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Monday, August 19, 2013
Pedro Alvarez slugs path from Washington Heights to stardom with Pittsburgh Pirates
Perhaps the only thing more notable about Pedro Alvarez than his power is the path he has taken to the big leagues. A Dominican-born kid coming out of Washington Heights is hardly the stuff of headlines. But when that kid goes to Horace Mann, a prestigious private school in Riverdale, and then turns down almost $1 million after being drafted by his favorite team, the Red Sox, to attend Vanderbilt, well, that changes the narrative just a bit
Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three-run home run in the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the game on June 16, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — It’s the 99th game of the season for the most surprising club in the National League, top of the second inning, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ third baseman is in the left-handed batter’s box, a hulking body in wait.
On the mound is Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, on his way to an utterly dominant, two-hit, 12-strikeout night. Strasburg falls behind 2-1 when a fastball misses. He decides to go with the fastball again. He looks in at Pedro Alvarez, his knees bent slightly, his weight back, his bat as straight as the Washington Monument. The pitcher winds and fires, a 96 mph fastball and now Pedro Alvarez, son of a livery cab driver, a kid out of West 196th St., is ready to go to work, his hands powering forward, his hips opening, his 31-ounce bat crushing into the pitch, producing a thwack so deep and loud they probably heard it on Capitol Hill.
The ball rockets on a line to right-center, landing in the seats before you could say Frank Howard. Later, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said the clout was so sweet and strong it gave him goosebumps.
“It might’ve been the hardest ball I’ve seen hit this year,” says Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, Alvarez’s closest friend on the team.
Alvarez puts his bat down and his head down, and makes a no-frills trot around the bases, the same way he always does. He may be from the same neighborhood as Manny Ramirez, but he doesn’t do Manny. Or David Ortiz. Or even Robinson Cano. It’s as if Alvarez’s mission is to be as understated as a 6-3, 235-pound man can be.
“I try to respect the game, and respect everybody as much as possible,” Alvarez says. “It’s two guys battling, and more times than not the guy on the mound is going to win. You can’t forget that.”
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Alvarez, 26, had made as many trips around bases this year — 29 — as any hitter in the National League through Thursday. He had the best home run/at-bat ratio in the league (one every 14.1 at-bats), and was a knock away from hitting the 30-homer mark for a second consecutive year. His strikeouts come in bundles and his average had dipped into the .230s, but people around the first-place Pirates — how weird does that sound, after 20 straight losing seasons? — are convinced Alvarez is on the verge of becoming one of the elite sluggers in the game.
“He has as much raw power as any player I’ve seen,” says Hurdle, who is in his fifth decade in the big leagues. “I just like the lane he’s in and the direction he’s headed.”
Perhaps the only thing more notable about Pedro Alvarez than his power is the path he has taken to the big leagues. A Dominican-born kid coming out of Washington Heights is hardly the stuff of headlines. But when that kid goes to Horace Mann, a prestigious private school in Riverdale, and then turns down almost $1 million after being drafted by his favorite team, the Red Sox, to attend Vanderbilt, well, that changes the narrative just a bit.
More than a few people in the neighborhood thought that Alvarez was making a mistake of tape-measure proportions, choosing college over a big baseball check.
Alvarez is sitting at his locker before a recent game at PNC Park, his Mohawk freshly cut, his dark beard so finely etched it looks fake, his eyes sloping beneath thick dark eyebrows.
“I was at peace with the decision,” Alvarez says, in a voice not much above a whisper. “We talked about it as a family. We are so close, and I have such a great support system, that we didn’t let what other people thought affect us.”
Says Pedro Alvarez Sr., speaking through an interpreter, “The day he was accepted (at Horace Mann) was as a big a day for us as the day he entered the draft. As much as sports were important to us, his intellectual development was even more important.
(Photo: David Hague)
“I would always tell him, ‘If you advance in sports but not in your education, then you’ll be left behind.’ If sports didn’t work out for some reason, I wanted to make sure he had the education to develop the finest mind he could have.”
Alvarez Sr. and his wife, Luz, had another inviolable rule for their son and daughter, Jolaina: no hanging out on the streets. What good ever comes of that?
“I used to say to Pedro since he was small, when the lights go out at night, they go out for everyone in the house,” the elder Alvarez says. “Everyone is going to bed. That was it. There was no discussing it. He just accepted it. There was no time. He was very booked all the time. Studies and sports.”
Pedro Sr. was booked, too, with the perilous livery-car job that nobody in the family much liked. But it gave Pedro Sr. the flexibility to be able to go to his son’s games, to be a hands-on father, and to drive his son to a baseball academy in Stamford, Conn., where he supplemented his training. The young Pedro would often ask his father if he could go out in the car with him, but the answer was always no, especially after what happened one night on West 131st St. The father had just picked up three young men on West 168th St. The men barely talked, and looked suspicious. The father’s instincts told him that something wasn’t right, and when one of the three pointed a gun at his head, he had all the validation he needed. Alvarez jumped out of the car and the hoodlums drove it away. “There were other incidents, but I didn’t want the family to know because they would worry,” Alvarez says.
Pedro the son had stood out from the time his father started pitching to him, and by the time he joined a new summer-league team called the New York Giants, he was clearly a star in the making. One of the team’s founders was an administrator at Horace Mann, a connection that ultimately led to Alvarez gaining admission and receiving almost a full scholarship.
