ERIE -- I spent last night at the quaint, little downtown ballpark here, barely a good driver and 5-iron from the sandy shores of Lake Erie, watching Pedro Alvarez take his first hacks with the Altoona Curve, the next step on his inexorable march to Pittsburgh, where he's expected to be nothing less than the savior of the wretched Pirates. It was in the eighth inning, after Alvarez struck out for the third time in four hitless at-bats against the Erie SeaWolves, that the realization hit hard: This is ridiculous, all this hype and hope for a kid, 22, in Double-A ball.
Funny, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington came to the same realization two days earlier.
"That we promoted [pitcher] Brad Lincoln to Triple-A and Pedro to Double-A this week and it received so much attention speaks volumes about where this organization has been," Huntington said, somewhat wryly.
You know that address well.
Sadly, it's still current.
"Hopefully in two or three years, we'll have the kind of talent and depth that these kinds of moves will be in transactions, not on the front page," Huntington said.
We can dream, right?
For now, though, news of Alvarez's climb through the system is about the closest thing the Pirates can come to positive, Andrew McCutchen aside. With the big club losing again last night to the awful Cleveland Indians, falling a little deeper into last place and inching a little closer to a 17th consecutive losing season, our lonely eyes have no choice but to turn to the minor leagues for relief. Invariably, they settle on Alvarez. Maybe The Chosen One's Double-A debut didn't have the same sizzle as Michael Jordan's with the Birmingham Barons in 1994 when the Hard Copy helicopter hovered overhead, but there definitely was the feel of something special in the air at Jerry Uht Park, especially after a news conference with Alvarez upon his arrival in Altoona Monday night attracted upwards of 30 media types, all wanting to know when he thinks he'll get to PNC Park and if he's planning on being the next Barry Bonds.
"It's definitely an honor and a privilege to be anticipated in such a way," Alvarez said. "I guess it's a good problem to have when people want you around."
It was the perfect answer. Actually, all of Alvarez's answers were dead-on. He's nearly the same age as another prodigy in town -- Sidney Crosby -- and has a lot of his poise, too.
On the field, in his first pro season, Alvarez's answers have been more of a mixed bag, although more good than bad. In 66 games with Lynchburg of the Class A Advanced Carolina League, he hit 14 home runs despite being pitched around often and seeing a lot of 3-0 sliders and 3-1 changeups, led the league with 55 RBIs, walked 37 times and showed a remarkable knack for coming through in the clutch with two walk-off home runs and two others to tie scores in the ninth inning. But he also hit just .247, struck out 70 times in 243 at-bats by flailing at pitches outside the strike zone and had 13 errors at third base.
"At the end of the day, the things we wanted to see from Pedro, he's shown," Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark said.
All parties agree Alvarez played much better the past month. "I think he realized [pro ball] is a little more challenging than he expected," Huntington said. "As he's learned and matured, his talent has been able to come out. And there's a lot more yet to come."
All the baggage Alvarez lugged into the season didn't help. His high-profile status as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft. His protracted contract negotiations orchestrated by super agent Scott Boras that went to the deadline and perhaps beyond. The four-year major league contract and $6 million bonus he finally squeezed from Pirates tight owner Bob Nutting in what had to be his greatest display of strength and power so far. A 10-month layoff from ball due to the negotiations that led to him briefly getting fat and out of shape. And, of course, that next Willie Stargell business.
"I put more pressure on myself than anyone else can," Alvarez said, shrugging off those outside forces as non-factors in his early struggles. The layoff? That was a problem. But nothing like the adjustment from the relatively easy life as a college player at Vanderbilt to the daily grind of baseball from morning until night in Lynchburg, Va., and a dozen other minor league towns just like it.
"You're on your own," Alvarez said.
Welcome to the real world, kid!
It's called learning how to be a professional.
"It's funny, when you're in high school, you think you have an idea, then you get to college and realize you have no idea," Alvarez said. "It's the same thing with college. You think you have things figured out, then you get to the pros and realize there's so much more to learn."
Huntington and Stark believe Alvarez is right on schedule. He isn't one to argue. "I've tried to take it all in. I think I've done a pretty good job asking the right questions to the right guys and handling all the stuff that's been thrown at me."
Many more challenges -- not to mention more 0-for-4, three-strikeout nights -- are ahead before Alvarez gets to PNC Park and starts the process of being the next Roberto Clemente in earnest. It's nice to think he will conquer all of 'em -- as Huntington has bet so much of the Nutting fortune that he will -- and make it to town some time next season or in 2011 at the latest and start making front-page news of the best kind.
Can't you just see the Post-Gazette headline?
Alvarez leads the Pirates out of Nowheresville!
If it happens that way, the kid won't have to be the next Barry Bonds or Willie Stargell or Roberto Clemente. The first Pedro Alvarez will be just fine.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .