Commentary

Ruthian-like Alvarez focuses on future

After contentious negotiations, Alvarez shines for Pirates on field this spring

Originally Published: March 26, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

"You can't walk away from the price you pay."

-- Pedro Alvarez fan Bruce Springsteen


BRADENTON, Fla. -- The details of Pedro Alvarez's long, lost summer of negotiating madness don't matter anymore.

It doesn't matter now who said what. It doesn't matter now whether Alvarez's original contract, from last Aug. 15, was agreed to before midnight, after midnight or only in the Pirates' imagination. It doesn't matter now whether that contract was later voided, grieved, shredded or translated into Punjabi.

Pedro Alvarez
AP Photo/Tony DejakPedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in last June's draft, batted .444 in 14 games for the Pirates this spring.

Doesn't matter.

Why? Because it's over.

The Pirates need it to be over. Their No. 1 draft pick last June needs it to be over. And both sides are trying -- hard -- to declare it over.

The Pirates even issued that declaration to Alvarez himself, on the first day of spring training, just to make sure. The manager, John Russell, and the GM, Neal Huntington, delivered that message to their third baseman of the future live and in person -- only the three of them in attendance.

And the next sound you heard was a page turning. It might be a big, ugly, contentious page. But at least they're all trying their darndest to turn it.

"We just said, 'It's over,'" the manager reported, several weeks later. "We said, 'You're a Pirate now. We're glad to have you. We love having you. And now it's time to start from scratch and get to Pittsburgh as soon as you can.'"

The GM, meanwhile, warbled a similar tune.

"In our minds," Huntington said, "the day Pedro signed, he became a member of the Pirate organization, and we shifted 100 percent of our focus to helping him fulfill his vast potential."

And that, clearly, is exactly what they should be doing, what they need to be doing. What they can't control, though, is whether the fans of Pittsburgh will be so willing to shift their focus by the time Alvarez arrives in their town in 2010, '11 or whenever.

A lot was written, and a lot was said, last August, when Alvarez -- spurred on by his hard-line agent, Scott Boras -- seemingly signed, then refused to sign, the deal they either did or didn't agree to somewhere on the wrong side of midnight last Aug. 15-16.

Suffice it to say that just about none of what was written and said in Pittsburgh made Pedro Alvarez look like the second coming of Roberto Clemente.

Yes, it all worked out eventually. Yes, Alvarez eventually agreed to a reworked $6.3 million package more than a month later. But he can't make the world spin backward. He can't make Pittsburgh believe none of that ever happened.

So can you turn your back on a blue-collar town like Pittsburgh and then go on to become a local hero in the same town? One of these days, one of these years, when this guy gets the call to PNC Park to fulfill his date with stardom, we'll find out. Won't we?

But for now, seven months later, Alvarez says that even if he could somehow get a negotiating mulligan, he wouldn't do anything differently. Not a thing.

"No, I think everything worked out the best way it could," he said this spring, in the serene haven that is Bradenton, Fla. "I'm glad it all worked out. And I'm glad to be here. I'm glad the path we took got me to this situation. I feel like I'm in a good situation. I'm happy. And I'm grateful for it."

He might not be so grateful, on the other hand, for the tone of the coverage of his stormy negotiating soap opera. But he says he still hasn't read a word of it. And we have to say that's an outstanding idea.

"I stay away from publications," Alvarez said. "I don't go on the Internet, except to check my e-mail. You know, people tell me. I find out through other people. But I just keep myself away from any external factors that can play into the equation and just focus more on the internal. I can only worry about what I can control. And that's how hard I work, how hard I play, my dedication to the game."

The bull's-eye on his back -- that's going to be there for a long, long time. But Pedro Alvarez's journey to erase that bull's-eye began this spring, with the impressive, productive month this imposing 22-year-old masher spent in his first big league camp.

The Pirates let him march up to home plate 20 times. He reached base in half of those trips. He batted .444, slugged .778, struck out only three times and finished off his stint with a three-run homer off the center-field batter's eye in his final at-bat before the Pirates sent him out.

This was in a big league spring-training camp, remember. And the guy who did all that had never played a single professional game before he got there, unless you count his three weeks in the Instructional League last fall. Amazing.

"The first time I ever saw him in [batting practice], he was hitting balls like 100 feet over the fence," said his new teammate, Eric Hinske. "I mean, seriously. He was hitting balls over the parking lot at Pirate City. I was like, 'Sheez, who is this dude?'"

Little did Hinske know that when Alvarez was clearing that parking lot, he was just getting limbered up. That same week, he also launched a BP shot that has already carved out its place in the all-time long-ball lore of Pirate City.

The man who gave up that shot is Pirates coach Rich Donnelly. He's a man who knows a biiiiig home run when he sees one. He once served up the longest homer ever hit in old Three Rivers Stadium: a 519-foot upper-deck space shuttle by Frank Thomas in the 1994 Home Run Derby. So when Rich Donnelly gushes about a batting-practice bomb for a solid month, you know it wasn't just another swing of the old Louisville Slugger.

