Jumbo Shrimp's Eddy Alvarez awaits Team USA baseball opportunity at 2021 Tokyo Olympics
As the calendar ticks down, Eddy Alvarez can feel the approach to history.
"It's starting to feel real now," Alvarez said. "For a while there it felt surreal. It feels great to get this uniform back on."
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Alvarez spoke with reporters during a virtual press conference Saturday, preparing for the next step in his journey across several countries, two sports and countless stops along the way.
Appearing infrequently during the Triple-A season so far, he's getting back into prime form in the red, white and blue. On Sunday night, Alvarez went 3 for 4 with a two-run home run and a stolen base as Team USA defeated USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team 8-3 in a tune-up game in Cary, N.C.
"This is going to be one heck of a ride," Alvarez said.
A redemption trip
Seven years ago, speed skating in Sochi. Now, baseball in Tokyo.
On July 30, Alvarez is scheduled to join the select list of athletes to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. He previously won a silver medal in the 5,000-meter relay for short track speed skating, competing for the United States at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
"It was hard to almost concentrate a little bit my first go-round, just because of the Olympic spirit alone," he said. "You want to experience it and try and create as many memories as possible that you're going to be carrying on for the rest of your life. At some times, my first go-round in the Olympics got a little overwhelming."
During the past seven years, he's had a chance to contemplate just how close he came to gold. Alvarez and the American team spent most of the relay on world-record pace, only for Russia to edge them out by 27 hundredths of a second.
"This feels like a redemption trip for me. The last Olympics, when you're so close to winning and you have to stay on the podium and listen to someone else's anthem, it leaves just a little bit of that bittersweet feeling," he said. "This trip is like a second chance."
Whatever the color, the silver medal is still a cherished possession — he said he keeps it in a safe deposit box, a memory much like his first big league hit off New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom.
If Alvarez wins a second medal in Tokyo — and with only six teams in the Olympic baseball tournament, American chances are excellent — he would join one of the most select clubs in Olympic sports.
To date, only five athletes have won medals in both the Summer and Winter Games: the United States' Eddie Eagan (boxing in 1920, bobsled in 1932), Norway's Jacob Tullin Thams (ski jumping in 1924, sailing in 1936), West Germany's Christa Luding-Rothenburger (speed skating in 1984 and 1988, cycling in 1988), Canada's Clara Hughes (cycling in 1996, speed skating in 2002, 2006 and 2010) and the United States' Lauryn Williams (track and field in 2004 and 2012, bobsled in 2014).
Since his success in Sochi, the Miami native has returned to the diamond and earned his Major League Baseball call-up last year with his hometown Marlins.
The challenge of converting from the ice to the diamond reshaped his body. In Sochi, Alvarez weighed in at 150 pounds. Today, he's about 185.
"It's two completely different sports," he said. "In speed skating, we want to have the strongest, most powerful lower half, and then we basically don't want to carry any weight on top. It's like carrying a weight vest, in a sense.
"Then, when I jumped to baseball, it was like I had all this muscle lower body but I had nothing upper body, so I needed to basically counteract the training that I'd done for years by training the upper body. I stayed with my lower body strength and lower body size, and then I just basically grew up."
Proud of America, thinking of Cuba
He's wearing the jersey of the United States.
He's won silver in Russia.
He's seeking gold in Japan.
But for Alvarez, the son of Cuban immigrants to South Florida, his mind is also on the people of Cuba and the protests that have erupted during the past month, shaking more than six decades of communist rule on the island.
For him, these days are emotional, stirring strong feelings about his family's journey.
"My family left for a reason. My family was under a certain control, and they didn't like where the country was going. So they got out for a chance of opportunity and freedom," he said. "Because of them, I'm able to put on this uniform and represent this country. Because of them, I'm able to basically have a freedom of speech, of saying what I feel and saying what these people are being oppressed about.
"Things coming to light now have been going on for decades. This is not anything new, like in the post [on Twitter and Instagram] that I put up. This regime that's in power now, the government that's in power, it's not OK.
"When athletes disrespect the flag and say things about their country that's not prideful, it really hurts me because of the situation that I've had to see my family go through."
Alvarez's journey is also opening a new possibility: Will a Jumbo Shrimp be carrying the flag in Tokyo?
Alvarez said that USA Baseball has nominated him as a possible candidate to carry the American flag into the stadium during Friday's opening ceremony.
"To hold Old Glory, a symbol of freedom and liberty to many around the world, not just in the United States, this one means a lot," he said.
It's not yet certain which athlete will receive that designation, which could come from a multitude of sports. No baseball player has ever carried the United States flag at the ceremony.
Alvarez said he's been discussing Cuba's situation with one of his Team USA colleagues. He didn't specify the teammate, although pitcher Nick Martinez is a Miami native who graduated from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School and whose grandparents fled Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro took power.
"We feel for the people of Cuba right now. We're so proud of them," Alvarez said. "The fact that they're going out to protest with stones, forks and broomsticks, because they have no form of protection, I just want them to know — it's going to be nearly impossible for them to ever see this — I want them to know that they have our support, through and through."
Team USA information desk
Now, as a rare seasoned Olympian on a team filled with newcomers, Alvarez is embracing a new role for Team USA.
"I've kind of been a little bit of their information desk," he said.
A Miami native through and through, he's hoping for the chance to meet Miami Heat and USA Basketball forward Bam Adebayo during the Games.
"It's the city that sculpted me, the city that gave my family the opportunity to have a great life," Alvarez said. "Just to be able to say that I'm from Miami, Florida, in the Winter Olympics was an honor, and I'm proud to be able to say that I'm playing on the U.S. national team for baseball from Miami as a Cuban-American. It feels like a full circle. I owe the city a lot."
Because of a combination of injuries and his national team duties, Alvarez has seen only sporadic action for the Jumbo Shrimp this season in Triple-A baseball: He's played in 18 games, batting .250 with a .747 OPS.
The team is scheduled to travel to Japan on Thursday.
Alvarez said he still isn't certain what COVID-19 protocols will be in place, but after a spring and summer of sporadic baseball, he's eager for the chance to play ball alongside his teammates.
"We're going to get creative, stay in the competitive spirit as much as possible," Alvarez said, "and when the time comes, we'll be ready."
In case the protocols alter the normal practice plan for Team USA, he's already packing up what he calls a "secret weapon," a set of foam balls to assist with the new routine.
As the days pass one by one, Alvarez said he's thought back to 2014, the moment when he walked into the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi to represent the United States for the first time under the Olympic rings.
"Stepping out of the ramp to the opening ceremony, I just kind of took a step back and realized that I made it," he said. "That was huge."
This week, he's about to feel it again.