April 11, 2012
Nashville sports historian Bill Traughber has recently written another book, Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History. The 160-page paperback book can be ordered on historypress.net for $19.99.
Commodore History Corner Archive
This interview between Pedro Alvarez and Bill Traughber is exclusive to Commodore History Corner and vucommodores.com. The interview is from early February before spring training camp.
Many of the elite high school baseball players have a dilemma after graduation. They can choose college or professional baseball. Former Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez was in such a conflict after being selected in the 14th round of the 2005 Major League Baseball Draft by the Boston Red Sox.
Alvarez was offered a substantial signing bonus of one million dollars. He had signed to play his collegiate baseball for the Commodores. Coach Tim Corbin had to recruit Alvarez again to play ball in Nashville.
“What he was able to give me was some knowledge and what it would have meant for me to go to college,” Alvarez said about Corbin. “He showed me the breakdowns financially and what it would have meant to sign. How much exactly I would have ended up with and to show me statistically how many guys go to college.
“For me it showed that he cared and was interested in me going to school. At the end of the day it did clarify some things for me. It was the best decision I ever made going to school. Along with some other people that helped me make the decision to go to school, Coach Corbin had a big role in that.”
Alvarez was born in the Dominican Republic, but grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights in New York City. He was one of the top baseball prospects in the country at Horace Mann High School including the Gatorade and Louisville Slugger New York High School Player of the Year. He graduated from his high school holding school career baseball records in batting average, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage and walks.
As a freshman at Vanderbilt, Alvarez was named the National Freshman of the Year by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. His first year stats of a .329 average (79-for-240), 64 RBI and a school record 22 home runs earned him Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year. Alvarez was also named to the SEC All-Tournament Team where in five games he clubbed two home runs with six RBI and five runs scored.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t have any troubles,” Alvarez said about adjusting from high school to college baseball. “I had a really bad fall practice. Early on I had about two hits in fall ball. Then we had an intrasquad game with David Price, Cody Crowell and all these good pitchers. I struck out about three times that day. It was like another day in college. I wasn’t doing well in fall ball, and I thought maybe I should have gone with professional baseball.
“It was the only time I ever thought about second-guessing myself. I decided to make the best of it and go forward. There were a few games during the beginning of my first year that I was still struggling. Coach Corbin sat me down two games in a row. After that I figured it out. During the Brown series, during my freshman year, I turned things around. And after that I just took off. I was having fun. I talked with Casey Weathers and the other freshmen that were actually staying with me in the off-season for a little while. We got to know each other.”
Alvarez’s second collegiate season (2007) was even more productive. The six-foot-two, 212-pounder batted .397 (100-for-252), with 18 home runs, 65 RBI in 61 games played. He was selected as the MVP in the SEC Tournament batting .524 with two home runs and eight RBI. Baseball America and the National College Baseball Writers Association named Alvarez a First Team All-American and he was First Team All-SEC. Alvarez was unselfish in giving others credit for the growing accolades and staying focused.
“They really do a great job at Vanderbilt,” said Alvarez, “mentoring you in how to handle things like that. If I had a mentor it was David Price. He had been getting a lot of attention in high school and in a sense I was following his footsteps. He took me under his wing when I was a freshman and he was a sophomore. Then when I was a junior and he had already signed a professional contract, he told me what to expect. I was fortunate to have people that could guide me and give me a heads up.
“In terms of the attention that I received I truly give credit to my teammates. It was a lot of fun playing at Vanderbilt and Hawkins Field. I didn’t think about anything else because all I cared about was winning and my teammates. We fully invested in each other. When you have that mentality, I know it sounds cliché, but one for all and all for one. Nothing else really matters and I owe a lot on how to focus and do the right thing to Coach Corbin. We were having fun.”
In the season opener against Oregon State of Alvarez’s junior and final season at Vanderbilt, he broke his hand and missed the next 23 games. Playing in 40 games, Alvarez batted .317 with 45 runs, 53 hits, 15 doubles, nine home runs and 30 RBI.
