Pirates' Alvarez just one of the guys


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BRADENTON, Fla.

On the night of June 15 of last year, Pedro Alvarez stood outside a Class AAA ballpark on the outskirts of Scranton.

The kid with the can't-miss, left-handed swing kissed his mother as his sister wrapped her arms around them both. He hugged his crying father as they spoke to each other in Spanish. He squeezed his then-fiancé (now his wife) as tight as the handle of a Louisville Slugger.

It was a moment that will be locked in all their memories forever, and it all happened just after Alvarez was informed he was being promoted from Class AAA Indianapolis to the Pirates.

"This is the first step in a long journey," he said that night.

With the journey about nine-months old and Alvarez having played 95 Major League Baseball games since he got that call, what has he learned?

As he goes through spring training here on the Gulf Coast of Florida for the first time as the incumbent third baseman, what is different and how has his life changed?

"What I have learned in the big leagues is that you have to make adjustments quick," Alvarez said in a one-on-one interview with the Post-Gazette earlier this week. "And you have to try to be as consistent as possible. It is a huge cat-and-mouse game and it is a matter of who is ahead for longer. Those are the Albert Pujols and the Ryan Howards. Those are the guys who succeed."

Success for Alvarez came in the form of 16 home runs with the Pirates last season and being named Major League Baseball's rookie of the month for September, hitting .311 with five home runs and 26 RBIs in 29 games.

But perhaps his maturation at the tail end of last season and the success he anticipates this season when he almost certainly will hit in the fourth spot in the order, would not have been possible had it not been for lessons learned in his 66 games for Indianapolis last year.

Jeff Branson, Indianapolis' hitting coach and an instructor who worked diligently with Alvarez to improve his production against left-handed pitching, tried to explain what rocketed Alvarez through the Pirates' system in two years and what could make him better in his second season in the majors.

"Off the charts work ethic," Branson said quickly. "Honestly, from my heart, his willingness to learn is off the charts. This kid will do anything you ask him to do. He will do anything and everything to make this organization better."

Alvarez, 24, often takes extra batting practice, doing so before 8 a.m. He also can be seen working many days with third base coach and infield instructor Nick Leyva to improve his defense.

Alvarez shrugged off the notion he was doing anything that should be applauded.

"It's in the big leagues," Alvarez said. "So the adjustment needs to be the most important one and it needs to try to be the quickest.

"We are all still learning, you never master this game."

When Branson was told of Alvarez's simple, straightforward answers, he was not surprised. Those who have instructed Alvarez in the organization insist the slugger, who received a franchise-record $6.355 million signing bonus, wants to fit in the same as the career minor leaguer, wants to be one of the guys and scoffs at preferential treatment.

"He is not your ordinary first-round guy as a person, he just isn't," said Branson, a second-round pick himself who played nine major league seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers.

"Now, Pedro wants to stand out from everyone on the baseball field as a talent, get that straight. But, as a teammate, he doesn't want to stand out from anyone. He doesn't want special treatment, he doesn't want things different. He is a guy on a team, that's all he wants.

" I know it, I've worked with him a lot. I've seen some of those first-round guys act like everyone owes them something. Pedro? No way. He's just a regular guy."

Alvarez prides himself in being a rock-solid teammate and quickly has earned respect in a clubhouse where almost everyone is older. His stern sense of team loyalty and self-pride is why several sources said an erroneous Internet report in the offseason that he had put on unhealthy weight bothered him. He didn't want to be viewed as a poor teammate; didn't want other Pirates to think he was letting them down and didn't want fans to think he was a complacent, entitled athlete.

Turns out, the report was untrue.

Alvarez didn't want to comment on the report, but general manager Neal Huntington offered clarification.

"Every single ounce of weight gain has been muscle gain," Huntington said. "From the time the [2010] season was over until the time he reported for spring training, the weight that Pedro put on is muscle. It is all muscle gain."

In the Pirates' media guide last year, Alvarez is listed at 223 pounds; this year, he is listed at 235.

To watch Alvarez Wednesday in a spring training game against the Minnesota Twins at McKechnie Field proved that the report of him being out of shape was unfounded

On defense, he took two rapid steps down the line and dived to his backhand to pull in a sharp bouncer before swiftly jumping to his feet and making a strong, across-the-diamond throw to nail the runner.

On offense, Alvarez hit a ball to right field and a decision needed to be made -- should he stay put for a single or attempt to stretch it into a double? He never wavered, hitting first and failing to break stride.

Alvarez slid into second just ahead of the throw, showing that he carries the weight of his body just fine.

Perhaps, it also could be said that Alvarez carries a decent-sized burden on his shoulders, one where he is asked to bear a large portion of the brunt of putting an end to the longest losing streak among professional sports franchises in North America.

It appears he won't hide or wither from such a burden.

"My goal for this year is to keep learning, keep improving on my abilities," Alvarez said. "So that in the long run I can help this team out, getting to where we want to be. And, at the same time, keep going toward this Hall of Fame career that I want."


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com First Published March 6, 2011 5:00 AM


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