BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Birmingham Barons shortstop Eddy Alvarez has a "hidden secret."
Alvarez is a Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants who won a silver medal in the Winter Olympics as part of the USA's 5,000-meter relay speedskating team in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
You read that right. Miami. Winter Olympics. Silver medal. Speedskating.
But there's nothing secretive about that. After all, the whole world was watching "Eddy the Jet" two years ago.
He then walked on at Salt Lake Community College in 2011 and became the team's starting shortstop before undergoing surgery to repair a dozen tears between both knees. That, too, has been well documented.
Alvarez is dating Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner (not a secret). She knew so little about baseball when they first met at the 2014 Olympics that Alvarez jokingly says he "is pretty sure" she called the bases "pillows."
Nope, Alvarez's "hidden secret" is he can do non-verbal imitations—of nearly anyone. His targets include hitters at the plate, roving instructors, team coaches and his own manager, Ryan Newman.
"Only when I call him out on it," Newman told B/R after spilling the beans on Alvarez. "When I'm in a good mood, I'll let him imitate me. A month or so ago before a stretch, I let him lead the orientation as me. It went well, it was pretty good."
Think of him as an athletic, 5'9", 180-pound Batting Stance Guy who can hit from both sides of the plate. "I have an analytical mind. I love people watching," Alvarez said. "Since I was a kid, I've always been able to copy the mannerisms and body language of everyone around me."
The biggest secrets for Alvarez lie ahead. His made-for-TV-movie life story has yet to be fully scripted. Three seasons into his pro baseball career, Alvarez has found his swing and his glove with the Double-A Barons. Alvarez (.250/.326/.348) heading into Monday's game leads the Barons with 60 RBI from the leadoff spot. His swing has both matured and solidified this season.
(Monday, he went 5-for-5 in Birmingham's 5-2 loss with two RBI and is now batting .420 (21-for-50) in August.)
"Living through an experience where the pressure is at its peak has helped. Making the Olympic team is something I like to compare making all these at-bats to," Alvarez told B/R while sitting in the Barons dugout on a midsummer's day about 70 degrees warmer than the ice in Sochi.
"In the Olympics, you only get one opportunity to bring it all together. If you don't, better luck in four years. In baseball, you get to bat four times a night. As a baseball player, you fail seven out of 10 times and you're a Hall of Famer. In skating, you get one opportunity every four years. It's definitely a life lesson."
He salvaged his season—and perhaps his pro baseball career—during a four-game series at Biloxi in the middle of June. He entered that series slashing with a butter knife (.199/.278/.231), but across those four games, he went 6-for-14 with his first home run of the season and four RBI. From the start of the Biloxi series to the end of the month, he raised his batting average 42 points. Overall in June, he hit .352 with three home runs, 14 RBI and 25 hits.
Instead of trying to move runners from base to base, he's aiming to push them home. His time at the Double-A level and multiple adjustments to his switch-hitting swing, mainly from the left-handed side of the plate, have all helped.
Newman told B/R all those adjustments are "how the game weeds itself out."
"I always played the 'little man game,'" Alvarez said. "I am starting to figure out that I can put it to dead center. I was never able to do that. When you see that, you're like, 'Wow.' I just don't have to hit this guy over, or bunt the guy over. I can put the barrel of the bat on the ball somewhere and maybe score a run somewhere. And when there is a guy on third and no outs, infield's back, I will get that ball on the ground to get that guy across. A lot of that goes to my teammates."
Alvarez has been whirling against convention as an amateur, Olympic and professional athlete for 20 years. Born Eduardo Alvarez, his is a biography befitting someone whose Americanized first name in Dictionary.com describes "a circular flow of water that spins counter to the surrounding current."
That counterintuitive motion includes admitting his skating career is "definitely over." His immediate Olympic concern remains keeping up with the continued successes of Team USA in Rio whenever his baseball schedule permits.
"Michael Phelps has been awesome," he said in a brief phone interview Friday. "I've also been watching a lot of beach volleyball, [table tennis] and the Final Five. I love the Olympics."
'Baseball is my true passion'
The Olympics were never meant to replace Alvarez's favorite sport.
"Baseball is my true passion," Alvarez said. "I loved skating with all my heart, but I knew that was something that was going to be time-limited. I knew all I wanted to do was to represent my country in the Olympics. That was my goal, and I set myself to that. That's why I left baseball for so long. Even if I didn't sign professionally or go to college, I always knew I was going to try. This is more than I could have expected. But this is still being written."
The current chapter in Alvarez's book of baseball was prefaced with surgery to repair a torn right labrum suffered last season.
"Offseason was more a get-healthy offseason," he said. "All spring training was rehabbing and, in the last couple of weeks, was just getting some at-bats. So it was tough jumping into the Double-A level with only a couple of weeks of spring training."
"In spring training, he probably played only a total of nine innings defensively. It was his spring training for the first month-and-a-half of the season. He was playing catch-up on the defensive side," Newman said. "It's a fairly large jump for him to get to Double-A. I think he's handled it pretty well. It affected him defensively at the beginning of the season, but not anymore."
