A movie script that tells the story of Tampa Rays pitcher Jose Alvarado could start with the image of a boy hunting an iguana with a single, accurate and withering stone.
Then a scene would follow, outdoors and during the day. The setting would be the sports center in the neighborhood, with two facilities, a covered court and another to play anything, outdoors, in the hot sun and clear skies.
In Caja Seca, a town south of Lake Maracaibo, Zulia state, western Venezuela, there are times when it is hot from the oven. The name comes to him of wonder, it gives the sensation of being in a cooking in “bath of Maria”, like put in a container to cook to the steam. But that is what the older ones realize, those who are aware of the weather. The boys have fun, they play at high temperatures, but they don’t even know how many degrees they burn. They are playing ball, distracted from the chronic summer.
Children play baseball. Most belong to organized teams, they play in the dilapidated stadiums and half repaired by the parents, with a more or less normal terrain, where there is a diamond, a mound from where the pitchers throw their streamers, bases that have been stolen dozens of times and stone gardens; of course, between lime stripes, as baseball commands.
This is how those fields survive where youngsters have the dream of becoming professional major league players. They know it is possible because several of those who have gone so far are from right there, from the South of the Lake, land that has given legendary players since the first years of baseball in Venezuela. Players who have come out of those ruinous stadiums to become stars, admired, who have earned money and prestige. Being like them is the dream of those children. Of all.
Few can fulfill the yearning to go so high, it is not easy, not everyone has the opportunity to be seen, to have a scout take an interest in them and sign them for a major league organization. They need to have extraordinary talent, skills and tools above average, they must impress, be superior to the rest, and be lucky, all at the same time.
The applicants have to show that they are good hitters, powerful, have the reach to reach all the possible balls and catch them safely, throw to the bases with great aim, run very fast from home to first. Pitchers need at least two pitches, a straight line that exceeds 90 miles per hour, “a stone”, as they colloquially call those balls that arrive in fractions of a second to the plate, the catcher’s pet, and that sound when the Leather of the ball falls on the leather of that large glove. The sound indicates that the sphere traveled very fast and that makes it more difficult to hit him. A good curve is also essential. They need those skills at the age at which recruitments occur, at 16, perhaps a little more, on July 2 of each year.
Most of these youngsters with these gifts have been observed since they are 13 or 14 years old. They follow them, they see them in regional tournaments, in interstates, in nationals, international cups and in the Little League classics. Those who have those showcases are the luckiest to achieve the coveted signature. The best opportunities are with them and even so it is difficult to become one of the chosen ones.
The dream of being a professional baseball player is very colorful. Being selected by a major league organization is the possibility of changing life: a house for the family, new cars zero kilometers, that mom can travel and be better, that dad be proud, brothers safe, grandmother always in the gallery , cheering them on, in the chorus of singles, home runs, strikeouts and outs. For many it is to get out of poverty, it is to eat three times every day, new clothes and shoes, to have money to buy sweets, hundreds of chiclets and candies, sunflower seeds and peanuts. Everything they want.
For those who have less and do not play for an established team, the dream is more difficult and distant, because practicing baseball is almost impossible.
José Alvarado belonged to this group of boys who did not play on a formal team, but he had faith, hope and threw hard. There was talk of a left-hander who pitched very hard.
Baseball is different from soccer. The teams do not have children’s categories to prepare their future players. In baseball there are no quarries, the boys are formed thanks to the support of their families, who make any sacrifice to give them what is necessary to be part of a currency. There are those who do not have that support, their families have other priorities.
Belonging to a formal minor league baseball currency has its costs. They must have suitable clothing, uniforms, cleats, glasses to protect themselves from a bump on the testicles, and playing implements, such as the receiver’s glove and implements. Bats and helmets can be worn as a team, but gloves must be for each child. Not everyone can handle so much, they are expensive implements. For those who do not belong to organizations, it is almost impossible to get excited about being like Carlos González, Ender Inciarte, Gerardo Parra or Jhoulys Chacín. They were in those inhospitable terrains that are also fields of dreams. The lands of Zulia, in addition to oil, give stars to the Major Leagues.
Those who do not get an opportunity, because they are poor and have other priorities, almost never occur to them. Who can get to the big leagues without having played in an organized team, without putting on some spikes? Where can talent hunters see and track him? How do the agents, the gentlemen with the pistols that measure pitching speed, or how long does it take for a runner to first base? Who is going to go to a court where basketball, soccer is played and where with any ball a game of baseball is put together? Who’s interested? Surely no one. Who comes out of nowhere? This makes it harder to dream!
In those spaces you play with any footwear, sometimes in flip flops or broken shoes, in shorts and with holes, not for fashion, broken from use, surely inherited from other boys. Gloves are anything that can be used to catch, it can be a cardboard or a real one that someone has given away. The balls are not new, have been wet or are from “teipe”. Balls with a quarter-liter carton of milk or juice as the core, which is reduced to a ball that is very tight with adhesive tape until it becomes a larger sphere and is ready to play. It is a ball that does strange things. They have one or two bats that, although they seem few, are enough to have fun, to play for a while to be their heroes.
