See also: 2006 Freshman All-American Team
When the Vanderbilt players were asked to vote for the players they'd like to see in the starting lineup in surveys at the end of fall ball, Pedro Alvarez didn't win the vote at third base. He didn't even come close.
"I think 70 percent of the votes went to another guy," Commodores coach Tim Corbin said. "There were mixed reviews on (Alvarez)–he didn't have a whole lot of success. In the fall he hit .170, so he was struggling a little bit.
"It didn't worry me too much, because I felt like he was going to play his way into the position. I had seen enough of him before."
It turns out Corbin's instinct was right. Not only did Alvarez earn the starting third base job, but he also went on to slug 22 home runs–tops among all third basemen in the nation and more than a third of Vanderbilt's team total. He also led the Commodores in on-base percentage (.456), slugging percentage (.675), RBIs (64) and runs (70) in an All-America season that also earned him Baseball America's Freshman of the Year award.
It was quite a turnaround from the fall, when Alvarez admitted to being a little anxious.
"We have about 14, 15 pitchers–probably half are lefties–and they were all throwing real well," the lefthanded-hitting Alvarez said. "We would face them in scrimmages, and I said to myself, 'Well, if the pitching is like this in every other school, it's going to be a long year.' But I got used to the pitching, what pitchers like to do, like to throw."
It didn't happen right away. At a season-opening tournament in Los Angeles, Alvarez went 1-for-9 with four strikeouts and a pair of errors in three games. His bat started to come around during the next 15 games, all of which were home games for the Commodores. He began recognizing pitches better, cutting down on his strikeouts and increasing his walks.
It took a little longer for him to settle in defensively, and he made two errors at Mississippi in Vandy's Southeastern Conference opener, bringing his season total to seven.
"I don't like to believe in jitters, but that definitely was a factor, especially playing at Ole Miss, with that big crowd, the fans were really into it the whole time," Alvarez said. "It's tough when you have thousands of people barking at you. I've never had any hecklers heckling at me, and I got to college my first series and it's like, 'What's going on?' "
Before long, the rest of the SEC might have been asking the same question, as Alvarez tore through the league, batting .360-7-27. His defense was steady too, as he made just four more errors in his next 29 conference games.
"I've told everyone I've spoken to about him, his defense is as good as his offense," Corbin said. "He's definitely married to the game, and he likes to work on the defensive part of the game too."
Alvarez' work ethic and humility have always made him stand out, even more than his immense talent. The first thing that Matt Russo, his high school coach at the exclusive Horace Mann School in the Bronx, raved about when discussing Alvarez was not his raw power but his humble, respectful nature and lack of ego.
He made the same impression on professional scouts last year, even though he slipped to the Red Sox in the 14th round because of his strong commitment to Vanderbilt.
"The way he carries himself and handles himself, it's something to really admire about the kid, on top of the type of baseball player he's supposed to be," Red Sox scouting director Jason McLeod said. "I'm sure it will probably end up good for him, and unfortunately it looks like we ended up losing a quality power bat."
Not that the Red Sox are surprised by Alvarez' success. They saw him put on an impressive batting display at Fenway Park before the draft, hitting long home runs to right-center field–no easy feat in that park. The club had genuine interest in signing him, but Alvarez and his family decided it was more important for him to get an education at Vanderbilt.
Seeking Something Better
That's the reason his parents sent him to Horace Mann in the first place, instead of a less rigorous school with a better baseball program. It took a couple of years for Alvarez to adjust to life at a private school, where most of the students had dramatically different backgrounds than Alvarez, the son of a taxi driver and a housewife.
"It was different, because I had gone to public school all my life," Alvarez said. "I went to a predominantly Hispanic school before that, and it took me a while to get used to it because it was such a big difference for me. Socially, the kids were allowed to do different things than I was. All my friends lived pretty far away from me, and I didn't get to see my friends after school."
But Alvarez is the kind of person who gets along with everyone, and his Horace Mann teammates loved him. Corbin tells a story about seeing Alvarez when he played for the Bayside Yankees, a summer travel team, that helps explain why.
"It was after the game, one of the players on his team didn't have much money," Corbin said. " This kid was looking for something to eat, and Pedro just took 10 bucks out of his pocket and said, 'Here you go.' I know Pedro didn't have a lot of money in his pocket, but he just did it and didn't think about it. I remember seeing that at a Perfect Game showcase in Atlanta, and I thought there might be something special about him."
Naturally, Alvarez spent plenty of time thinking about his family when trying to decide whether to go to Vanderbilt or sign last year. It is just in his character to think about others before thinking about himself.
"I was definitely thinking that in the back of my mind, I want to be able to sign and help out my family, take them out of where they are now," Alvarez said. "But I came to the conclusion that we've been doing this for a number of years now, we have a shelter, we're not poor. A couple more years isn't going to be any more of a disturbance, try to wait a couple more years."
That decision figures to pay off in a big way for Alvarez in 2008, and for Vanderbilt in the next couple of seasons.