In the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined 18 players and two coaches, the Miami Marlins were forced to make an unprecedented number of roster moves this week. But perhaps no call-up from the taxi squad was more improbable or intriguing than Eddy Alvarez, a 30-year-old rookie who has spent most of the past decade — most of his life, in fact — pursuing a completely different sport.
Alvarez made his big league debut on Wednesday, starting both games of a doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles, one at second base and the other at third. He went 0-for-5 that night and is still seeking his first MLB hit. But Alvarez is no stranger to pressure, or to performing on a sport’s biggest stage.
In 2014, Alvarez won an Olympic silver medal in short track speedskating in Sochi. He is not only the first Olympic speedskater to reach the majors — Lee Mazzilli won eight junior national speedskating championships, but he never made the Olympics — he’s the first Winter Olympics athlete to do so. The last non-baseball Olympian of any kind to participate in the Games and play in the majors was Jim Thorpe a century ago.
As Alvarez admits, short track speedskating and baseball don’t have much in common. “Besides turning left, I don’t think there’s much similarity,” Alvarez, who has the Olympic rings tattooed on his left biceps, said after his debut.
Alvarez’s call-up was the culmination of a dream he hatched right after he won that silver medal in Sochi. When he learned on Monday that he was finally heading to the big leagues to play for his hometown team, the first people he wanted to tell were the ones most responsible for helping him get there: his parents.
Walter and Mabel Alvarez had been there every step of the way for their youngest son, through six years and eight teams in the minor leagues, when he quit baseball twice, when his knees swelled with so much pain that he couldn’t walk. So a phone call or text wouldn’t do.
Alvarez drove the half-mile from his place to the house where Walter and Mabel, Cuban American immigrants, had raised Eddy and siblings Nick and Nicole, and knocked on the window.
“It’s happening,” he told his parents when they came to the door. “We did it.”
His dad didn’t understand what he meant at first, so Eddy shouted it again. Mabel nearly fell to her knees.
Their son was finally going to be a major leaguer.
Eddy Alvarez started swinging a baseball bat before he learned to walk. But on Christmas Day 1994, he opened a present from his parents that would change all of their lives: a pair of in-line skates.
“I remember my mom putting them on me and lacing them up,” Alvarez says. “Without hesitation, I took off around the living room, dodging furniture.”
When Alvarez wasn’t playing organized T-ball, he was skating at the outdoor tracks at Lummus Park on South Beach for fun. As he learned how to land tricks and wow onlookers by jumping over boxes, people began to take notice — people like Jennifer “Miami Ice” Rodriguez, a fellow Miami native and in-line skater who went on to become the first Cuban American to compete for Team USA at the Winter Olympics when she raced in four speedskating events at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Rodriguez, then 22, saw that Alvarez always seemed to be right on her heels as she practiced at the in-line tracks. She connected him with her coach, Bob Manning, who showed the athletic 8-year-old how he could apply that energy on the ice.
“She paved the way for me, in a sense, when she started on wheels,” Alvarez says of Rodriguez, who went on to win two bronze medals in Salt Lake City in 2002. “So I knew that if I wanted to be an Olympian, I had to make a transition to the ice.”
Walter, an engineer who owned a concrete materials company, and Mabel started trekking Eddy an hour north to an ice rink in Coral Springs to train five days a week. Alvarez continued to play baseball on weekends. Speedskating competition was scarce in Florida, so as his skill improved, Alvarez started traveling all over the country.
Alvarez reels off the list of places his parents took him for races as if he were an ice skating Johnny Cash. “Minnesota, Cleveland, Lake Placid, Saratoga,” he says. “You name it, I’ve been everywhere in the U.S.”
At age 11, Eddy “The Jet,” as his friends christened him, won the short track, long track and in-line speedskating national championships in the same year.
When he reached high school, Alvarez realized he could commit full time to only one sport, so he hung up his skates and picked up his bat and glove. At Miami’s Christopher Columbus High, a national powerhouse that has produced 26 MLB draft picks and four current major leaguers, including Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Jon Jay, he started four seasons at shortstop and earned a college scholarship offer to play baseball at St. Thomas University, a strong NAIA program where brother Nick — who had been drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2000 — had starred.