“That was the first time I had been injured,” said Alvarez. “It was a big year—my draft year. It was a little scary at first, but I was fortunate enough to have the right people in my corner and we took a look at the situation. I was told I’d be okay and that it was a matter of healing.
“There were no long-term effects with the injury that made the situation a lot easier. I wanted to be out there and play. It wasn’t easy sitting on the bench. I did get to see the game from a different point of view and learn some things. When I did come back, it made me appreciate being healthy and ready to play, not that I ever took it for granted, but you get a sense of reality. I wanted to be a player and not a spectator.”
Alvarez’s nine home runs placed him in a tie with Scotti Madison (1977-80) for Vanderbilt career home runs (49). He was also selected as First Team All-SEC and holds the Vanderbilt record for total bases (186) in one season (2007). In single season highs of the Commodore record book, Alvarez ranks fourth in at-bats (272), second in hits (105), first in runs scored (76), fifth in RBI (68) and second in walks (57). In Vanderbilt career highs Alvarez ranks fifth in batting (349), fourth in runs scored (191) and tied for first in home runs (49).
“I was fortunate just being able to play after missing so many games,” said Alvarez. “That last game we played in the regional we lost to Oklahoma in Tempe, Ariz. “It ended a chapter in my life playing at Vanderbilt. It was such a big part of my life and still is. It was sad to say goodbye to all those guys and play with them for the last time. We went our separate ways. The three years I was there it was like being part of a family. When we would go home for Christmas break, I was anxious to get back to Nashville so I could hang out with those guys.”
Pittsburgh selected Alvarez in the first round (second overall) in the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft. Just minutes before the August 15 deadline, Alvarez agreed to terms with the Pirates, but did not sign the contract. Major League Baseball placed him on the restricted list and the Major League Players Association filed a grievance on his behalf. Alvarez agreed to a renegotiated contract on September 22 for $8.14 million over four years plus a club option for a fifth season. High profile sports agent Scott Boras represented Alvarez.
Corbin has been coaching at Vanderbilt since 2003. Under his guidance, major league baseball teams have drafted 96 of his players or recruits, 18 have been selected as All-Americans, 15 Commodores have earned Freshman All-American honors and eight players have been drafted in the first round (including five in the Top 10).
“Pedro is a very intimidating offensive player that possesses such great hand speed with the bat;” said Coach Corbin. “The ball came off his bat differently than anyone we had in our program before Aaron Westlake, who played for us last year. Pedro had that type of strength in his hands as an 18-year old freshman.
“He was just different than most hitters we’d spent time with, but he was also a good defensive player. He was smooth; he had easy actions and he had rhythm to his game. Pedro really enjoyed the game of baseball a great deal. He was in the batting cages before we started practice and in the batting cages after practice. He loved to hit.”
Alvarez began spring training with the Pirates, but was assigned to their minor league spring training camp. He began the season with Lynchburg of the Carolina League, the Pirates High-A affiliate. In June, Alvarez was promoted to Double-A Altoona of the Eastern League. Combining both levels, Alvarez led the Pirates minor league organization in home runs (27) and RBI (95). This included 126 games, a .228 batting average (134-for-465) and committing 25 errors in the field. Alvarez said the Pirates gave him much needed help in improving himself at such a high level of baseball.
“There’s not too much coaching as far as turning things around,” Alvarez said. “What they are good at is noticing little intricacies and tweaking around if you start to deviate from the path they set you on. One of the things that I have worked on since I’ve gotten to the professional level is the mental approach of hitting and being ready to hit. Not so much mechanically, but mentally going out there looking for pitches I want to hit and pitches that I can drive well. I think that is one of the things that has helped me tremendously the last couple of years.”
Alvarez recorded a very successful first season with the Pirates minor league clubs in Lynchburg and Altoona. But, there is a significant difference playing college ball and jumping into the professional ranks.