It also led to Horace Mann having the best ballplayer in school history, a slugging shortstop who would routinely take batting practice for big league scouts. The school gym is located in deep right field of the ballfield, the tennis courts beyond the gym — but still within reach of Alvarez’s power.
“Our coach always had to alert the tennis coach, so he could tell his players to be aware or clear the court when Pedro was taking BP,” says Ezra Levine, 25, who co-captained the Horace Mann team with Alvarez in Levine’s junior year.
Judah Levine, Ezra’s older brother, has his own memory of Alvarez’s muscle, at a game against rival Hackley in Tarrytown, Alvarez launching a ball that Levine swears was still climbing when it cleared a 50-foot tree that stood behind a 375-foot outfield wall.
“It was a different kind of contact than you’d see at that level,” Judah Levine says.
Marc Cuseta, founder of the Bayside Yankees, one of the premier sandlot baseball teams in the area, was scouting Alvarez that day. Soon Alvarez was a member of Cuseta’s team.
“The only thing that was going to stop him from being an All-Star was getting hurt,” Cuseta says.
Alvarez wound up setting a slew of school records at Horace Mann, a school that has since been rocked by a sprawling sex-abuse scandal that allegedly traces back decades. Alvarez said he knew nothing of it at the time — never had a hint that anything so horrific was going on.
“I was not aware of anything until just a few days ago,” he says. “While I was there, I was pretty much concentrating on baseball and wasn’t aware of anything else going on as far as the current allegations are involved.”
Alvarez went on to become the Gatorade New York State Player of the Year, and a 14th round selection by the Red Sox in the 2005 June draft. The club’s final offer was $925,000, and the early buzz was that he would accept it. Tim Corbin, the coach at Vanderbilt and a close friend of Cuseta, and one of the droves of college coaches recruiting him, could only hope. David Price was already in the Commodore fold. Wouldn’t it be something to get Alvarez, too?
“Forget his strength, forget his power,” Corbin says. “I thought his hitting ability was at a level I’d seen very rarely.”
* * *
Alvarez would wind up amply justifying Corbin’s enthusiasm over his three years (2006-8), his All-American career including 49 homers, 162 RBI in 170 games and a .349 average, but his time in Vanderbilt did not start auspiciously. In the fall of his freshman year, in intrasquad games, Alvarez struggled mightily. One day he struck out three times and returned to the dorm to spend the night second-guessing himself.
“What did I get myself into here?” he wondered.
Always a streaky hitter, Alvarez righted himself soon enough and flourished, though Corbin remembers him as much for his kindness and team-first demeanor as for his power. The Vanderbilt team had a student manager named Jason Cunningham, who finally earned a walk-on spot and wound up winning a semifinal game in the SEC Tournament.
“Kind of my Rudy moment,” Cunningham says. As the team celebrated Cunningham with a human tunnel, Corbin saw Pedro Alvarez leading the way, saluting a completely unheralded teammate.
“Making someone feel good about themselves is very important to him,” Corbin says. “He’s very aware of the kid who may not be getting the attention that somebody else is.”
Says Alvarez, “You’ve got to enjoy your teammates. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re not welcome.”
The Pirates made Alvarez the second pick in the 2008 draft, and he made it up to the big club in less than two years, belting 16 homers and driving in 64 runs and hitting .256 in 95 games for the Pirates in 2010. He seemed to be on his way, until a slow start and a persistent quadriceps injury made 2011 a season of horrors, Alvarez getting booed by fans and ripped by the press, the recurrent theme being that the Pirates had wasted a top pick. Alvarez wound up being sent back down to Triple-A and hitting .191 with four home runs.
“It was the worst thing I’d ever gone through in baseball,” he says.
Alvarez went down to Bradenton, Fla., for a rehab stint, searched for mental quiet and turned to his Christian faith, realizing he was trying too hard, worrying too much about outcomes, not letting himself play freely. With a healthy leg and a refreshed outlook, he took off in 2012, going .244-30-85, and has kept it up this year.
“When you look at how hard he works at it and how strong his wrists are, what he’s doing doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Neil Walker says. Walker pauses and watches Alvarez smash a batting-practice homer over the right field wall, and talks about how Pedro Alvarez is truly a man who cares much more about his teammates and winning than in personal glory. It is a theme you hear again and again.
Judah Levine estimates that he played about 250 games with Alvarez, with both the New York Giants and Horace Mann. When Levine made a surprise visit to PNC Park not long ago, Alvarez rushed over to greet him and signed a ball and wrote, “I love you.” Levine says Alvarez’s parents and sister were at every single game, mom often putting out a spread of chicken, rice and beans, dad regularly throwing batting practice, and young Pedro — by far the best player on the team — reveling in being one of the guys.
“A humble kid from a close family that values education and cares about treating people the right way — it sounds too good to be true, but it’s the truth,” Ezra Levine says.
Pedro Alvarez, as understated as he is muscled, doesn’t much want to take bows for his singular path to the big leagues, or for smashing home runs for the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates. He gets up from his locker.
“My only goal is to help my team, learn as much as I can every day, and continue to grow as a person and a baseball player,” he says.