But the 2010 Winter Olympics beckoned.
“I love baseball so much, but when I graduated high school, there was something missing in my life,” Alvarez says. “And I knew exactly what it was.”
Alvarez believed he could find it in a rink 2,500 miles west of Miami.
There, at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City, he trained with renowned speedskating coach Wilma Boomstra and alongside fellow Olympic hopeful J.R. Celski as part of the U.S. national team’s short track program.
Alvarez and Celski, a Washington native, had been competing against each other at tournaments since they were 6. “We would beat each other up on the track,” Alvarez says. They became best friends off of it.
Alvarez won gold at the World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships in 2009, but — hampered by a stomach virus — he finished seventh at the 2010 Olympic trials and fell short of qualifying for the Vancouver Games.
His Olympic dream was dashed. The physical toll of training so hard to get back in skating shape had caught up to Alvarez, then 20. He decided to give baseball another shot — and give his knees a break after years of chronic pain from crouching — so he tried walking on at Salt Lake City Community College.
It took only about 15 ground balls to convince SLCC coach D.G. Nelson that Alvarez belonged on his team.
“You’re going to be my starting shortstop,” he told him.
Alvarez continued to train for both sports, skating in the mornings before heading to class, then practicing with the baseball team before his night courses. He hit .311 with 46 RBIs and earned all-conference honors the next season. But his knees ached more than ever.
“I thought playing baseball would give me a break from being in a squat position all day, but it didn’t,” Alvarez says. “I could not handle the pain anymore.”
He returned to Miami in early 2012 and underwent surgery to repair both of his patellar tendons. The damage was worse than he had thought. Doctors found 12 distinct tears — and offered no guarantees.
“They couldn’t promise that I would ever skate again,” Alvarez says.
The surgeries left him completely immobile for six weeks. He stayed with his parents while he rehabbed, and his mother set up a bed — and a bedpan — for him in the living room. As he lay there, he wondered whether he’d made the right decision.
“It was the hardest six weeks of my life,” says Alvarez, who passed the time by teaching himself to play guitar.
Once he was cleared to begin rehab, Alvarez knew he had a little more than a year left to get himself back in shape to make a run at the 2014 U.S. speedskating trials. So he pushed himself like never before. He returned to the national team that July, but his knees were still too weak to navigate stairs, let alone allow him to skate competitively. By October, he was able to get back into a crouch position, but his speed was still lacking. By December, he had climbed back up the ranks and qualified for the U.S. World Cup team. In January 2014, he became the first Cuban American male skater to qualify for the Olympics.
In Sochi, things didn’t go according to plan for Alvarez. After striking out in three individual races — he slipped in the 500, crashed in the 1,000 and was disqualified from the 1,500 — Alvarez redeemed himself in the final event on the last day of short track competition when he teamed with his old pal Celski in the American foursome, which finished second to Russia in the men’s relay. Alvarez had done it; he’d earned an Olympic medal. And he had already made up his mind: It was time to hang up his skates for good and chase his other dream.
Three months later, Alvarez was back on a baseball field. His college coach had helped arrange a tryout in Arizona for major league teams — and representatives from eight of them showed up, curious to see whether his Olympic-caliber skills could translate.
One of the people looking on as Alvarez fielded grounders and took batting practice that day was Charles Poe, a hitting coach in the White Sox organization. As he watched the switch-hitting Alvarez rope line drives from both sides of the plate, Poe realized that, even rusty, the 23-year-old was more skilled — and certainly more versatile — than some of the infielders the organization already had in its system.
Poe called then-assistant GM Buddy Bell and told him, “You should take a look at this guy.”
The White Sox signed Alvarez to a minor league contract on June 11. He made his professional debut with the franchise’s Rookie League team nine days later. After 27 games, he was promoted to Class A. But life as a minor leaguer turned out to be much more of a slog than he’d anticipated.
As a speedskater, he could determine the outcome of each race. Cross the finish line first and he won. But Alvarez found that in minor league baseball, his fate was out of his control. Roster decisions often depended on who was ahead of him on the organizational depth chart.
“As an Olympic athlete, I was at the top of my sport,” he says. “It was difficult to go from being at the peak, the pinnacle, to starting all over again.”