"I was throwing BP to him one day on Field No. 1 in Pirate City," Donnelly reported. "And there's a lake out beyond in right field. It's 370 feet to the gap. Then it's another 90 feet to the water. And then it's 90 more feet across the water. You can tell that's the distance because it lines up perfectly with our field at the [other] end of the lake. And I swear, he hit one that cleared the lake. I mean it. He's just flipping it over that lake, just flipping it. Go look if you don't believe me."

Well, not only could we go look ourselves. We can even show you ourselves. Click on over to the Google Satellite shot of Pirate City.

Now zoom in on Field No. 1 and the pond beyond the fence. Then check out the half-field near the pond. It sure looks like those distances are all accurate. And if they are, that would mean that Pedro Alvarez somehow hit a baseball that carried (gulp) 550 feet or so … on the fly.

Alvarez, for his part, refuses to confirm he actually launched that rocket. ("You're never supposed to look at balls you hit," he said, laughing.) But he isn't denying it, either. If people want to make the tale of that 550-foot homer the first chapter in the Legend of Pedro Alvarez, apparently he isn't going to stop them.

"I don't really have anything else to claim," he said. "So I'll take it right now, 'til I can top it."

If he can top it, we might have a regular Ruthian figure on our hands. But for the moment, Alvarez is conjuring up other names. Nate McLouth compares him to a young Miguel Cabrera. Former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen tossed him into the same sentence as Willie Stargell this spring. And Hinske says Alvarez reminds him of "a left-handed Albert Pujols."

How's that for some serious name-dropping … attached to a kid who was still playing for Vanderbilt 10 months ago?

But for the men who run the Pirates, it isn't Alvarez's power they'll remember when they think back on his first big league camp. It's the way he went about his business.

"Overall, Pedro made a quality impression, on and off the field, in his first major league spring training," Huntington said. "All of the attributes that drew us to him prior to the draft were present and on display during spring training. While he was showing his potential, he also showed us that there are areas for development and growth. Most importantly, he showed a willingness to learn that will serve him well throughout his career."

"He's a worker," said infield coach Perry Hill. "He wore me out. You've got to chase him off the field."

"He wants to be the best," Donnelly said. "He was always asking, 'What does Scott Rolen do? What did Mike Schmidt do?' This kid doesn't just want to be a big leaguer. He wants to be the best. He was the last one out of here every day. I think I saw him sweeping the shower stalls one day."

But what was most impressive about all that was that it was no act. Alvarez was humble and respectful from the minute he showed up … and understood he had to be.

He knew he had to "earn" his spot, he said. And what was the best way to earn it? By "listening."

"I think the best thing for me was just to sit there and soak in as much as I can," Alvarez said. "Be a sponge. Whatever these guys have to tell me, just take it in and follow their lead. Don't try to stand out."

Well, we wish him luck on that. His talent won't let him blend into any crowd. But even if he could, there's still no place he can run to hide from the fallout his contract negotiations left behind.

You often hear him compared to J.D. Drew, another soft-spoken guy who was branded forever by attaching himself to a messy, hardball, post-draft Boras negotiating war (a decade ago, with the Phillies).

But there's an important fundamental difference between Drew and Alvarez: Drew never did sign with the team from Pennsylvania that drafted him. At least Alvarez did. Just barely, maybe. But he did.

So while Drew never had a prayer to win over the city he scorned, Alvarez is a man with a rare opportunity.

He's a man who will some day arrive in a town desperate for someone to love.

Neal Huntington Overall, Pedro made a quality impression, on and off the field, in his first major league spring training. All of the attributes that drew us to him prior to the draft were present and on display during spring training.

-- Pirates GM Neal Huntington

It's a town not particularly inclined right now to love him. But it's also a town that hasn't had a winner since Barry Bonds headed west. And it's a town that also hasn't had a real star -- a major, charismatic, larger-than-life-around-him kind of star -- in 16 years of Life After Barry, either.

So when Pedro Alvarez says "The only thing I ask from the city of Pittsburgh is, judge me as a player," it's more than a plea. Luckily for him, it's exactly how this is going to work.

Maybe not right away. Maybe not the first day he shows up at the confluence of the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela.

But over time, as his bat starts to flash and the home runs start to fly and these people realize what they're watching, the ugly developments of Aug. 15, 2008, have a chance to feel real irrelevant real fast.

So that's Pedro Alvarez's challenge: You want to make these folks forget? Just be all you're supposed to be … and more, if possible.

"If he hits, they'll forgive him quick," Eric Hinske said. "That's the only way to get 'em to forgive you: hit. So he wants advice? That's my advice: Put up numbers and they'll love you. He can take my word for it. Hitting and winning cure everything."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com