the other on ice, which was not easy
to find in South Florida (his first regular rink was in Coral Springs, a 90-minute drive each way for a 60-minute session). There were tournaments to travel to, including regional and national events, where he won short and long track competitions. And, of course, there was always baseball. Local leagues, travel ball, school teams.
“I was such an active kid,” said Alvarez.
Eventually — inevitably — Alvarez’s parallel paths led him to a crossroads. He was a sophomore in high school when he first began to feel that dedicating himself to two sports meant he really was dedicating himself to neither.
“I was starting to see everyone in the skating world be better than me, and everyone in the baseball world be better than me,” Alvarez said. “That’s when I made my first true, huge life decision: quitting skating and concentrating on baseball.”
The decision sat well with Alvarez. He earned a full scholarship offer to play baseball at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, the NAIA program where his older brother, Nick, had played before he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Then, one day, Eddy found himself watching the 2006 Olympic trials on his computer. He saw skaters he had competed against — guys he had beaten — battling for the opportunity to represent Team USA at the upcoming Winter Games in Torino. Alvarez the Olympic-hopeful speedskater reemerged, and it became Alvarez the promising ballplayer’s turn to take a backseat.
“It just gnawed at me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Finally, I decided to tell my parents that I want to try,” he said. “It’s something that I always wanted to do. Even if I failed, I just want to try so I can live with myself. They were like, ‘Okay, if you want to do this, you’re going to do this full-speed and do it with your whole heart. ’And I said, ‘Yes.’”
Full-speed ahead, Alvarez left South Florida one week after high school graduation to train out west, first in California and then in Salt Lake City. There is no straight line from Miami to the Winter Olympics. By 2009, he was training with the best short track skaters in the country: J.R. Celski, Travis Jayner, Jordan Malone and Apolo Ohno, who was on his way to becoming Team USA’s heaviest-medaled Winter Olympian in any sport.
Alvarez did not qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games, where his four training teammates earned the bronze medal in the 5,000-meter relay. When they left the national training center, Alvarez stayed behind to continue training and to rest his ailing knees, and his path diverged again. His heart remained committed to chasing his Olympic dream, but his first love loomed in the back of his mind.
He tracked down the phone number for DG Nelson, the baseball coach at Salt Lake Community College, a junior college program in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, where a 17-year-old named Bryce Harper was just finishing his only season at the College of Southern Nevada. Alvarez and his father called Nelson and shared the story of how he’d landed in Salt Lake and what he’d like to try. The coach was open to watching this two-sport curiosity work out.