YOKOHAMA, Japan — Eddy Alvarez was standing in the infield dirt near second base at Yokohama Stadium, the Olympic rings spray-painted in white in the outfield grass to his right, the final out of Team USA’s semifinal win suddenly in the books. He lowered his head, jogged in to shake his teammates’ hands, made his way to the dugout, took a seat — and absolutely lost it. Something bigger than a baseball game was won out there Thursday night.
“I got emotional, because it (took) a lot of sacrifice,” Alvarez, 31, explained later. “It’s been a long time coming. I didn’t know my road was going to take me here.”
With Team USA’s 7-2 win over South Korea on Thursday night at Yokohama Stadium, the Americans — searching for their first Olympic gold in baseball since 2000 — earned a spot in Saturday night’s championship game against Japan, and Alvarez earned a rare and lofty personal distinction:
Assured now of a medal, he will become the sixth athlete in Olympic history — joining American boxer/bobsledder Eddie Eagan, Norwegian ski jumper/yachtsman Jacob Tullin Thams, German speedskater/cyclist Christa Luding-Rothenburger, Canadian cyclist/speedskater Clara Hughes and American sprinter/bobsledder Lauryn Williams — to earn medals at both the Winter and Summer Games.
This humble Miami native, this son of Cuban immigrants, this 5-foot-9 bundle of explosive athleticism, this career minor leaguer who got a cup of coffee in the majors in 2020 — this guy now takes his place, depending upon how you look at it, as either one of the best all-around athletes of his generation or someone who merely made the most of two unique opportunities seven years apart.
In 2014, Alvarez earned a silver medal in Sochi as part of the Team USA 5,000-meter relay in speedskating. Speedskaters don’t typically emerge out of Miami, but Alvarez had spent half his youth in roller blades, gaining the nickname “Eddy the Jet,” developing the muscles and the speed and the nerve before eventually switching to ice.
In 2020, after parts of six years in the minors — a stint that began in 2014, when the Chicago White Sox signed him following the Sochi Olympics — Alvarez was called to the majors in August 2020 by the Miami Marlins, who had to replenish more than half their roster that month amid a coronavirus outbreak. When he debuted on Aug. 5 of that year, he joined Jim Thorpe as the only Olympic medalists from a sport other than baseball to play in the majors.
After making the United States roster for Tokyo this spring, he was given the honor of being one of two flag bearers for Team USA at the Opening Ceremonies, joining basketball star Sue Bird. “Oh my God, this is absolutely incredible,” Alvarez said to NBC during its broadcast. “Thank God I have Sue here holding me up because I’m freaking out a little bit. I’m not going to lie.”
These Olympics are different from his experience in Sochi for one obvious reason: “All the (COVID) protocols,” he said. “It’s different, but you still feel the energy. You still feel how powerful this Olympic movement really is and how special this is to the world. It doesn’t feel different in the (athletes’) village. It just feels a little different in the venues.”
It was Alvarez who made perhaps the game’s biggest defensive play Thursday night at second base, ranging to his left then pivoting toward second to start a tricky 4-6-3 double play that got Team USA out of a fifth-inning jam when South Korea was a hit away from tying the game or going ahead. At the plate, he went 1-for-4 and drove in a run during the five-run sixth inning that broke the game open.
As a 31-year-old minor leaguer with a brief stint in the majors who has spent most of the 2021 season in Class AAA, Alvarez is emblematic of a Team USA roster filled with former stars, future stars and hangers-on who all share one trait: they are not currently on an MLB 40-man roster.
While Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korean Baseball Organization, widely regarded as the second- and third-best pro baseball leagues in the world, both sent their top players to the Olympics, Team USA’s roster is a mixture of players on the fringes of the major leagues, typically either at the beginning or the end of their careers.
Though that roster includes former MLB all-stars such as Todd Frazier, Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir and David Robertson, no one is going to mistake this for an all-star team.
It was Major League Baseball’s unwillingness to pause its season and send its best players to the Summer Games that most likely doomed baseball as an Olympic sport. It will not be part of the Paris Games in 2024, and though it could be added for Los Angeles 2028 it’s prospects after that are dim.
For the 30-somethings such as Alvarez spread across the Team USA roster, that means this tournament is likely to be their last Olympic experience. That experience has one game remaining.
“This is what we came to do,” said Frazier, 35, who was playing in an independent league a month ago. “Dream big, baby.”
To a baseball player accustomed to three-plus-hour games to determine a winner, in a sport without a clock in which the outcome isn’t decided until the 27th out is secured, a margin of .271 seconds separating defeat from victory might seem capricious, arbitrary, even unfair. That’s roughly the amount of time a major league fastball takes to reach home plate. You wouldn’t want to decide something as important as a gold medal in that snap of the fingers.
But that’s the margin by which Alvarez and his U.S. speedskating relay teammates lost the gold medal to Russia in Sochi. It took some time to get over such a loss — especially after it was revealed later that Russia had been operating a state-sponsored doping scheme during the Sochi Olympics.
“I won’t lie to you — I do feel cheated,” Alvarez said. “There probably was some suspicion going on there. But they still have the gold medal. I also know (the Russians) put in the work. I saw them come up through the years, and I could tell how they improved. But yeah, this feels like a little redemption trip here, (to) give me a second chance to get a gold medal.”
That chance comes Saturday night. Late Thursday night, he walked toward the Team USA bus with eyes that were still red from crying. He planned to call home to Miami, where it would be midmorning. He had waited seven years for this chance to come. He could wait two more days.