Six months ago, Eddy Alvarez skated his way to a silver medal at the Sochi Olympics in front of 12,000 fans and a worldwide TV audience. So it was somewhat vexing when, in front of 1,704 at CMC-NorthEast Stadium, the White Sox prospect felt an unprecedented level of nerves on Tuesday night.
"It was really the first time I'd played baseball in front of a crowd like that," Alvarez said. "I was a little nervous."
The 24-year-old -- trying to launch a baseball career after landing on an Olympic podium -- managed to shake off those nerves and turned in a solid debut with Kannapolis. The White Sox infield prospect went 1-for-3 with a key RBI single and a stolen base in a 5-1 victory over Lexington.
Alvarez is in his first season of professional baseball after winning the silver medal in the short track speed skating 5,000-meter relay at the Winter Games. He also competed in three other events in Russia.
Prior to this season, Alvarez hadn't played baseball since 2011 at Salt Lake Community College. The switch-hitter batted .311 with a .868 OPS for the Bruins, who were ranked No. 1 nationally among junior colleges. The team fell in the Western District championships and Alvarez earned a spot on the all-conference team and a Junior College All-American nomination.
After completing the Olympics, Alvarez and his "baseball Miyagi," Carlos Castillo, went to work resurrecting a baseball career put on hold in 2011. On the day Alvarez landed back in Miami after the Olympics, he and Castillo -- a former White Sox who played in the Minors with Alvarez's older brother, Nick -- grabbed a bat and hit the cages.
Alvarez and Castillo spent months doing two-a-day sessions improving his baseball skills anywhere they could find space. They jumped from high school field to high school field, spent time at a local Boys and Girls Club and found batting cages to shake the rust off his swing.
"It was an accelerated program because we didn't have the luxury of time," Alvarez said. "In three months, we prepped the best we could, got it done."
Alvarez was eligible for the 2014 Draft but wasn't selected. Shortly after, he signed with the White Sox and headed to their facility in Glendale, Arizona, to begin working out. Alvarez played in 27 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League, hitting .291 with two homers and five stolen bases.
The 24-year-old picked up his first South Atlantic League hit in the seventh inning, driving in a run with a ground-ball single to center. He also walked and stole second in the bottom of the fifth.
"It was great, just to hear the crowd behind me, too," he said. "It was a cool experience."
The seventh-inning single tied the game, 1-1, setting up Kannapolis' comeback: the Intimidators took the lead with a four-run eighth.
Strong as the AZL numbers and Tuesday's debut have been, Alvarez is still catching up to pro ball. He joked that he "didn't see" the first fastball he faced in the seventh-inning at-bat that ended with an RBI single and knows he's still many repetitions away from feeling comfortable with the speed of pro ball.
"It's going to be a process for me," Alvarez said. "Hard work has never been something I've lacked. I know what it takes because of what I've been through. The level of the game, it still felt pretty fast for me. It's going to take a while to slow it down.
"That comes with at-bats and playing time. The transition has been very fast, very quick. It's what I want to do, though, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
As for the nerves, Alvarez couldn't pinpoint exactly why playing in front of just over a thousand folks in Kannapolis produced more nervous energy than competing on an international stage.
"It felt more intimate," Alvarez said. "It felt like the crowd was more there than it did when I was at the game. I could hear them a lot more than I did at the Ice Palace. I don't know, it was cool. It was a good atmosphere."