USA baseball player Eddy Alvarez was voted flag bearer for Team USA today (along with basketball player Sue Bird). Tokyo 2020 takes a closer look at the story of this Miami kid – humble son of Cuban immigrants – as he looks to spin his Sochi 2014 speed-skating silver medal into gold on the baseball diamond.
While his USA Baseball teammates dream about Olympic podiums, infielder Eddy Alvarez won’t have to. He’s been there, as they say, and he’s done that.
“Walking in the opening ceremony and just being part of the Olympics is so special and it’s something to cherish forever. I’m still in awe of it really,” the 31-year-old infielder told Tokyo 2020 about the time, in 2014 in Sochi, when he won a silver medal in men’s 5000m relay short track speed skating. “Putting on a USA uniform and stepping on the Olympic ice, it’s an unbelievable thing in my life. The feelings are huge.”
When he told the short version of his Winter Games story to his teammates at a training camp in Vero Beach, Florida ahead of a regional qualifying tournament, Alvarez immediately got the attention of his new teammates.
“When I was introduced to the team in our mini-camp, it was mentioned that we had an Olympic-level skater in the room,” said Alvarez, remembering how heads turned toward him. “I was able to tell my story and get through to them what it [participating in the Olympics] meant to me and how it’s something to be savoured.”
Alvarez, now with the honour of being one of the two Team USA flag bearers for the Tokyo Games, won't be the first athlete to compete in both the winter and summer Games. But should he medal in the six-team baseball tournament, to be played in the cities of Fukushima and Yokohama, he would become only the sixth athlete in Olympic history to stand on a podium in both the winter chill and the summer swelter.
South Beach to short track
Now, there are many questions one might ask about Alvarez. How are there enough hours in a day, and years in a life, to become good enough to even approach podium places in two wildly different sports? And how did this son of Cuban immigrants, who grew up in the tropical climes of South Beach in Miami, end up scooping silver in an ice sport?
“It always sounds strange to people that I grew up in Miami, with a Cuban background, and I ended up winning a silver medal in speed skating,” Alvarez laughed – it’s surely not the first time he’s been asked to explain his trajectory from boardwalk to skating track. “I grew up in the ‘90s, inline skating on South Beach for fun. You can picture it, probably, girls in high-wasted bikinis with headphones on...”
When Alvarez was five years old, he was given a pair of plastic inline skates. Soon he was pulling tricks for the sun-hungry crowds at the beach. It was evident to local skating coach Bob Manning that the youngster had Olympic-level potential. By age seven, Alvarez was on the ice and earning a new nickname. Eddy the Jet, they called him. Add to that raw talent, the tireless support of his family and a willingness to travel far and wide, and potential soon blossomed into ability and mastery past that.
Alvarez won national titles in inline speed skating and long and short track speed skating too.
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“Being on the ice wasn’t like a walk in the park,” he chuckled, recalling how, early on, he did most of his training on wheels and was able to get onto the ice only about once a week. “But I was able to pick it up pretty fast even though I had to do things a lot on my own.”
Alvarez, crucially, showed a huge amount of grit too. He underwent marathon double knee surgery in 2012 that nearly derailed his careers – both skating and baseball.
After missing out on the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he set things right and reached Sochi in 2014.
He wasn’t able to medal in his individual events in Russia. He was disqualified or fell – or was knocked over – in all four disciplines. But as part of a team, in the 5000m relay, he hit his speedy best and helped catapult his crew, including JR Celski, Christopher Creveling and Jordan Malone, to a silver-medal finish behind the Russians.
Cuban roots and baseball passion
While he was the first Cuban-American man to compete in a speed skating event in the Olympics, he was in no way the first Cuban-American man to try his hand at baseball. The sport was always a part of his life. He played the game, invented and venerated in his adoptive USA, all his life. And his potential in the sport was as high – if not higher – than what he showed on the ice.
“We’ve got some Olympic-level speed here in the clubhouse,” 62-year-old Team USA manager Mike Scioscia, twice a Major League World Series winner as a catcher with the LA Dodgers, half bragged in a press conference. The affable Scioscia is the kind of coach who likes to talk up his players, but even he – the longest-tenured manager in Major League baseball – sounded more impressed than usual by Alvarez’s story. “Silver medal in speed skating, so that’s saying something.”
You’d think that speed on the short track would translate directly to speed around a baseball diamond. But you’d be wrong.
“A lot of people think because I skated fast that I was a fast runner. But it was the opposite,” Alvarez said when asked about his searing pace on the base path – spikes dug in dirt rather than the long, liquid glide of skates. “I had to learn how to run. In skating the only running we do is in that kind of duck motion and that’s not a normal way to run. I knew I was capable of learning how to run and be a base-stealer, but I had to do the work and learn.”
It’s safe to say Alvarez learnt how to run and then some. He was outstanding in the Americas qualifiers -- in the field and the batter's box too. His all-around play helped the Americans to a first-place finish, sending them back to the Olympics where they previously won gold at Sydney 2000 and bronze at Atlanta 1996 and Beijing 2008.
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“My heritage got me into baseball,” said Alvarez, whose family was still back in Cuba when the alleged first game of baseball was played in Hoboken, New Jersey in the middle of the 19th Century. “Coming from a Cuban household and my mom and dad, and my entire family, coming from Cuba and me growing up in Miami, that’s a lot of baseball.
“So when I was done with being a skater,” he said. “I figured baseball made sense.”
Eddy the Jet in the Big Leagues
First, in 2014, the Chicago White Sox called and sent Alvarez to learn his trade in the minor leagues. When the hometown Miami Marlins rang up in 2020, he was on his way to the Majors. Alvarez – a second dream realised – made his debut in the “bigs” in August of 2020. Nine months later, Team USA was on the phone. “Now, I’m given the opportunity to go to the Olympics a second time,” he said, gratitude around the edge of his voice. “It feels like coming full circle.”
But there’s unfinished business too.
For a competitor like Alvarez, silver is – aside from the obvious honour – still second place. “There’s nothing worse than standing on that podium and listening to someone else’s anthem being played,” he remembered of the day in 2014, American flag over his shoulders and arms around his teammates, as the Russian anthem blared to the rafters in Sochi. “That feeling really fuels the fire in me.”
It’s an anecdote he shared with his baseball teammates when he introduced himself at the start of the qualifiers in Florida. The team, an interesting blend of veteran major leaguers and young up-and-comers from the minors, will be among the favourites for a medal in Japan as the U.S. take part in their fifth (of six) Olympic baseball competitions since the sport debuted in 1992.
“The blend in the team and the chemistry was right there from the start,” said Alvarez ahead a stiff Olympic opener against Israel on 30 July. “But it’s easy to bond with someone who wants to partake in a journey like this. The ultimate goal is to win a gold medal and there’s a great energy in this team.”
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The complete field for the Tokyo 2020 baseball tournament is: Team USA, Japan (hosts), South Korea, Israel, Mexico and the Dominican Republic (who won a last-chance qualifying tournament last month in Mexico).
“There’s an all-or-nothing kind of feel to this,” said the infielder, taking dead aim at the tallest segment of the podium this time. “I come from a family of fighters and this country poured opportunities on me and my family. I couldn’t be more proud to wear my country’s colours again.”
Ready for a great comeback in 2020?