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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2002
NEW YORK -- All this time, they have been pestering Wilson Alvarez about his shoulder. And what they were really asking about was his heart.
For wasn't that the real issue? Hasn't it always been with Alvarez?
He had the arm of a warrior and the heart of a pacifist, which is not considered a compliment in America's dugouts.
They used to question his strength and devotion when healthy, so who could muster much faith when a tear in Alvarez's shoulder threatened his career?
This is what made Saturday's performance so special, even if the results were something less than the stuff of dreams and fairy tales.
Maybe we learned something about Alvarez Saturday.
Maybe he learned something about himself.
"I looked around," Alvarez said of his first moment on the mound at Yankee Stadium. "I looked all over the stadium. I thought, "Thank God. Thank God, it's great to be here again.' I've been given another chance."
The story's moral is not in the time he spent on the mound. For, in those 4 1/3 innings, he looked much like you would expect of a 32-year-old who had not thrown a meaningful pitch since he was 29. In other words, his command was shaky and his stamina short.
No, the real lesson was in the journey to the mound. The months of rehabilitation. The days of pain. The hours of doubt.
There has been a locker with his name above it in the home clubhouse at Tropicana Field the past two seasons, but it has not been a place of comfort. Whenever he put on a uniform, Alvarez had the sensation of being an impostor.
There were times he thought his career was over and doctors did not exactly fall over themselves to convince him he was wrong.
This was a pitcher with a severe shoulder injury and a reputation for hiding when confronted with adversity.
He certainly could have walked away. Or simply went through the motions. Alvarez had 10 years of big-league service and the honor of having more victories than any pitcher to have come out of Venezuela.
Then there is the question of money. Alvarez has plenty of it, including $35-million once belonging to the Rays.
He could have walked away.
"I still think I owe this team a lot," Alvarez said. "The only way to pay them back is to go out there and do my job."
There is little about Alvarez to suggest he is an accomplished athlete. His body is soft and his manner softer still. He is generous with his money -- once donating $1-million to a school in Sarasota -- and gracious with his time.
His is a gentle soul, and perhaps that helps to explain the reputation he has carried throughout his career.
They say Alvarez did not have a fire in his belly. That he never cared enough to accomplish all that was once envisioned for him.
All of these years, they have wondered what it would take to bring out the very best in Alvarez. Maybe, it took the realization of the very worst.
"I know how hard he worked for this. I know how much it means to him," said his wife Daihanna, who flew to New York and sat alone with a blanket wrapped around her legs in the cold of Yankee Stadium.
"We didn't know if he would ever get back to the major leagues. So, for us, this is a gift from God. I don't care how he does. That doesn't matter. All that matters to me is seeing him out there. Because I know what it took for him to get back."
They stayed in their hotel room the night before Alvarez's return. They ordered room service and watched television. They called home to Bradenton and talked to their three daughters. Around midnight, they turned out the lights.
And not once did they bring up baseball.
"I knew it was on his mind," Daihanna said. "I didn't want to bother him by asking about it."
What he has contemplated a lot in recent weeks is how close he came to losing his career. And he has reflected on his days as a phenom who pitched a no-hitter in his second major-league appearance with the White Sox.
"I've fallen in love with the game even more now. I have more respect for the game now," Alvarez said. "The older guys when I was in Chicago would say, "Enjoy this while you can. Because when you're gone, you're gone. And you're going to miss all this stuff.'
"Over these last two years, now I know what that means."
For the record, his performance Saturday was serviceable. He fell behind in the count too many times and, by the end, his delivery was falling apart.
But, if you watched closely, there was a moment to remember.
It arrived early and passed quickly. The first batter Alvarez faced was second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who lifted a fly ball to rightfield. When the ball settled in Ben Grieve's glove, Alvarez pumped his fist.
Who knows exactly what the gesture meant to Alvarez. Perhaps it was triumph. Perhaps it was relief. Maybe even vindication.
Whatever it meant, it came from the heart.