Alvarez has 22 errors, a plurality of which came early in the season while he worked to strengthen his arm.
"The game gets a little faster in Double-A," said Newman, whose father, Jeff, was a major league catcher with the Red Sox and A's. "Not only does the ball come at you a little more quickly, but the guys get down the line quicker. He had to catch up to the speed. To his credit, the kid has really worked his tail off. You can see the improvement on a daily basis—especially on the defensive side. We knew what he was capable of offensively. He's starting to fit in here defensively."
Like countless other ballplayers who reach Double-A, the struggles for Alvarez are as much mental as physical. (Unless your name happens to be Andrew Benintendi.)
"This is big-boy level," Alvarez said. "This is as close to the big leagues as you're going to get—the two big obstacles in baseball are jumping to the Double-A level and staying in the bigs. The game definitely sped up in the beginning of the year. I have no problem telling you that I 100 percent struggled at the beginning of the year. With what I went through in skating, I take things on headfirst and try to fix them immediately. But when you're going 0-for-10 or 0-for-15, the game is so fast. When you're going good, the other hitters take forever for you to get an at-bat. When you're going bad, it's like you finish, and boom, all of a sudden you're up at the plate again."
And his thoughts on former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow making a run at the bigs after not playing competitive baseball since he was a high school junior 11 years ago?
"Have Tim Tebow call me and we can talk about this," Alvarez added Friday. "Patience. That would be my advice. He's going from 85-mile-per-hour pitching to 90-plus-mile-per-hour on a consistent basis. He'd better be ready. It's not going to be easy. I've seen his swing. It's impressive. I wish him the best of luck. I'm a big believer in someone who is willing to take on a new challenge."
White Sox Director of Player Development Nick Capra all but conceded Alvarez's long-term prospects with the organization aren't anchored to the shortstop position.
The White Sox signed then-16-year-old Dominican phenom Amado Nunez for $900,000 in 2014. They also have 18-year-old Luis Curbelo and 20-year-old Johan Cruz ahead of Alvarez on MLB.com's list of White Sox prospects.
Cruz has settled in at short for Single-A Kannapolis. "Watching him develop, he may have a chance to stay at shortstop," Capra said.
Conversely, there are no immediate plans to move Alvarez to second base. Alvarez added he hasn't been given any directive toward playing another position this season in Brimingham.
"Our philosophy is that they'll have to play themselves off at shortstop before we'd move them," Capra said. "Is he an everyday shortstop down the road? Probably not. Can he play shortstop in a pinch? Yes.
"He's probably more of a second baseman down the road with the ability go to the left side of the field. There are a lot of people who make a lot of money in baseball as utility players. Is that his role down the road? I don't know. He's developed into a pretty good baseball player. Can he play second base? Maybe so. That's something we'll have to put some thought into and see what happens down the road."
The White Sox have several prospects who share Alvarez's athleticism and potential to play multiple positions, including Jake Peter, who played shortstop in college.
"We saw Peter as more of a second baseman. But being so athletic, we can move him around, second, third, short, left field," Capra said. "We've never put Eddy in the outfield, but he's very athletic. I'm sure if we did, he'd never miss a beat. We try as an organization to project what these guys can do and figure out what's the best path to the majors for each of these guys. That's what we're doing with Eddy."
Offensively, Capra said Alvarez has exceeded the White Sox's expectations, especially given the fact he had just one full season in Single-A before making the challenging jump to Double-A.
"He's had some help with guys getting on base and come up with some big hits," Capra said. "He's been up ... with a chance to score runners and he's done it—whether or not it was a base hit, a home run, a double. He's done a really nice job with [runners in scoring position]. The mentality is different with RBI guys."
Silver Lining Scorebook
Team USA finished 0.271 seconds behind the gold-medal-winning Russians in the 5,000-meter relay final in Sochi. Alvarez was the first Cuban-American male speedskater to reach the Olympics after placing second in the 500 meters, second in the 1,500 and third in the 1,000 during the Olympic trials. In spite of high hopes, he failed to medal in three individual events at Sochi. He crashed into one skater while trying to qualify in the 1,500 and tripped over a another skater in the 1,000.
"You put your life into one thing. About 10 hours a day, six days a week, 11 months of the year, this is everything you know," he said. "To see everything come together and realize you went through so much, it's unbelievable."
Alvarez recalled his emotion as a perfect combination of joy, pride and excitement.
"Oh my lord, if you can put those all in one—the satisfaction," he said. "I'm getting chills thinking about it."
His advice to first-timers headed to Rio is plain and pointed: "Savor the moment."
"That three-and-a-half weeks went by so fast," Alvarez said. "Enjoy the moment. You're there for a reason. You made it there for a reason. No regrets. Go out with a bang. You deserve it. You made it. Give it all you've got."
'If You Ain't First, You're Last'
In the 2006 movie Talladega Nights, the father of fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby misguided his son through life by telling him, "If you ain't first, you're last." Years later, Ricky's dysfunctional dad admitted he actually didn't mean what he said.
Well, "if you ain't first," are you last?
Alvarez could not get off that line without letting out a laugh.
OK, but do you win a silver or lose a gold?