“The travel is a lot different,” said Alvarez. “It is a long season, a lot of traveling and long hours. We were actually very fortunate in High A [Lynchburg]. The farthest we had to travel was about six hours to Myrtle Beach. You don’t get the same commodities everyday that you get playing in the SEC.
“From a baseball standpoint, you have to be consistent for a lot longer time. You go from 56 games in college to 142 in the minors. Sometimes you can go a stretch of 52 games where you are or not hitting well. That’s a whole season in college, but not half a season in minor league baseball. That plays a huge role how consistent can you be in the professional level and for how long.”
Alvarez began the 2010 season in Triple-A Indianapolis (International League) batting .277 (67-for-242) with 13 home runs and 53 RBI in 66 games. On June 16, he was called up to the Pirates and made his major league debut against John Danks of the White Sox.
“It was after a night game in Scranton,” Alvarez said about being told he was going to Pittsburgh. “We were getting ready to go to a game in Syracuse. I was told by my manager to get my things together that I was going up to Pittsburgh the next day. Scranton was not too far from where my parents lived, so they were there at the time. My high school coach was there. My wife, who I was dating at the time, was there. It was very surreal.
“It was one of those feelings that you can’t describe putting on a major league jersey before a game. I knew I put the jersey on, but I couldn’t feel that I had it on [laughing]. I felt like my feet were not touching the ground. I was in awe. I felt like I belonged there because I had trust in my abilities and skill to play at that level. It is what you dreamed as a kid.
“I had a pretty good first at-bat. I got a standing ovation from the stands when I walked to the plate, which was awesome. I saw some pitches. I faced Danks of the White Sox. The count was 2-1 when I took a ball for 2-2. Then I took another ball for 3-2. I swung at possibly ball four, but struck out in my first at-bat. I remember walking to the plate telling myself to see some pitches. Don’t just swing at the first three pitches I see and get a feel for it, try not to lose myself and fall down [laughing]. I was a little nervous. My knees were shaking a little bit. But it was unbelievable.”
Alvarez went 0-for-2 with a walk, strikeout and run scored in his major league debut. On June 19, he got his first base hit, a ground rule RBI double against Cleveland starter David Huff. Alvarez then fell into a slump that led to a brief benching by Pirates manager John Russell. Retuning to the lineup, Alvarez responded with an eight-game hitting streak from June 28-July 6 that included two home runs and four RBI.
In that stretch, Alvarez collected his first major league home run off Kyle Kendrick of the Phillies. The solo shot to left field came on July 3.
“Kendrick threw me a fast ball away and I hit an opposite field home run, which is pretty tough to do in Pittsburgh because of the layout of the field,” said Alvarez. “I did not even feel the ball hit the bat. It just swung and the next thing I knew the ball was over the fence and I was trotting around the bases. I hit a home run the next day, too. That was like 32 at-bats into my major league career.”
How did Alvarez feel about the benching?
“I believe the reasoning behind that was they wanted me to slow down and just observe the game and for me to relax,” Alvarez said. “When I got back into the lineup and slowed things down, that helped me. When I was first called up, I started a few games and played a couple of weeks in a row then they sat me down. Once I came back, I was able to relax and not press myself.”
Alvarez had the first of his multi-homer game on July 20, 2010 against Milwaukee slamming a grand slam off Dave Bush and the next inning added a solo shot while totaling five RBI in an 11-9 Pittsburgh victory. The next night, Alvarez clubbed two more home runs against the Brewers in another Pirates win, 15-3. Those home runs were off Randy Wolf and reliever Kameron Loe.
The third baseman was named National League Player of the Week (September 20-26) for his production of batting .417 (10-for-24) with two home runs and 13 RBI. Alvarez concluded that season by securing the National League Rookie of the Month by hitting .311 with 26 RBI in the final 27 games. And what was his favorite memory of that season?
“The walk-off home run I hit at home,” Alvarez said. “That was one of my top baseball memories. We were down two runs in the bottom of the tenth with two outs with a sellout, packed house. I hit a 3-run home run off Huston Street [Colorado closer]. The game went back and forth. They hit a two-run home run in the top of the 10 to lead by two runs. Then I hit the walk-off to win it. That was my first walk-off homer.”
