Driven to succeed: Pedro Alvarez had a delayed road to the bigs
NEW YORK -- There are times when the Alvarez family wishes they'd taken the money. Just cashed the $775,000 signing bonus the Boston Red Sox offered their then 18-year-old son, Pedro, when he was drafted in the 14th round three years ago, and then maybe his father wouldn't still be sliding behind the wheel of his rented black Lincoln Town Car every morning at 5 a.m. to begin his 12-hour shift in one of the city's most dangerous professions -- giving rides to strangers in his livery cab. Nor would Pedro, a junior third baseman at Vanderbilt, be taking his third of three exams in a single day. But those moments of regret are few and fleeting because for the Alvarezes, telling the Red Sox, thanks, but no, your offer is not enough, wasn't so much a question of greed but a matter of worth.
In material terms, the four-member family squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment might not have much, which makes their refusal of the Red Sox dollars all the more astonishing. "It was tempting." says the infielder, "We didn't want to rush into anything. [Besides] it was money that's never been there." The Alvarezes view their humble means not as an obstacle but as the impetus behind their son's development into one of the hottest commodities in the 2008 draft, a virtual guarantee to go in the top three picks "If I had more furniture in the living room," his father, also named Pedro, reasons "I wouldn't have been able work on his swing in there." Adds Luz, the third baseman's mother: "Everyone talks about the money, but never mentions the sacrifices."
And those sacrifices started early -- at 4:45 am to be exact -- when Pedro Sr. would slink out of bed and then quickly out of the apartment every morning for the last 15 years to make money -- and most importantly, time -- to work with his son. When he began working as a driver, the Washington Heights/Inwood area of Manhattan that is his base had been hit hard by the crack epidemic. At that time, roughly 30 livery car drivers were killed each year but few jobs offered the flexibility and the autonomy for the Dominican immigrant that livery work does. So each morning he checked the radio system that alerts him to passengers needing pick ups, knowing that come the afternoon, he'd have more important stops to make that wouldn't be summoned by his radio, but be called by his heart.
To show just how many miles a father's love for his son will travel, Pedro invited SI.com along for a ride in the back of his Town Car for an exclusive ride through some of the Alvarezes most important stops along Pedro Jr.'s road to stardom.
STOP 1: WHERE IT STARTED
Seaman Avenue and Ishman Street, Inwood Hill Park
The outfields of the two baseball diamonds on the corner of Seaman and Ishman abut each other, with no fence to separate the right field of one from the leftfield of the other. It is here that Pedro Sr. would bring eight-year-old Pedrito (meaning Little Pedro -- that's what his family still calls him, even though he's 13 years older and more than a foot taller) to practice the game his father first explained to him years earlier on a piece of notebook paper. Since Pedrito was 3 years old he'd wielded a bat in the family's living room but the park is where he could really extend his arms, harness his swing, and let the ball fly. Not that everybody was happy about it. The adults on the opposite field groaned every time Pedro and Pedrito pulled up in the cab at the end of his dad's shift. Without fail, the grown men's games would be interrupted by what seemed like missile fire off the second grader's bat. "I'm just here to work with my boy," Pedro told the disgruntled men who tried to oust them from the field. "But that's no boy," the men told him, "That's an animal!"
In 1995, when Pedro took 8-year-old Pedrito to Little League registration for the first time and league officials told Pedro that his son would begin with, well, the beginners, in what the locals called the Pamper division, Pedro refused, saying that he'd take his son to another league if he couldn't play with the 9-to-11 year olds. The league officials relented, and let Pedrito participate in a tryout where the team with the worst record got the first pick. Pedrito, that animal as the men had called him, was drafted first. Pedrito spent that first season launching home runs over light towers off of pitchers sometimes two and three grades above him. Little League officials still tell tales about that season as if they'd seen Paul Bunyan himself swing his ax.
Even once the season ended, the work did not. In the winter months, Pedro still parked his cab at 5 p.m. and brought his son to the basement of a neighborhood building where he'd arranged with the building superintendent that if Pedro protected the walls with mattresses, Pedrito could hit his soft toss in the basement or take his swings at the itty bitty flecks of paper Pedro would wet in his mouth, roll between his fingers and pitch to his son to develop his batting eye. Sometimes, though, practice included neither a bat nor a ball, "so that he could understand that baseball is about more than just hitting and stopping grounders," says Pedro, who also emphasized the subtler points of baserunning and defensive positioning. Then there was Pedro Sr.'s second shift driving, the one where he'd pack Pedrito in the car and haul him 30 miles away to an indoor training facility in Stamford, Conn., to further hone his skills.
While Pedrito's father prepared his body, his mother prepared his mind. Luz had been studying business administration in the Dominican Republic and wanted her son to be as successful in the classroom as he was on the field. By the third grade Pedrito had been admitted to a magnet school for talented students -- and not because of his hitting.
"We always put his studies first," says Pedro. Their Washington Heights neighborhood was filled with washed-out prospects who had nothing else to fall back on. Pedrito's parents demanded more.
There would be more stops in their son's journey as the years passed, from the Quarry Ballfields, at 181st and La Fountaine, where he smashed a ball over the fence and across a street; to Claremont Park, on Mount Edes and E. 170th, where he again threatened the life span of the light bulbs over the field with his left-handed swing and all the way out to Bayside, Queens, where he would begin play with the powerhouse private team, the Bayside Yankees. But little did Pedrito know, his father wasn't the only watching his progress.