Yordan Alvarez wins ALCS MVP for Astros

HOUSTON – Growing up in Cuba, Yordan Alvarez learned that America was a bad country. This thought was so ingrained in him that when he was 12 or 13, he said, he skipped English lessons at school.

“Why would I go to an English class if I never go to the United States?” Alvarez said he said to himself then.

Look at it now.

He was the 2019 AHL Rookie of the Year, a level he never thought he would reach. He blasts baseballs harder than any other major league player, and even sent one against the green monster from Fenway Park to Boston in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series on Wednesday. He was named the ALCS MVP for a Houston Astros team that’s linked to the World Series after a Game 6 win fueled largely by Alvarez’s bat.

He spends his off-seasons in Tampa, Florida, and his two children were born in the country he’s been told not to love.

Alvarez, 24, laughs about it now. Maybe he should have taken advantage of this head start with the language of his adopted country.

“When I got to the United States, that’s when I started to learn,” he said in Spanish, standing on the pitch ahead of a recent ALCS game against the Red Sox. “I can tell you that I regret it, but now I can tell you that I am not sure they were teaching English properly.”

Alvarez’s story is familiar to many of his Cuban-born compatriots in Major League Baseball, including two Astros teammates, first baseman Yuli Gurriel and substitute infielder Aledmys Díaz. Many fled the communist country, often putting their lives in the hands of smugglers or taking strenuous boat rides, or both, to pursue their dreams. To play in the big leagues, Alvarez had to leave.

At 16 and 17, he played two seasons with the Cuban professional baseball team in his home province, the Leñadores de Las Tunas. In 74 games in the top Cuban league, he reached .279 and only managed a meager homerun. “And it was inside the park,” he said.

At the time, Alvarez was known as an agile outfielder with a good eye for the plate rather than a large, powerful hitter. Still, there was potential: despite being skinny, the 6-foot-5 Alvarez said he was still the tallest player on his teams. The size, he said, comes from his 6-4-year-old father, who also played baseball in Cuba.

When Alvarez and his family decided to pursue his baseball opportunities in the United States, he said, he asked for permission to leave Cuba, but was refused. So, in 2015, he went to the Dominican Republic, where he joined his parents and his little brother, all of whom were the first to arrive.

In the Dominican Republic, where all 30 MLB teams operate baseball academies, Alvarez began working with a private trainer. He said he lifted weights, hit every day from morning to night and reworked his swing with his left hand because he was “never going to hit home runs.” Power slowly began to emerge.

But to sign with an MLB team, Alvarez had to establish his residence in a country, so he traveled to nearby Haiti. There, he met Gurriel and his younger brother, Lourdes Jr. – the sons of a Cuban baseball legend – who had just left their homeland and were also securing their papers in hopes of reaching the major leagues. They kept their chance meeting a secret.

“I had seen him play in Cuba,” Gurriel, 37, said of Alvarez in Spanish. “He was very young. He was tall then, but not as tall as he is today.

After arriving in the United States, Alvarez traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida to continue his education and practice for potential teams. He hooked up with Astros scout Charlie Gonzalez, who told Alvarez he could imagine him in a Houston uniform and who drove him near 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 the limit of its bonus pool on international signings. One of the players they had committed to: Gurriel, who had accepted a contract for $ 47.5 million over five years.

Instead, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Alvarez in June 2016 on a $ 2 million contract. Six weeks later, the Dodgers needed a relief pitcher, so they traded Alvarez, who had yet to play a game in the minors, to the Astros for Josh Fields.

Alvarez fired through the Astros’ farm system. He hit .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 told myself that I would never make it if I was screwed up.” I needed to keep playing.

Despite the fragile knee, Alvarez made his dream come true on June 9, 2019, at age 21, after the Astros’ illicit theft of signs came to an end in the eyes of the MLB. The adrenaline, he said, masked the pain, and he kept pushing himself. He hit .313 with 27 homers in 87 games as the Astros’ designated primary hitter, and he helped them reach the World Series, where they lost a victory before a title against the Washington Nationals.

Playing on a compromised leg for so long, Alvarez said, led to overcompensation with his right knee, which caused damage there. Finally, after playing two games during the 2020 season shortened by the pandemic, he could not take it anymore and undergone surgery on both knees (repair of the patellar tendon for one and cleaning of the other). He missed the rest of the year.

With stronger and healthier legs this season, he has felt a difference. Only seven major league players regularly hit the ball harder than Alvarez, including Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Shohei Ohtani.

A common thread between them? They are great human beings. In addition to being 6-5, Alvarez weighs 227 pounds.

“A lot of big guys can’t hit,” manager Dusty Baker said recently, before referring to Alvarez. “He has good vision. He has a good balance, especially now with his legs that they are good. Balance is the key, and he can run. A big joker can run and thinks he can strike.

In 144 games this season, Alvarez has reached 0.277 and led the Astros with 33 homers and 104 RBIs. It hits pretty well, but when it connects it hits hard, far and in the air. Case in point: Against Red Sox starter Chris Sale on Wednesday, Alvarez’s Green Monster shot came when he threw an outside fastball at 94 miles per hour on the opposite court, hitting the seats above the famous wall.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa called Alvarez a “natural hitter.” Gurriel said Alvarez has a maturity on his plate that belies his age. “It makes him very special,” he said.

Inside the clubhouse, teammates said Alvarez defied expectations as well. Maybe because of his towering stature, facial expressions, or the 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 appears to be in a bad mood.

“I like to joke,” Alvarez said. Correa added, “This guy doesn’t shut up in the clubhouse. He looks calm, but don’t let him fool you.

It does help, however, that Correa, a Puerto Rican, is bilingual. The same goes for Alvarez’s wife, who was born in Cuba but arrived in the United States at age 5. Alvarez said she helped him a lot with his English. If it’s baseball related, he said he understands most of a conversation, but one of his goals is to do a better job of learning the language off the field.

Another of Alvarez’s dreams – a dream he never imagined was possible when he was growing up in Cuba and skipping English classes – is also ongoing. He said he was in the process of getting the papers to bring his parents, who are in the Dominican Republic, to the United States so that they can watch him play in person for the first time here.

“My mom would love it for sure,” he said. “But my dad, who played baseball, would love him the most.”

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