First, he had to remake his body. Speedskaters are bottom-heavy. Baseball players need upper-body strength to hit, so 5-foot-9 Alvarez had to bulk up his arms and shoulders.
Then he had to learn to harness his speed. His ability to accelerate had served Alvarez well on the ice, but it sometimes hampered him on the field. He often charged too hard and too fast on ground balls, Poe says, which resulted in 25 errors in 85 games during Alvarez’s first season in Class A.
“He just needed to slow himself down,” Poe says. “We knew he was going to be fine once he did that.” As he advanced through the system, he made fewer miscues, going from 27 errors in 2016 to 14 in 2018.
Even after the adjustments, he continued to struggle at the plate. In two seasons with the Birmingham Barons — famously the former home of another two-sport athlete, Michael Jordan — Alvarez hit into more double plays (14) than he had home runs (10). He briefly considered giving up baseball for good, returning to speedskating and making a run at the 2018 Olympics.
“I always told myself that if baseball was not fun anymore, then I would move on from it,” Alvarez says. “There was a time where I wanted to quit and potentially go back to skating. I [knew I] could do it. I trained for the 2014 Olympics in less than a year and a half.”
He stuck it out. Just before the 2019 season, the White Sox traded him to the Marlins. It turned out to be just the break he needed. He batted .323 with a .978 OPS last season in Triple-A — and made enough of an impression inside the organization to earn a non-roster invite to major league spring training.
In camp, he performed well enough during the precious weeks before the pandemic shut down baseball to catch the eye of Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who recognized the switch-hitter’s value and versatility.
“He surprised me,” Mattingly said. “He can hit. Left-handed, his swing looks really good. Right-handed, he’s not a pushover. He can play all over in the field. He’s smart, obviously coachable and [he’s] a guy that’s going to be disciplined and take care of himself.”
While baseball remained in limbo, Alvarez stayed sharp by working out at LOX Performance, a gym in Doral, Florida, he co-owns with his brother.
“I took quarantine very seriously and did not slack for one bit,” Alvarez says. On June 27, he learned that he had been named to the Marlins’ 60-man player pool, an expanded roster/feeder system created specifically for the unprecedented 2020 season. He nearly won a job during summer camp, where he clearly impressed his manager again.
Mattingly, who has led the Marlins to the best winning percentage in the National League, played with Deion Sanders and against Bo Jackson, two accomplished dual-sport athletes. He sees similar athleticism in Alvarez.
“To be able to compete at the level he did at the Olympics and then to turn to another sport and do it — it gets back into the ‘Bo Knows’ [era],” Mattingly said this week. “Eddy is just like a Bo Jackson-type athlete.”
Alvarez realizes that he might not have gotten this shot if not for the virus outbreak. And that at 30, he might not have many more chances in baseball. So he is savoring his moment.
“It’s OK to dream. It’s OK to let go and go after what you want,” Alvarez said after his debut. “I’m a true testament. I firmly believe I am no more athletic than the guy next to me. I’m 5-foot-9. I weigh 180 pounds. I don’t outrun a whole lot of people. It’s OK.”
But soon he will have bigger concerns than baseball. His girlfriend, Gaby Pearson, is pregnant with their first child — a boy due Aug. 23, whom they’re planning to name Jett, a nod to Alvarez’s speedskating nickname. With more than 120,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Miami-Dade County remains a hotbed for the coronavirus, so Pearson has spent the past few months in lockdown. Alvarez had to leave her behind in Miami when he flew to Baltimore, so his joy is tempered by worry. Part of the reason a roster spot opened up for Alvarez was that Marlins infielder Isan Diaz opted out of the season after his teammates tested positive.
“I have to be very cautious,” Alvarez says. “I don’t have the luxury of taking a year off from baseball. So I have to do everything possible in my power to make sure that I stay safe, not just for me but for my family.”
At least until his teammates start to return from the COVID-19 injured list, Alvarez will remain a major leaguer. And he’s more convinced than ever that his future is on the field.
Speedskating was always a short-term goal for him, Alvarez says, because of how brief a career in the sport typically is. He’s home now. “I just love baseball so much,” he says.