In this street baseball there are no technicians who give directions or correct the mechanics to throw a ball, to bat or catch, there are no tribunes of moms, sisters and grandmothers with songs to raise the boys, or dads screaming to get more elbow or lift your leg less.
They learn to play because they imitate their favorites, the coaches are the stars that they see on television, when the games happen. They usually imitate the best, they repeat their movements, they replicate everything the professionals do, so they have fun and having fun is a lot.
José Alvarado began to pitch on a court that was never finished. He was 8 years old when Dontrelle Willis made his major league debut with the Florida Marlins. Dontrelle and Miguel Cabrera were the sensational rookies who were part of the team that won the World Series against the Yankees by Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in 2003.
When José Alvarado finished his homework and school, he went out to play basketball and foosball, into mischief, he confesses that it was tremendous and several times he fractured both arms and two wrists. What he liked the most was that casual, fun and casual ball, where he was the “Dontrelle Willis” of the game.
Although there was no pitcher’s mound on the concrete floor court, nor were they dressed as players, José had the same responsibility as any pitcher, getting out the batters.
He had to strike out several “Miguel Cabrera”, “Carlos González”, “Bob Abreu”, “Pablo Sandoval”, “Endy Chávez”, face “Johan Santana”, left-handed like him. He had to avoid hitting a good area. If I struck them out, the better.
José Alvarado always threw the ball hard, fast and strong, like when he had to hunt iguanas, three a day. Iguanas that later the grandmother prepared, with its rich seasoning, which were very tasty. Iguana in coconut, a very common dish from that region of Venezuela.
He aimed at the fast and elusive prehistoric-looking reptiles and dropped the stone to knock them out of action. It had to be an accurate shot, when it failed it escaped and another lizard had to be found. They were waiting for him for dinner. The young man had no idea that the skill to hunt iguanas was part of his preparation for what would come next. Of course, informal baseball is not the best way to get to the big leagues, at least it is not usual, it is not typical, but who takes it away.
It happened that one afternoon he was throwing, having fun as always, when a black car began to haunt the court. The boys were hanging out, scared because days before they had kidnapped a boy in a black vehicle. He was the son of someone who had money and was able to pay the ransom. They were alert. After several laps, very slowly, the vehicle parked in front and an unknown man called José. He didn’t want to get close. What if he was kidnapped?
Word had spread that there was a left-handed young man, who did not play on any team, who had learned by himself and playing to play in that place, and who had to be checked. It was a young man who threw very hard. You had to go see him and make him see.
José approached the lord and listened to him. He was a “buscón”, a very common character on minor ball courts. They are tasked with looking at players who may be prospects and recommending them to scouts certified by the major league organizations.
“I was scared,” says the player, as he recalls looking at the white dome of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Rays.
“It was Pablo from the Pittsburgh Pirates. He worked in that area of the Zulia state. He asked me where I lived, if he studied and that … I replied that he lived right there, near the field, 500 meters away. He said ‘I want to talk to your parents,’ and he asked me if I knew José Aguiar. I told him that I had listened to him because he played baseball with the veterans at the stadium. He told me that Aguiar had an academy and that they were always checking out players, and that he wanted me to go to the stadium with them so that he (Aguiar) would know me ».
José was somewhat suspicious. Lots of things went through his head, through his infinite imagination, while Pablo spoke to him. He didn’t get in the black car, pointed to the direction, and walked behind.
I didn’t get on. I told him to go to my house to talk to my parents. ‘You leave and I follow you.’ So we did, he came first. Then we went to the stadium. There I heard José Aguiar say: “If the guy is taller than me, he stays in the academy, they have told me about that left-hander who throws very hard, but that you have to work at it.”
For José Alvarado, Aguiar is like a father. Today she is still watching him and gives him advice. He remembers him as a tough and strict man when they started working to impress scouts.
“I remember one time when he came and they had eaten his food, so he punished us and made us run. “When I remember that they are running, that’s when I’m going to tell them to stop.” I thought about leaving because I had never run so much. Not that I was a military man! I left, but I didn’t stop playing. In those days I said to José Aguiar “I’m going back.” At six in the morning I was running from my house to the academy. It was eight miles.
He enjoys reliving his story, sometimes giving the impression that he is amazed at how things happened himself.
«I come from the mountain, I know how to fight. They told me what was I going to do playing ball, but I always stayed positive and I think the change happened there so quickly that I got so much strength. It only took me four months at that academy for them to sign me. As I had been seen at the academy, I was selected for the Gold Cup in the city of Mérida (Venezuelan Andes). It was when the Pirates scouts called me to go to Tronconero, in Guacara, Carabobo state, near Valencia. We left”.
It was a matter of impressing with his skills, with his mechanics learned from watching games on television.
The noble opportunity to be seen presented him, and that might be enough. It depended on him, on no one else.
He felt the pressure of having just turned 17 and the proximity of July 2, the date in which the teams formalize contracts with prospects from the Caribbean and Latin America. If he couldn’t get it signed, he would have to think about something else, getting a job to help his family. He couldn’t keep hunting iguanas at the point of stones all the time. I wanted a better life. The chance to be a player was a hope.
