As he stood with his speedskating teammates on the podium at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Eddy Alvarez felt immense pride. He also felt a pang of envy.
It wasn’t his team atop the podium as medals were handed out for the 5,000-meter relay, it was Russia’s. That wasn’t the Star Spangled Banner blaring over the loudspeakers, it was the “State Anthem of the Russian Federation.”
“When you’re so close to winning and you have to stand on the podium and listen to someone else’s anthem,” said Alvarez, who earned a silver medal in the race, “it leaves just a little bit of that bittersweet feeling.”
Seven years later, Alvarez has a chance to rewrite that memory.
He will return to the Olympics this month as a member of the USA Baseball team, making the former Salt Lake Community College player just the 11th American in history to compete in both a Summer and Winter Games.
He’s already guaranteed to hear his national anthem played and see the U.S. flag raised at least once. In fact, he’ll do the flag raising and waving himself when he carries it into Tokyo Olympics Stadium during Friday’s Opening Ceremony as one of the U.S.’s two flag bearers. Women’s basketball star Sue Bird is the other.
“To hold Old Glory and the symbol of freedom and liberty to many around the world, not just to the United States, you know, this one means a lot,” Alvarez, 31, said. “This one’s very special.”
‘The kid can flat-out play’
Salt Lake City sits squarely at the junction of where Alvarez’s paths to the two Olympics converge.
A native of Miami, Florida, he had bounced back and forth between skating and baseball for much of his youth. The skating had thrilled him since he was given a pair of roller skates at age 5. Baseball, however, ran in his blood. It was also the focus of his brother, Nick, who would go on to play at the Triple-A level for the Dodgers organization. (Nick not only encouraged his little brother to stick with the sport, he teased Eddy relentlessly about the tights he wore as part of his speedskating uniform.)
With the 2010 Olympics looming, Alvarez chose speedskating and moved to Utah to be closer to U.S. Speedskating’s headquarters at the Utah Olympic Oval. When he didn’t make the team, he sought to lick his wounds by turning to baseball.
Enter DG Nelson, the head coach at Salt Lake Community College. After getting a few emails from Alvarez’s dad asking about opportunities and hearing some good things about him from Nelson’s brother-in-law, who had played in the minors with Nick, he invited Alvarez out for a tryout prior to the 2011 season.
“He was obviously not sharp,” Nelson said of his skills. “But just watching him move around the field and what he did, I mean, the kid can flat-out play. So we brought him on and the rest is his history.”
Alvarez would workout with U.S. Speedskating in the mornings, then head over to Cate Field in the afternoons. Even with the disjointed schedule, he assimilated easily into the Bruins team, Nelson said.
Alvarez became the team’s starting shortstop. He batted .303 after learning to become a switch hitter and was named to the All-Conference team that season.
“Without a doubt, behind the scenes, he outworks everybody,” the coach said. “When it’s in front of everybody, he’s never there to show up anybody or be an ego. When he’s there, he is the best teammate — I mean, he’s just an amazing young man.”
And Alvarez did all that on knees that had 12 tendon tears between them. He wanted to return to the field for SLCC for the 2012 season, but Nelson advised him not to if Alvarez truly wanted to realize his Olympic aspirations. Instead, the coach suggested Alvarez undergo knee surgery.
Two years later, Alvarez took his place on the Olympic podium alongside the short track oval in Russia.
First-generation American fighting for the flag
Taking second in Sochi still rankles Alvarez in part because his devotion to the United States runs so deep.
The son of Cuban immigrants, he is acutely aware of what his parents gave up to come to the U.S. and why. He has frequently posted support for Cuban protestors who are revolting over shortages of food and medicine, rising COVID-19 cases, inflation, power outages and the inaction of the country’s single-party Communist government.
In one of his first Instagram posts after Team USA clinched an Olympic berth by winning the Baseball Americas Qualifier in June, Alvarez shot a video of himself in a car wearing his Team USA cap.
“Now that the Olympics are around the corner, I’m just extra f------ grateful to represent a country like the United States of America,” he said. “As a first-generation American, I’ve seen my family ache with memories of leaving everything they love and own for a chance at freedom and opportunity, and I’ve seen them cry and hope there will be change one day. This is why it’s so powerful to see what’s happening in Cuba.”
He doubled down on that sentiment in a press conference prior to leaving for Tokyo.
“When athletes disrespect the flag and, you know, say things about the country that’s not proudful, it really hurts me,” he said, “because of the situations that I’ve had to see my family go through.”
That pride, mixed with a healthy competitive spirit, is what’s driving him to do whatever he can to help Team USA bring home the gold. Host Japan is favored to win the tournament, according to the betting site thelines.com, but the U.S. is in the running along with South Korea. Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Israel will also compete.
Cuba, the country that has won the most Olympic baseball gold medals, did not qualify.
Alvarez will be the only player on the USA team with Olympic experience. Baseball was cut from the Olympic program in 2008 and reinstated only — at least so far — for the Tokyo Games. MLB mandated that no players from the 40-man rosters of its big league teams would be made available to play, so the American squad consists mostly of minor leaguers and those who have been playing internationally.
Team USA manager Mike Scioscia said Alvarez is an asset to the team, but more for his leadership and skills than his Olympic history.
“His Olympic experience was with skates on, so I don’t know how much that translates to what we’re doing,” Scioscia said. “But I think the overall understanding of what the Olympics are about is something that Eddy brings. In the qualifiers there was no doubt about what he brought every day.”
Alvarez, who plays for the Triple-A Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and who celebrated his first MLB call-up last July with the Miami Marlins, had a .429 on-base percentage and a .636 slugging percentage during the must-win tournament.
For his part, Alvarez said he has been trying to prepare his teammates for the spectacle and distractions of the Games. For example, he said, they need to be sure to plan extra time for everything, because even just getting into the dining hall can take longer than anticipated.
He might also tell them that getting to hear your national anthem on the loudspeakers can take longer than expected as well, and that the wait can be vexatious.
“This feels like a redemption trip for me,” Alvarez said of his return to the Olympics. “This is like a second chance and I’m going, with this, to absolutely leave it all on the field.”