The life of a minor league lifer

Jorge Alvarez first came to my attention back in 2005 when he played for the San Angelo Colts of the now defunct Central League. I couldn’t help but notice him because, thanks to quirks in my leisure time schedule and in the Fort Worth Cats schedule, every time I was able to attend a game in Fort Worth, the Cats were playing the Colts. Add to this a weekend road trip to a game in San Angelo, and the name of Jorge Alvarez was quite familiar to me by the end of the 2005 season. Not particularly meaningful, just familiar.

Then one day in the off-season I was rummaging through the “A” section of my baseball card archive and came across a 1991 minor league card of a player named Jorge Alvarez. Ha, that’s a coincidence, I thought. Here’s a guy who has the same name as that guy who plays for the Colts. Or was it a coincidence? The picture on the card kind of looked like the guy who played for the Colts. Well, I still had my last 2005 Cats program with the visiting roster sheet, so I dug it out and compared it to the data on the back of the 1991 card.

Sure enough, the data on the baseball card matched the data on the roster sheet except for playing weight. He’d put on a few pounds over the years, but on the journey from early 20’s to late-30’s, who hasn’t? At any rate, there was no doubt about it: Jorge Alvarez was Jorge Alvarez. Of course, he’d have been the first to admit that, even if he wasn’t given to pondering existential conundrums.

From that point forward, Jorge Alvarez was more than just a name I occasionally scribbled into a scorecard. I had to know more, so I went into research mode. Here are the results:

Born in the Dominican Republic on October 30, 1967, Jorge Martinez Alvarez was signed as a free agent by the Dodgers on June 27, 1987. The trajectory of his career during its early stages was unremarkable. He started his career in 1988 as an infielder with the Gulf Dodgers (Rookie League), for whom he hit .293 in 167 at bats. He moved up in class year by year, to Salem (low A Northwest League) in 1989, to Vero Beach (high A Florida State League) in 1990, and San Antonio (AA Texas League) in 1991, where he remained till 1993.

Then it was on to Portland (Maine), a Florida Marlins affiliate in the Eastern League, for one last season of AA ball. At age 26, after 189 at bats and a .206 batting average in 1994, his career appeared to be the end of the line. And so it was—but only for affiliated minor league ball. At age 26, he went in a different direction… and he traveled a far piece.

By 1995, Alvarez had transferred to independent minor league baseball, which was making a surprising comeback thanks largely to the unexpected success of the Northern League in 1993. Alvarez started the 1995 season with Laredo of the Texas-Louisiana League, which was in its second year of operation. After hitting .332 in 48 games, he moved on to Amarillo, where he hit .354 the rest of the season and remained there through the 1997 season (in all three seasons he was a starter in the league’s all-star game). In subsequent seasons, his stops included the Somerset Patriots in the Atlantic League, Cordoba in the Mexican League, a second tour of duty with Amarillo, and Alexandria and Shreveport (where he was the league’s Player of the Year in 2002) in the Central League before he came to my attention with San Angelo in 2005.

Notably, no matter where his baseball odyssey took him, he hit. His high water mark was .395 with Amarillo in 1995, his lowest average (the only time he hit below .300 in independent ball) was .288 at Shreveport in 2003.

After the 2005 season, the Central League gave up the ghost, but Jorge Alvarez—at age 38—was still alive and kicking. He joined the El Paso Diablos, another team of Central League orphans who had moved on to the reconstituted American Association, along with San Angelo and Fort Worth. And the hits just kept on coming!

He batted .330, .352, and .317 from 2006-2008. In 2009 he hit .319 for the Diablos before being traded back to Shreveport, where he hit .315 during the team’s stretch drive. In 2010, as a player-coach for Shreveport, he hit .319 and led them to the league championship. Celebrating his 43rd birthday during the off-season, he accepted the post of non-playing manager of the El Paso Diablos, though one suspects he could have kept hitting .300+ if he chose to continue.

At the time of his retirement as a player, his name was all over the record book of the reborn American Association. He led the league in career hits with 602, runs scored with 393, doubles with 134 and RBIs with 333.

He had perhaps his finest season in 2007. The American Association All-Star game that year was played before a capacity crowd of 5,263 fans in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Alvarez won the home run derby before the game, then added a three-run shot to put the game itself on ice. This earned him the All-Star MVP award.

