Originally published on Sept 9.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Love, the great poets and thinkers say, often has no reason or rationality. You can’t control where your love is directed; it’s not something that you find, it finds you.
Like, for example, the way both speed skating and baseball found Eddy Alvarez.
“It’s hard because I fell in love with two different sports,” he said recently. “I set goals for myself in two different sports.”
In short-track speed skating Alvarez wanted to qualify for the Olympics and earn a medal. And in baseball he wanted to make the big leagues.
“It was always my goal, but I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast,” he said.
In the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Alvarez was part of the U.S. 5,000-meter relay that brought home a silver medal.
Within months, after first going undrafted, he was trying out for baseball teams and trying to quickly build the upper-body strength that had lain dormant while he focused on being a compact speed skater.
By fall 2014, he was playing shortstop for the low Single-A Kannapolis Intimidators.
Now 25, Alvarez was called up to the high Single-A Winston-Salem Dash in July, where he’s continued his dominant play in the field and at the plate, all while adding his signature speed on the bases.
“I put my heart into one sport at a time,” Alvarez said. “But I always knew I was going to jump back and forth. I didn’t know it was going to be at this level, Olympics and professional baseball.”
Speed skating was always the one that came as a surprise to everyone who knew Alvarez — and even to Alvarez, himself. Of Cuban descent, he grew up in Miami and began cruising South Beach on rollerblades when he was just 5 years old. When he was 7, he was introduced to the ice, and discovered he was just as good on the cold, slippery surface — even if his family didn’t understand it.
“No one ever skated in our family,” Alvarez said. “I probably was the only person to ever stand on skates.”
By age 11, Alvarez realized he was good enough to really make his mark in the sport.
But his heart also was calling him in another direction.
“I always knew that baseball was going to be something I continued on for as long as I could just because I fell in love with it very young,” he said. “My family’s in love with it, my brother played minor league baseball, my nephews are playing baseball now, it’s just in our family. It’s part of our world. Skating was the surprise in our family.”
Flip-flopping from skating to baseball in high school, and then back to skating in time to attempt to qualify for the 2014 Olympics was always part of the plan. The painful five-hour knee surgery in 2012 to repair 12 tears to patellar tendons wasn’t.
But the operation was necessary for Alvarez to continue skating even though it also meant he went from being an all-conference shortstop for Salt Lake City Community College to immobile for three months while his knees recovered.
The surgery worked. Alvarez made the 2014 Olympic squad and went on to help capture a silver medal.
And then he immediately set about pursuing his baseball career. He allowed himself three months to train before he began trying out for major league teams. It wasn’t easy.
“When I jumped to baseball and decided to swing a bat for the first time in three years, I was not ready for it,” he said. “I wanted to cry. I was ready to drop the bat. I only took like 20 swings, I was exhausted. I was like, ‘Man this feels like a log.’ It was a lot of work, the transition, after the Games. But it was a challenge that I was willing to take on and go in head-first. Because if worse comes to worst, I’ll move on with my life and find something else that I can fall in love with.”
Alvarez had just 45 games with Kannapolis in 2014 after signing with the White Sox, but it was enough to show promise while he averaged .346 and had 26 RBI.
When he went to spring training with the White Sox this year, though, he decided to let his teammates in on a part of his past — he brought his silver medal because so many had been asking about it.
“Not a lot of people get to experience an actual Olympic medal in their hands,” he said. “I showed it to some of the guys, as well. It’s cool because I can see their face kind of light up. It’s kind of like almost an inspiration in a way, and I love being that. … Bringing that around, it was fun for me. Just because I saw guys in their mid-20s being little kids about it. It was cool.”
Spring training is where Winston-Salem Dash manager Tim Esmay first met Alvarez, saw the medal, and talked about the shortstop’s experience in the Olympics. Esmay could see immediately that Alvarez had learned much from his speed skating career that he could apply to his baseball career.
“It teaches you how to compete,” Esmay said. “It teaches you how to fail and keep coming back. It probably teaches you how to get up at 5 a.m. when you don’t want to and train.”
Oh, and Esmay thought the medal was cool, too.
“A lot of times it’s a tough crowd in the clubhouse,” Esmay said, “but not with that. It’s not a tough crowd when you’ve been an Olympian and you’ve won a medal. I think that’s a pretty exciting thing, and I think guys respect that and are really excited about it.”
The Olympics gave Alvarez not only his medal and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it’s also where he met his girlfriend, figure skater Ashley Wagner.
The two met in the cafeteria in Sochi where he claims the petite skater was loading up on pizza and chicken nuggets.
“I’m calling (her) out on it,” Alvarez chuckled.
Wagner threw out the first pitch at a Kannapolis game earlier this summer, and has been supportive of her boyfriend’s sports switch. Through the end of August, Alvarez was batting .333 in 30 games with the Winston-Salem Dash, adding 17 walks, 13 RBI and 10 stolen bases.
“Eddy is one of those Energizer bunnies,” Esmay said. “He brings life not only to the field, but to the clubhouse. He can steal bags, he plays great defense, he can swing the bat, you can take away the bunt and he can swing the bat and he’ll hit a home run off you. All those little things that he does, but also just being around him. He’s one of those guys who is just infectious, guys gravitate toward him, they’re always laughing around him. He’s just been a joy to be around.”
And even though he’s moving slowly through the minor-league system at age 25, Alvarez wouldn’t change the course of his athletic career — experiencing his two loves.
“What I went through was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “Being able to walk in the front of the line at the Opening Ceremonies, it’s … I’m getting emotional … it was breathtaking. I couldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
The experience is one thing; he wouldn’t trade that. But the actual medal? The silver medal he showed off at spring training? He’d give that up in a second for a shot at the majors.
“It’s hardware,” Alvarez said. “To feel that, again? I feel like making the major league team would bring me that feeling back, again. That feeling of walking through the Opening Ceremonies. Yeah, I would definitely trade my medal for that.”
Video produced by Don Schick, a Charlotte freelancer.