"That's short-track speedskating," Alvarez said. "You never know what's going to happen. One slip. One fall. Two teams fall. It's incredible how fast everything can change in that sport. You can be in front by a corner on the last lap and fall. It's short-track. I wouldn't say I lost the gold medal. The opportunity of racing for that medal was amazing in itself."
He does have a baseball equivalent to the silver medal. "Absolutely. Getting to the World Series and having that opportunity to be a part of history."
Alvarez remains unsettled about recent revelations of widespread doping and a massive cover-up perpetuated by the Russian Olympic Federation that ran from 2011 until 2015.
In a July 18 statement, United States Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis T. Tygart said, "Our hearts go out to athletes from all over the world who were robbed of their Olympic dreams."
"That's deep," Alvarez said. "I won't feel like that unless there's a lot more information provided to me. Right now, I'm going to say it's a pure sport. I couldn't see athletes going to that extent in that sport in the Olympics. I definitely could see more of how it's the government making them do something like that. It's hard to think that at the end of the day, there's a potential that some of these athletes did cheat."
Were Alvarez and his American teammates skating on a level frozen playing field?
"That's a tough one for me to answer," he said. "If I say yes, then I wouldn't be true to my heart. If I say no, then what if these are false accusations? In my heart and in my soul, I want to say these guys were clean. If I lost, it's because that's how the universe meant it to be."
Alvarez said he was tested eight times in Sochi. He's been peeing on demand as part of USADA random testing since he was a teenager.
"I was 15 years old," he said. "I was training in Miami doing inline, ice skating and baseball. We were driving up to Port St. Lucie (about a 90-minute trip) for a baseball tournament. As we're getting to Port St. Lucie, my coach called and said the USADA showed up at baseball practice. We had to drive back to give a sample."
Any missed test is counted as a positive.
The most positive personal takeaway from Alvarez's trip to Sochi was his relationship with Wagner.
"I did not know her beforehand; she will say otherwise," he said. "She knew who I was. I had an idea who she was. I watched her Olympic trials. I saw her for the first time [up close] on the set of the Today show in Russia."
There was a not-so-chance meeting in the athletes cafeteria a few days later.
"I knew her friends," he said. "We ended up talking for hours, and we never stopped talking since then."
When Alvarez was in competition as a skater, he and Wagner often trained at the same facilities.
Wagner is currently training full-time in California for the upcoming skating season.
"In a way, it works, and in a way, it doesn't at all," Wagner told Nick McCarvel of icenetwork in November. "Summertime is my time to see him in whatever small town he's playing baseball in. We try not to go more than six weeks or two months without seeing each other."
Their shared history as competitors helps them relate to one another, except perhaps when it comes to the particulars of baseball.
"Is she a baseball fan? Well, she's going to be," Alvarez said. "She was never a baseball fan, she had no idea what happened. I'm pretty sure she called the bases pillows. She will say she loved baseball players in their pants. She's learned so much. It's great to have someone as a part of your journey. We've lived the same life and have an understanding of each other and our careers."
Plastic Skates to Baseball Cleats
Alvarez's athletic exploits began with a pair of plastic skates and a concrete basketball court in his family's Miami backyard. Like LeBron James, he soon took his talents to South Beach and would race through makeshift, homemade courses along the beach's walkway.
"That's when recreational skating was a big deal," Alvarez said.
While his Olympic athleticism earned him a silver medal, it didn't fully translate to baseball.
"I had a lack of upper-body strength when I began playing again [at Single-A Kannapolis in 2014]," he said. "Speedskating is very lower-body dominant. Everything is core to your legs. In my swing, I rely a lot on my lower half. A sense of balance and generating power from my lower half is something I brought from the skating world.
"Speedskaters are trying to carry as little weight as possible in the upper body. I had zero muscle. When I tried to pick up a 31-ounce bat, it felt like a weighted bat, like I had a few donuts on the head. It was a building process. I lost a lot of strength and had to develop it. It's been a huge catch-up game so far."
Still, Alvarez spews optimism.
He sees his life as a "story of steps. Making the Olympic team. Getting to the Olympics. Medaling. Working out and getting ready to maybe sign professionally. To signing. It's always been steps. The next step for me is somehow getting on that September roster. Whether it happens or not, that's the goal. No one is going to outwork me. I'm not going to leave it up to that. That's not going to happen."
Baseball will be back as an Olympic sport four years from now in Tokyo. Alvarez has already accepted the challenge of reaching the Olympics as a baseball player.
"That is in the back of my mind—to be a rare two-sport Olympian—that would be unbelievable If I had the opportunity to represent—I would take it in a heartbeat."
Alvarez will be 30 when the Tokyo Games open on July 24, 2020.
Until then, Alvarez will have to settle for another dream, that of following in the major league footsteps of one his favorite athletes as a kid—Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.
"I loved how little and agile he was at shortstop," Alvarez said. "That's the kind of game I want to play. I want to be remembered for those plays that seemed impossible."
Oh, and here's one more secret.
"I can do backflips," he said. "If I were to ever run on a major league field, I will do a backflip. Just like Ozzie."