During the 2007 season, Alvarez collected his 2,000th minor league hit and was named the American Association Batter of the Week three times (weeks ending May 20, 2007; August 12, 2007; and August 19, 2007). For good measure, he was named Batter of the Month in August, 2007. He finished the season with a .352 batting average and led the league with 148 hits (and at bats with 420) and 52 extra base hits. His 43 doubles and 91 RBI’s were American Association records at that time. No surprise that he was elected to the post-season All-Star Team as a Designated Hitter and was named the league’s Player of the Year. All of this despite a season that was short (96 games) while he was getting long in the tooth (age 39).

A younger man so honored would likely be signed by a major league team and assigned to their AA or AAA affiliate, but that was not going to happen to a ballplayer pushing 40. To be sure, there were scouts at American Association games, but they were not there to report on Alvarez but on younger players who might be able to fill holes on the rosters of affiliated minor league teams. Alvarez likely would have performed creditably in, say, the Texas League or the Pacific Coast League, but no team in major league baseball was going to bestow a precious minor league roster spot on a 20-year veteran.

When Alvarez retired as a player after the 2010 season, his career minor league totals (after seven years of affiliated ball and fifteen seasons of independent ball) were 1,998 games, 6,988 at-bats and 2,193 hits good for a lifetime batting average of .314. He also had 171 home runs, 1,085 RBIs and 149 stolen bases. Given the short seasons of independent league ball (usually about three and a half months), the career totals are particularly impressive.

One can’t help but ponder what kept Alvarez in the game for so long. Was it simply a matter of a minor league baseball lifer’s gotta do what a minor league baseball lifer’s gotta do? Given the salary structure of major league baseball, the pension plan, and the perks, it’s understandable why players at the highest level would cling to a roster spot till their fingernails splintered. None of that applies to independent minor league ball.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

And the bus rides—the loooooooong bus rides! Alvarez may have retired as a player, but as manager of El Paso, he still has to endure some of the longest bus rides in the minor leagues: Amarillo, the Diablos’ closest rival in the South Division, is a 428-mile trek, while Winnipeg in the North Division, is 1,733 miles away. Wrap your head around that, and then try to estimate how many thousands and thousands of over-the-road miles Alvarez logged during his 22-year playing career!

So why did he put up with it for so long? Well, the indy minor leagues may be lacking in amenities for players, but they do offer opportunities for veterans like Alvarez to extend their careers. Independent league teams receive no support from major league baseball. They must put people in the stands to survive, and to put people in the stands, they must win. Though there are limits on the number of veterans teams can sign, an older player will at least receive serious consideration from an independent team if he can help them win. In a sense, he may be more valuable than a young standout, who is more likely to receive an offer to sign with a major league team.

In some ways, affiliated minor league baseball is like spring training baseball. Oh, they keep track of wins and losses and there are standings, but winning isn’t the ultimate goal. During spring training, the players are there just getting ready for the start of the season; in the affiliated minors, the players are there ostensibly getting ready for the start of their major league careers (the vast majority, of course, will never get within sunflower seed-spitting distance of the major leagues but are just there to flesh out the rosters).

Sure, winning is always better than losing, but the teams aren’t playing to win. Individual players may work hard to put up good stats, but management doesn’t pull out all the stops to add another digit in the win column. The player development needs of the parent club come first. So there is no room for the likes of Jorge Alvarez. Below AA ball, there are age limits for players, but even at AA and AAA ball, players in their 30’s are rare.

Now the Jorge Alvarez story bears a resemblance to better known life stories of men who toiled in the minor leagues for years before finding themselves in the major leagues in their 30’s. Chris Coste, who debuted in 2006 at the age of 33 with the Phillies, and Jim Morris, who made his first big league appearance at age 35 with Tampa Bay in 1999, are perhaps the best known names in recent years. There is a reason, however, why Chris Coste and Jim Morris got book deals (the latter also scored a movie deal) and Jorge Alvarez never will.

The obvious difference is that Coste and Morris made the big leagues and Alvarez didn’t, but more importantly, Coste and Morris embody the American fairy tale of setting lofty goals, persevering, and achieving them despite all obstacles and odds. The endless tug-of-war between don’t-give-up-your-dreams and don’t give-up-your-day-job is almost always won by the latter, but Coste and Morris prove that there are occasional victories for the former. The implication is that if they can succeed despite everything they had going against them, then so can anybody! Never mind all those players whose dreams didn’t come true—just look at these two guys! The odds? Don’t ask! Just dream on! And buy yourself a Powerball ticket while you’re at it.

