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Olympics first, baseball next for Alvarez02/09/2014 10:00 AM ET
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
Let's get this out of the way. Baseball is not a winter sport. It's not played on ice. It's not played in the snow. Major League Baseball organizations, in fact, try to escape anything cold by holding their initial workouts in the warmer environs of Florida and Arizona and calling such workouts, of all things, Spring Training, even if they begin in February.
No, you won't find any baseball at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The closest you might find baseball and the Winter Games is the news ticker of your favorite sports channel, where medal counts could be followed by free-agent news.
But maybe you don't know Eddy Alvarez, whose present is racing around the Olympic short track in search of a medal and whose future might be racing around the diamond in search of a Major League career.
Alvarez, a first-time Olympian at age 24, is one of two American short-track speedskaters to qualify for all three individual events (500 meters, 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters) as well as the 5,000-meter relay -- his best chance at a gold -- in Sochi. (The other being his friend, J.R. Celski.) The Miami native picked up skating at 5 years old when he started doing in-line. Over time, he moved indoors to the ice and onto the national stage.
Long before that, however, Alvarez -- the son of Cuban parents -- loved a different sport.
"Baseball's just something that's always been a part of my family," he said. "My dad did it, my brother did it, I grew up doing it. It was before skating, too. I was 2 years old and already swinging bats and throwing balls. I knew that was something that I was going do."
The national pastime remained a focus through those early years and grew a bit when his brother, Nick, was selected by the Dodgers in the 26th round of the 2000 Draft out of nearby St. Thomas University, an NAIA school. The outfielder/first baseman stayed mostly in state -- Class A Advanced Vero Beach in 2001-02, Double-A Jacksonville from 2003 to his final Minor League season in 2006 -- and it was his youngest brother who tried to reap the rewards.
"He was my idol," Eddy Alvarez said. "We had a big age difference. We're 13 years apart. He would take me into the clubhouse when I was a kid, and I was able to practice with the team, shag with the team. It was really cool. He always kept that dream of mine alive in a way because I just wanted to be like him."
Despite winning inline championships by the handful and becoming a force on the ice, Alvarez dropped skating to focus on baseball for three years at Christopher Columbus High School. The shortstop received attention from colleges and even signed a letter of intent during his junior year to play at St. Thomas, thanks to several skills that translated between the two sports.
"The sense of balance you need to take these turns at incredible angles that we do, it actually helps my swing and my load and how I need balance," Alvarez explained. "I kind of have an Ichiro swing. I load up on the back leg and unleash it. Just reaction in general, too. Stealing a base corresponds with the 500-meter start and that gun. So there are a lot of similarities in a way."
"He was a good athlete, obviously," said former St. Thomas coach Manny Mantrana, who managed Nick, recruited Eddy and has moved on to the University of Texas, Pan American. "I think he would have been ready defensively right away as a freshman. He was very quick in the field and had a good, accurate throwing arm. Hitting-wise, he could slap balls around, hit some line drives and could steal a base, too.
"But defensively, he would have been great. I think he chose the wrong sport, and I always kid him about that."
Indeed, with Alvarez graduating in 2008 and Mantrana headed to a new school the following season, the former switched tracks again. The 2010 Games in Vancouver were on the horizon and the 18-year-old, still a contender despite his time away from competitive skating, decided he wanted to make the full-time move to chase that dream. That came as no big surprise to the man who recruited him.
"From the beginning, you could kind of sense that skating was still No. 1 with him," Mantrana said. "Sure, he would play baseball, but I think the family from the beginning, they kinda saw him as having a good chance in the skating world. Hopefully, it'll work out. He's certainly gotten this far."
The Olympic dream wasn't immediately realized. He qualified for both the 2008 and 2009 World Junior Short Track Championships, but when it came to the 2010 Olympic Trials, the then-19-year-old, who was dealing with a stomach virus, finished 13th overall and no higher than 11th in the individual events (1,500m).
Feeling down after failing to qualify and with knee injuries also a concern, Alvarez turned once more to baseball in 2011, getting another chance at the college game, this time at Salt Lake Community College, not far from where he'd trained on the ice in the past.
Alvarez became a switch-hitter and was one of the more impressive bats on a Bruins team that was ranked the No. 1 nationally among junior colleges before falling in the Western District championship. The 5-foot-9 shortstop owned a .311/.390/.478 slash line and led the Scenic West Athletic Conference with 16 doubles to go with two homers, four triples, 46 RBIs and seven steals in 63 games. He earned a spot on the all-conference team along with a nomination as a Junior College All-American. Scouts turned up to see if Alvarez was back on the diamond for good. His answer? Not yet.
"They were wondering when I was going to come back, so I did tell them after the [Sochi] Games," he said. "But it was a great experience. I got to step away from this sport, grow up a little bit, try to get my mind right."
Although he certainly had performed well at Salt Lake, his knees were still not 100 percent and doctors later discovered several tears in both. Alvarez underwent major knee surgery in March 2012, following failed plasma injections, and was able to return to speedskating on the national level by the following fall.
A little more than a year later, he officially became an Olympian. Alvarez finished second in the 500m and 1,500m races and third in the 1,000m at last month's Olympic Trials, good enough for second overall and a well-deserved spot on the eight-skater (five men, three women) U.S. Short Track team. He touches the Sochi ice for the first time on Monday in qualifying for the 1,500m.
"I feel satisfied," he said. "Now it's just kind of having fun and letting go and throwing it down."
Alvarez is likely to hang up his skates after Sochi, no matter the results, and hopes those same scouts who gave him a look in Utah will come calling again in the spring. There are some athletic inhibitions, perhaps, to a baseball career, namely height and bulking up an upper body that's not required in the leg-heavy world of speedskating.
But while he's flip-flopped between both sports in the past before, has Alvarez ever decided which one he's actually better at? Of course not.
"I didn't," he said through laughter. "I plan to go back to baseball after this. That's the thing. I've never, ever been able to choose between baseball and skating, which is why I still juggle the two sports in my life. This was one of my goals -- always to be an Olympic skater -- and the other one is to be a professional baseball player.
"I just have a love for that sport and a passion. Just as much as I have a love and passion for skating. It's something I've always wanted to fall back on and we'll see what happens."