Hopes are very nice, but sometimes they are under illusions and what happens does not look like what we expect. But, as the popular saying goes, “hope is the last thing lost” and “while there is life there is hope.” He was very alive and eager.
The Pirates’ scouts were unable to arrive. The opportunity was suspended. “I started crying, I told them to take me home.” And they got into the car again, back to Caja Seca. The possibility of showing their qualities had escaped, and the scouts are not like iguanas, that if one leaves another appears, José believed.
When they were going through Morón, on the highway that leads to Yaracuy state, he called Euclides, a talent scout from Tampa. Aguiar explained that they were returning and that José was depressed. Euclid asked him to return, that the next day his bosses would be evaluating prospects from two academies in the area. They returned and stayed at a hotel in Valencia, a city in the center of the country.
When I couldn’t deal with one iguana, another appeared, you had to aim well.
They arrived punctually to the test, at six in the morning. They were obtained with more than 100 players, the majority belonging to formal teams and with long time in the academies, one of them from a former major league. They were boys with very good preparation, with experience in tournaments, they knew the fundamentals, they had solid skills and tools to dream about the major leagues. José was not intimidated, he was Dontrelle Willys. It was the last one they checked. “The only thing I said was: ‘Let it be what God wants, if this is for me, it will be so.’ I threw very well ».
It was time to speak, they were anxious.
“How much do you ask for the left-hander?” Ronnie Blanco, chief scout of operations for the Tampa Rays in Venezuela, asked José Aguiar. He was excited. Of all those boys, among all the prospects that were exhibited, they were interested in his, in the left-handed player of the Caja Seca field. He answered quickly, almost without thinking: “A hundred thousand dollars!”
Blanco thought about it for a bit and said he wanted to agree that same afternoon. He had fifty-five thousand dollars to close the firm. José Alvarado’s parents were to be in Valencia on Monday. The young man listened attentively to the negotiation.
Aguiar could not believe it. That was not the number he had in mind. Later the boy asked how much he expected to be offered. “Five thousand dollars!” He confessed.
The story was just beginning. This is how the Tampa Rays reliever began his professional career. In the minor leagues he learned how to throw, how to hide the ball, how to put it away from the bats. He was disciplined, got used to arriving early and taking advice and recommendations. It was dedicated to learn English. He advanced to crown his dream.
From 2012 to 2017, for five years, the same time it takes to complete a university career, he prepared to do the degree of big-leaguer. It came, as he says, with just two pitches, a four-seam straight and a curveball.
In the winter break of 2018 he worked to improve the command of his shipments and expand his repertoire. He arrived at spring training adding a two-seam straight, a change and a lethal throw, “nasty,” as baseball players say.
José Alvarado speaks with the tranquility that those who are doing their work have with care and reward, talks about that launch that they both comment on and that some, as a pedagogical exaggeration, say that it should be declared “illegal”. He has made the best hitters he has faced look very bad. It is a sinker, a pitch that, before sinking, crosses the plate at 99 miles per hour on average, practically impossible to decipher. The ball appears to be going straight and deflects away until the catcher catches it and leaves the batter off the hook. It is a shipment that meets the primary requirement of hiding and still waiting puzzles.
“I’m happy and satisfied with all the things I’m seeing every time I go out to pitch, I tell myself, wow, because every time I go up on the mound something different comes out. I prepared myself very well for this season, because I knew that the team would count on me. Although they didn’t use me much in spring training because they saw that I arrived ready, the season is very long. In the off season I focused on my control and I’m seeing the results. When I went up in 2017 I had two pitches, now the hitters don’t know what to expect, the hitters are wondering what they can go looking for, “he explains very calmly.
One of the best left-handed pitchers in history, Sandy Koufax, said that “pitching is the art of instilling fear.” Owning a launch that travels at 99 miles per hour fits that maxim.
Obviously he does not reveal the secret of his weapon. The trick happens inside the glove. It always has the same mechanics, no matter what you throw. “I can’t explain it to you, but when it comes time to use that pitching I know what game I play on the mound to give that effect to the ball.”
He confesses that he is an admirer of Johan Santana, whom he continues to see as an example. It seems extraordinary to him that he has done so much in his years in the Major Leagues, when there were no technological facilities like the ones that today’s players have to do their job better. Santana twice won the Cy Young Award, the highest honor a pitcher receives in the majors, pitched a no-hitter, no-run game and is a member of the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame.
“My story has not been easy, I value maturity, I have learned to listen, to follow the advice of all the people who want to help me, to accept criticism, good and bad.” He pauses to remember his mother, Grelia Josefina Lizarzábal Solarte, and says that if it hadn’t been for her, his life could have been very different. «I was walking with boys who were like me, who played in the street. As we got older and got to know things, they got onto bad paths. My mom, who worked in the police, told us: ‘If we catch them, they will sleep there.’ ”
She feels regret for the fate of many of her friends on the court.
«When I saw that they weren’t doing anything good, I would tell them“ see you tomorrow, I’m going home ”. Today some are dead, imprisoned or on the run, others have gone on foot to Colombia and Peru and are selling coffee. One of them told me recently ‘we said you were crazy, look at all you have accomplished”.