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HOUSTON – Raised in Cuba, Yordan Alvarez was taught that the United States is a bad country. The thought was so ingrained in him that when he was 12 or 13 he skipped English classes at school.
“Why should I take an English course if I never go to the US?” Alvarez said he said to himself at the time.
Look at him now.
He was the 2019 American League Rookie of the Year, a level he never thought he would reach. He blasts baseball harder than any other major league and even sent one over the Fenway Park Green Monster in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series on Wednesday. He’s the best power racket on a Houston Astros team one win away from reaching their third World Series in five years. He spends his off-season in Tampa, Florida, and his two children were born in the country he doesn’t like.
Alvarez, 24, is laughing about it now. Perhaps he should have used this advantage with the language of his adopted country.
“I started studying when I came to the US,” he said in Spanish as he was on the field before a recent ALCS game against the Red Sox. “I can tell you I regret it, but now I can tell you that I’m not sure you taught English properly.”
Alvarez’s story is familiar to many of his Cuban-born Major League Baseball players, including two Astros teammates, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and replacement infielder Aledmys Díaz. Many fled communist lands, often placing their lives in the hands of smugglers or taking harrowing boat trips, or both, in pursuit of their dreams. To play in the big leagues, Alvarez had to leave.
At the age of 16 and 17, he played two seasons for the professional Cuban baseball team in his home province, the Leñadores de Las Tunas. In 74 games in the highest Cuban league, he reached 0.279 and had a measly home run. “And there was one in the park,” he said.
Back then, Alvarez was more known as a nimble outfielder with a good view of the record than an imposing power hitter. Still, there was potential: despite being thin, the 6-foot-5 Alvarez said he was always the greatest player on his teams. The size, he said, came from his 6-4 dad, who also played baseball in Cuba.
When Alvarez and his family decided to pursue his baseball opportunities in the United States, he asked for permission to leave Cuba, which he was denied. So in 2015 he went to the Dominican Republic, where he joined his parents and younger brother, all of whom had arrived first.
In the Dominican Republic, where all 30 MLB teams have baseball academies, Alvarez began working with a private coach. He said he lifted weights, beat morning through evening daily, and overtook his left-handed swing because he “would never get home runs”. The power slowly began to emerge.
But to sign with an MLB team, Alvarez had to establish a residence in a country, so he moved to nearby Haiti. There he met Gurriel and his younger brother Lourdes Jr. – the sons of a Cuban baseball legend – who had just defected from their homeland and who were also getting their papers in hopes of reaching the top leagues. They kept their chance meeting a secret.
“I saw him play in Cuba,” Gurriel, 37, said of Alvarez in Spanish. “He was very young. It was big then, but not as big as it is today. “
Upon arriving in the United States, Alvarez went to West Palm Beach, Florida to continue training and coaching for future teams. He got close to an Astros scout, Charlie Gonzalez, who told Alvarez he could picture him in a Houston uniform and who drove him past the Astros spring training complex when it was under construction.
Gonzalez was one of the Astros officials who wanted the Front Office to sign Alvarez, but the organization faced significant penalties for exceeding its international signing bonus pool limit. One of the players they signed up to: Gurriel, who agreed to a five-year contract worth $ 47.5 million.
Instead, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Alvarez to a $ 2 million deal in June 2016. Six weeks later, the Dodgers needed a relief mug, so they traded Alvarez, who hadn’t played a game in the minors, to the Astros for Josh Fields.
Alvarez shot through the Astros farm system. He reached .343 with 23 home runs for the Class AAA team in 2019 despite left knee pain that started the previous season and flared up over time.
“My goal was to reach the big leagues,” he said. “But I also thought to myself that if I was confused, I would never achieve it. I had to keep playing. “
Despite the crooked knee, Alvarez realized his dream on June 9, 2019 at the age of 21 after the Astros’ illegal sign theft ended in MLB’s eyes. Adrenaline, he said, masked the pain, and he pushed on. He reached .313 with 27 homers in 87 games as the Astros’ primary designated hitter, helping them advance to the World Series where they missed a win behind the Washington Nationals.
Playing for long periods on a compromised leg, Alvarez said, resulted in overcompensation with his right knee and that caused damage there. Finally, after playing two games in the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, he couldn’t take it anymore and had an operation on both knees (a patellar tendon repair for one and a cleanup for the other). He missed the rest of the year.
With stronger, healthier legs this season, he’s felt a difference. Only seven major league players consistently hit the ball harder than Alvarez, including Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Shohei Ohtani.
Is there a common thread among them? They are great people. In addition to being 6-5 years old, Alvarez weighs 227 pounds.
“A lot of big guys can’t score,” manager Dusty Baker said recently before referring to Alvarez. “He has a good view. He’s well balanced, especially now with his good legs. Balance is key and he can walk. A big joker can run and he thinks he can hit. “
In 144 games that season, Alvarez beat .277, leading the Astros with 33 homers and 104 runs. Case in point: On Wednesday against Red Sox starter Chris Sale, Alvarez’s Green Monster shot came as he hurled a 94 mph fastball from outside onto the opposite field and hit the seats above the famous wall.
Astro’s shortstop Carlos Correa called Alvarez “a natural hitter”. Gurriel said Alvarez had a maturity on his plate that belied his age. “That makes him very special,” he said.
At the clubhouse, teammates said Alvarez also exceeded expectations. Perhaps because of his imposing stature, facial expressions, or language barrier, people often think he’s a very serious person, Alvarez said. His wife Monica sometimes tells him to smile, he said; otherwise he seems to be in a bad mood.
“I like to joke,” said Alvarez. Correa added, “This guy doesn’t shut up in the clubhouse. He looks calm, but don’t let him fool you. “
However, it helps that Correa, a Puerto Rican, is bilingual. The same goes for Alvarez’s wife, who was born in Cuba but came to the United States when she was 5. Alvarez said she helped him a lot with his English. When it comes to baseball, he says he understands most conversations, but one of his goals is to learn the language better off the field.
Another dream for Alvarez – one he could never have imagined growing up in Cuba and skipping English classes – is also in the works. He said he was in the process of getting the paperwork to bring his parents, who live in the Dominican Republic, to the United States so they can see him play here in person for the first time.
“My mother would definitely love it,” he said. “But my dad, who played baseball, would love it the most.”