“Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis. When I was dead broke, man I couldn’t picture this. 50-inch screen, money green leather sofa. Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur.” – Notorious B.I.G.
When Brooklyn, New York native Notorious B.I.G. hit the scene with his breakout hit “Juicy” in 1994, Biggie Smalls, aka Christopher Wallace talked about his rough upbringing and coming from nothing to something. While Pedro Alvarez would probably substitute PlayStation 3 and X-Box for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, there’s a reason he uses the legendary song as one of his walkup music choices.
For Alvarez, his journey in the Big Apple started at the tender age of one. His mother Luz brought Alvarez to the states to join his father, Pedro Sr., who was working at a mattress store at the time. Alvarez’s father quit the mattress shop when his sister Yolayna was born to become a taxi drive, which provided a more flexible schedule so that the family would have more time together. The Alvarez’s journey in America brought them to New York, where they resided in Harlem, Manhattan and for the majority Washington Heights.
“I loved where I grew up at,” Alvarez said. ”I didn’t grow up in the best neighborhoods, but my parents did a great job of raising me and my sister. They did a great job at keeping us in a good environment and kept us busy with school and sports.”
Alvarez would grow an interest in baseball at a young age and when he hit a home run that was estimated at 300 feet at the tender age of 11, he knew that is what he wanted to do. His dad told him if he wanted to reach the Major Leagues, he would have to dedicate his life to the sport at his young age. When it came time for high school, Alvarez’s parents were faced with a tough dilemma. They could either send their son to George Washington High School, a private school that Manny Ramirez attended, or send him to the academically rich Horace Mann. With education being a must for their children, the Alvarez’s decided on the latter option instead of the school that would allow their son to get noticed more by scouts.
“Where I grew up at, baseball is big,” Alvarez explained. ”It’s a predominately Hispanic community and while a lot of kids were going to a certain high school because the baseball team was good, my parents made it a point to send me to a school that is good academically instead of the baseball route.”
At the time, it didn’t mean much to Alvarez that he would be attending Horace Mann instead of George Washington, but in the long run, he is happy that he did.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Alvarez said. ”I knew what New York high school baseball was all about. While there is some great talent, it isn’t the best. It isn’t Florida, California or Texas. We went the route with academics because it’s the only sure thing you have. Anything can happen in sports and I never questioned it or doubted it was the best thing for me.”
The decision worked out well for Alvarez as Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin spotted him in Tennessee while playing in a tournament. Alvarez would end up signing a letter of intent to play for the school in late 2004. Leading up to the 2005 draft, Alvarez had a workout at Yankee stadium where the Boston Red Sox noticed him.
Despite being raised in New York, Alvarez told me that he was actually a big Red Sox fan growing up instead of being a Yankees or Mets fan. When the Red Sox called Alvarez about selecting him No. 47 in the 2005 draft for $700,000, Alvarez had a decision to make.
“Being a Red Sox fan obviously played a big part in it, but I kind of had a moment of clarity and made the decision easy for me,” Alvarez said. ”It just didn’t feel right at the moment, so I decided to pursue going to school. I think it paid off.”
Alvarez was contacted again by the Red Sox in the 14th round of the draft, but decided to play at Vanderbilt instead. Alvarez was named National Freshman of the Year by Baseball America with a .329 average, 22 home runs and 64 RBI. In the following year, after being named a First Team All-American, Alvarez put up a .386 average, with 18 home runs and 68 RBI.
With his parents preaching the importance of education and one of the main reasons for them to move to the states was so that Pedro and his sister could get a college education, Alvarez had a difficult decision to make. He was ranked the second best prospect in America in the 2008 draft, but Alvarez had to decide if he wanted to leave school early or graduate first.
“My dad was proud of my decision to leave,” Alvarez said. ”He does make it a point to remind me everyday that I have to finish up.”
Alvarez agrees with his father and said while the attendance policy at Vanderbilt is very strict, he will finish his degree and hopes to work something out soon.
“I plan on finishing,” Alvarez said. ”You pretty much have to take classes on campus. With the schedule with baseball, it’s difficult. I myself want to finish up and hopefully we can work something out soon where I can finish up that degree.”
“Gotta make it stick workin like we good color. Rip it to the core, underneath it or we ought to. Right into the clip, bring it to the floor. One step, one step, give it up more.” – Jay-Z
In Pedro’s other walkup song, Jay-Z also talks about Brooklyn’s rough history in “Brooklyn We Go Hard.” Although he realizes the rough life he had when he was younger, at the time Alvarez said it just seemed normal.
“When you grow up, you don’t really see it and for me, that was normal,” Alvarez explained. ”It wasn’t until I got older and started to appreciate certain things.”
Despite his success, Alvarez still returns home to visit his family who still live around the Washington Heights area to go back to the place that made him a man.
“My family still lives in the area and any chance I get to go back to visit I do,” Alvarez explained. ”Growing up in a place like that, it builds character and ambition. There were a lot of good people with good moral.”
And don’t think the people of Washington Heights forgot about Alvarez either. The El Nuevo Caridad, a Dominican restaurant located in Washington Heights, is famous for naming meals after baseball players with Dominican heritage. Along with the Sammy Sosa, Mariano Rivera, Pedro Martinez among others, the owners came up with the Pedro Alvarez meal. For $12.95, you get oxtail, rice, pinto beans and lemonade.
“The owner of the restaurant is a good friend of ours and I remember him telling me he was going to make a meal after me and I was like ‘all right, whatever,’” Pedro said laughing. ”He actually went through with it. He’s a very, very close friend of ours that owns the restaurant. But yes, I’ve had one.”
“You know very well, who you are. Don’t let them hold you down, reach for the stars. You had a goal, but not that many. Because you’re the only one, I’ll give you good and plenty.” – Notorious B.I.G.
And like Juicy says, Alvarez didn’t let his environment stop him from reaching his goal. While it was all a dream for Biggie, Alvarez is turning his dream to a reality.
Photo credits: Josh Anderson New York Times