Well, what about Jorge Alvarez and his dreams? I’m no mind reader, but I’m guessing that when he was a young man during the mid-80s, he entertained a few dreams of his own. He doubtless saw many of his fellow Dominicans making it big in the big leagues. Like many of his peers, he signed a contract with a big league organization. He never made it big in the big leagues—in fact, he didn’t make it small in the big leagues.

But one could justifiably say he made it big in the small leagues. But his career, distinctive as it is, is kind of a downer. In fact, the frustrations and discouragements he encountered sound like the travails of a real job: You pay your dues, you work hard, you’re good at what you do, you keep your nose clean, but… you never get that invitation to join the club, meaning you don’t get the promotion, the raise, or whatever. No, you don’t get the brass ring, and the more you think about it, the more you wonder if the brass ring was ever there in the first place. Maybe it was just a dream.

So, Jorge, your baseball career is noteworthy—and there are probably some valuable life lessons in there somewhere—but it’s not an inspiring story. It’s OK to start the story in indy ball, as Chris Coste did—but you can’t keep it there for fifteen years. That story just isn’t marketable. It doesn’t have that when-you-wish-upon-a-star quality. It’s not the stuff dreams are made of. In fact, it positively reeks of reality—so no book deal for you, pal.

Of course, no one put a gun to Alvarez’s head every off-season and forced him to sign a contract to return to independent minor league baseball, so we can only speculate as to why Jorge Alvarez kept his hand in the game for so long. Baseball sentimentalists continue to yammer away about young men chasing dreams, but Jorge Alvarez likely divested himself of illusions as he shed his youth. When all was said and done, maybe he just wanted to play baseball, and he made the best of his real world options. At some point, he stopped dreaming and took up residence in the real world.

As do most of us. But we won’t get book deals either.

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Sue Dinem
10 years ago

It’s only uninspiring to those that don’t fully comprehend the value and honor in simply doing what you were born to do as long as you can do it.

10 years ago

You should interview the guy. I have a feeling he did what he did because baseball is what he knows and when the dream is gone, you do what you can do. Like the rest of us, you adjust your thinking and enjoy the life you have. If he is still managing, making a living, I bet he’d be an interesting interview.

Garret Craig
10 years ago

Great article. I am constantly wondering why there are so many players who tear up the high levels of the minor leagues and never get a real shot in the big leagues. Will Timmons is the name on my mind right now.

Paul Bedford
10 years ago

Great story – what would the salary be for such a player?

tom brunelle
10 years ago

Great story. An interview would be fabulous.

10 years ago

As someone mentioned above, it’s too bad that you didn’t interview the man. That said, I can understand why he kept hanging on, even if it wasn’t for the love of the game. The guy had been playing professional baseball for the whole of his adult life. What was he going to do to make a living in the Dominican Republic? The salaries that these players from the Caribbean make in the minor leagues, both affiliated and unaffliliated, are likely much better than the money they can make doing any other sort of job back home.

10 years ago

Hopefully you will be able to interview him. I spoke with many career minor leaguers of the 1950’s and the stories they have are great, especially about playing with the “stars” before they were “stars.”

aureo ramos
10 years ago

Fist time a see jorge l manager batter cage in san antonio tx, that was about 4 year ago we become friend.  he fron santo domingo a puerto rica WE LOVE salsa music..  one time he ask me he cant hang old tire a tree l told him shot you self..he we spent a hour hitting that tire…. l ask him ? if can hit 30 pitcher 10 to left 10 to central 10 to right..SOB WOWOO l did know he play a that time profesional …he keep low profile then a did like frank jackson get inf..he still a good friend but today he bring he son..that mean a we not see he doing what he do best HIT THAT BALL HE WAS AMAZING ..ORIR

arturo puig
8 years ago

I think , his baseball career is not only unique but fantastic. He survived all those years without complaints and survived all odds. I am sure Alvarez’s life will make for a great base-ball movie. However, I will give my vote that he be the main actor ,because nobody knows his life and struggles better than him. Finally, if he will be the main actor of the movie , he will be receiving the well deserved credit that he didn’t get (for whatever reason) in the major leagues. In short, Alvarez deserves justice and recognition and the movie will accomplish both ends perfectly. I take off my cap for such a great base-ball figure ,which might revive and enjoy everyone with his fenomenal base-ball career in the minor leagues.