Alvarez after signing: ‘I will work my hardest’

By Dejan Kovacevic and Colin Dunlap
Updated: September 25, 2008

MILWAUKEE — Finally, after more than three months of haggling, backtracking, posturing and even litigating on a national stage, the Pirates have signed Pedro Alvarez, their first-round draft pick.

This time in indelible ink.

Alvarez and his New York-based family flew to Pittsburgh as the former Vanderbilt University standout third baseman passed his physical and, at 6:24 p.m. Wednesday, put pen to paper on a four-year, $6,355,000 contract.

Earlier in the day, a related grievance filed by the Major League Baseball Players Association against commissioner Bud Selig’s office was settled amicably.

All of that cleared the way for Alvarez to begin his professional career this weekend in the rookie-level Florida Instructional League.

“I’m so happy this day has come,” Alvarez said in a conference call with reporters from PNC Park Wednesday night. “I just want to play baseball.”

A conference call was chosen rather than the standard news conference, the Pirates explained, because the team is finishing its season on the road.

Once Alvarez does get about the business of facing fastballs instead of legal briefings, as he seemed to grasp, he surely will have many fences to mend, with the Pirates and the many baseball fans who voiced their displeasure during his highly publicized absence.

“I just want the fans of Pittsburgh to judge me as the professional player that I am now,” Alvarez replied to a question on that subject. “I will work my hardest to be the best player I can be, to be a leader on and off the field in the community.”

“It’s a big day for me and my family. When I was a little kid, we dreamed of this. And the fact that it’s a reality now … all I can say is, starting today, I will be the best player I can be.”

Alvarez, 21, is the son of Pedro Alvarez Sr., a livery cab driver in the heavily-Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. His mother, Luz, and sister, Yolayna, also joined him at the signing.

“This is a hard, blue-collar community just like where I grew up, and my family instilled that work ethic in me,” Alvarez said. “That’s what’s going to happen here: I’ll work my hardest and be the best I can be.”

Just before or after MLB’s midnight Aug. 15 signing deadline for draft picks, Alvarez verbally agreed to a $6 million minor league contract. Two days later, Alvarez’s agent, Scott Boras, informed the Pirates that he considered the agreement against MLB rules because the Pirates did not receive the blessing of the union.

Boras sought a fresh negotiation that same day, and the Pirates emphatically declined, leading — indirectly or not — to the players’ union filing a grievance Aug. 27 against baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s office that threatened to nullify Alvarez’s contract and possibly others.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly and Boras publicly sniped at each other at times, but Alvarez kept quiet. His most recent public speaking before yesterday came June 5, the day he was the No. 2 pick in the draft, and even his whereabouts were mostly unknown to all but his family, Boras and a few friends until the past two weeks.

That prompted some critics to charge that Alvarez was being controlled by Boras, one of the most successful and influential agents in baseball history, but Alvarez denied that yesterday.

“Throughout this whole process, I, myself, wanted a fair trial, and I wanted everything to play itself out,” Alvarez said. “I thought for myself and made decisions for myself.”

The grievance settlement added two elements of clarification to the language in MLB’s labor pact: One, Selig’s office no longer will be allowed to unilaterally grant extensions of the signing deadline. Two, an arbitrator will have the authority to void any agreement struck afterward. Each area had been disputed.

They also agreed that Alvarez could sign a new contract well beyond the original deadline and that Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer, another draft pick and Boras client brought into the matter against the wishes of the Royals, the player and the agent, could return to action. MLB had ordered Hosmer to stop playing pending a resolution of the grievance.

“From the beginning, our primary concern was allowing Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Hosmer to begin their professional careers as quickly as possible, and this settlement accomplishes that goal,” MLB executive vice president of labor relations Rob Manfred said. “We fully support and welcome the changes to the manner in which the deadline will be administered.”

“The agreement fully satisfies the union’s objective, made clear from the outset, which was to defend the integrity of its collectively bargained agreements,” union general counsel Mike Weiner said.

The push to get Pirates and Boras to reach a settlement, it became clear yesterday, came from MLB and the union from opposite sides. That began, coincidence or not, after Selig testified Sept. 10 in the only hearing for the grievance, and it even included assisting in the negotiation of financial terms this past weekend.

Agreement was reached early Sunday night mostly by changing the terms of the contract from minor league to major league. With that compromise, the Alvarez side could argue that Alvarez will make more money if he reaches Pittsburgh quickly — baseball evaluators feel he could do so within a year or two — while the Pirates could argue that, because the signing bonus was staggered over four years rather than two, Alvarez will receive less guaranteed money in the revised deal because of interest and inflation.

“It wasn’t easy,” Coonelly said.

Some rancor from the dispute lasted even beyond the signing: Coonelly mentioned in the conference call, unsolicited, that he felt the new deal was “comparable in value” to the original. Boras, who had not been expected to participate in the call, later entered and called the new deal “a favorable change for Pedro Alvarez … much different than the one previously offered.”

Boras’ stance has been that the Pirates were granted a special favor by MLB, where Coonelly worked for a decade, in receiving a deadline extension. He charged MLB and the team with orchestrating events Aug. 15 so that the Royals’ agreement with Hosmer would be approved after the Pirates’, even though, by all accounts, the Royals had their agreement before midnight. MLB kept the Royals on hold on the phone, Boras maintained, while the Pirates talked to Alvarez well past midnight, then approved the Royals’ deal so that someone else would appear to come later.

Thus, Boras argued, his client felt extra pressure in talking to the Pirates after midnight.

Coonelly rejected that scenario in a separate call last night.

“Completely untrue,” Coonelly said. “We were not given any advance notice by the commissioner’s office that any deadline extensions would be granted. In fact, earlier that day, we were told the opposite.”

Coonelly and Boras never were in the same room yesterday, incidentally. Coonelly was on business in Bradenton, and Boras with Alvarez at PNC Park.

Alvarez made clear that he supported Boras’ representation.

“We fought for a fair negotiation, and I believe we got that,” he said. “I am completely satisfied with what was going on throughout the whole process. I am a big believer in faith, and I held onto my faith. I knew everything would work out for the best.”

Once financial terms were reached Sunday, Alvarez and his family traveled to Pittsburgh Tuesday, then were joined by Boras yesterday. They stayed Downtown and spent much of yesterday at PNC, including Alvarez greeting some season-ticket holders at a private function.

Alvarez’s next step will be a return to baseball: Idle since Vanderbilt’s season ended in June, he had been training with his former college teammates in Nashville, Tenn., and he will return there today to collect his belongings.

From there, he will fly to Bradenton, Fla., home of the Pirates’ spring facility and begin playing as soon as Saturday. The Florida season runs until Oct. 17.

General manager Neal Huntington did not rule out winter baseball, as well, but said it would be “unfair” to the prospects already assigned to the two elite leagues — in Arizona and Hawaii — to remove them from already-full rosters for Alvarez. The Pirates had dangled a winter assignment as a carrot for Alvarez during the long wait.

Huntington said Alvarez’s path to the majors will be dictated by performance and would not speculate on which level would be his starting point. Many observers feel he will be with Class AA Altoona at least by the end of 2009, if not sooner.

“He’s going to be a strong, middle-of-the-lineup bat for us for many years,” Huntington said. “I think few players have been damaged by a conservative track, and I think history is littered with players damaged with clubs rushing them. He has an advanced skill set, but his progress will determine how quickly he moves through the system.”

To clear space on the 40-man roster for Alvarez, the Pirates placed injured starter Tom Gorzelanny on the 60-day disabled list.