Alvarez stats for the season include a .256 batting average (89-for-347), 16 home runs, 21 doubles, 64 RBI in 95 games. He did not continue his hot hitting to begin the 2011 season. After compiling a .208 average, Alvarez was placed on the 15-day disabled list in May. He was reinstated from the disabled list, but in July he was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis.
In Indianapolis, Alvarez appeared in 35 games, batting .256 (32-for-125) with five home runs and 19 RBI. In his two major league seasons, Alvarez totals include 169 games, a .230 batting average (134-for-582), 20 home runs with 83 RBI.
“It is never fun to be injured,” Alvarez said. “That’s something that you have to deal with—things happen. It takes different maturity purposes to deal with something like that. I did learn that I needed to take care of my body and myself better with a certain preparation needed to play everyday. I don’t like just watching games. Hopefully that will be the first and last time I have to deal with an injury. It’s like when I broke my hand at Vanderbilt. You get that reminder that how fortunate I am to play this game and to never take advantage.”
Alvarez said that the toughest pitcher he has face was Cincinnati’s Edinson Volquez who was practically unhittable. He also dislikes facing left-handed setup “funky guys that throw sidearm and underhand” that aren’t too much fun.
What is the best thing about being a major league baseball player?
“The fact you realize that you have achieved a dream that you wanted to do as far as I can remember,” said Alvarez. “And being able to play with some of those great guys I grew up watching and idolizing. I’m playing on the same field as them; to me it is beyond an honor and a privilege. Then to take it a step further is to learn from them, pick their brains, hear their old stories and pick up on little tricks they can teach you to become a better baseball player. There is nothing like that.”
What is the worst part of being a major league baseball player?
“That stale time after the season is over and I’m itching to get back on the field,” said Alvarez. “I’m just waiting for a new year and the season to get started. I hope to work for a World Series ring. Sometimes the travel can be tough especially when you don’t have a day off. Playing three games, and traveling that night to play three more games is tough. They usually do a good job with days off with travel days. There is a stretch of games where you have to play so many in a row, and flying across the country can be a bummer. If that is the worst thing, then I think we are doing well.”
Alvarez said he faced his former Commodore teammate David Price in a spring training game and walked on four straight pitches. Alvarez said with a laugh, “he didn’t want any part of me.” When told that Price once mentioned striking him out later in another spring training game, Alvarez said again with a laugh that he could not remember that particular plate appearance.
Alvarez was asked to look back on his college experience at Vanderbilt and to express his feelings about the university.
“I appreciated the fans, my teammates and coaches; the university was like a second household,” said Alvarez. “We were a bunch of brothers playing baseball together like a family. I currently reside in Nashville where my wife and I just purchased a house. I love being around Hawkins Field and my ex-teammates like Ryan Flaherty, Matt Buschmann, Casey Weathers and Price whenever he comes around. We spend our winters here.
“I think that sense of family and loyalty I got playing at Vanderbilt goes a long way. Coach Corbin is like a second dad to me. I’d do anything for that guy. If those guys needed me for anything, I’d helped them. That’s not just me, but everybody else. We would all help each other. I think that happens anywhere else from a colligate standpoint to have such strong ties after you leave. I got married last year and so many of the guys were able to make it back for that. It goes to show you the kind of camaraderie we have at Vanderbilt. That is what it was like at Vanderbilt. How loyal can you be with your brothers.
“We have about 15 pro guys that work out at Vanderbilt. It’s only going to continue to grow because more guys are drafted every year. The sense of responsibility they have at Vanderbilt like juggling time between school and athletics teaches you time management. When you leave Vanderbilt, you are more responsible. That’s your job. You are either playing baseball 24/7 or in an office 24/7. It makes it a lot easier to take on after you leave Vanderbilt.”
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Traughber’s new book “Vanderbilt Basketball: Tales of Commodore Hardwood History” will be published in October.
(Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)