Miami native Jesse Fernandez, who had a 2.96 ERA as a senior last season at Marshall University, was back in his hometown recently, looking to get some pitches in as he waited for what he hoped would be a pro career.
Fernandez, whose fastball ranges from 89 mph to 94mph, went to a camp at Miami Florida Christian, where coach Ernie Padron assigned him to catcher Veronica Alvarez.
“I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Fernandez said. “I didn’t know who she was. I thought she was a regular girl.”
But this was no “regular girl.” This was a 29-year-old who has twice won bronze medals representing the United States as the starting catcher in the 2008 and 2010 Women’s Baseball World Cups.
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Fernandez soon found out what Team USA coaches already know: Alvarez can play.
“I don’t throw slow,” Fernandez said. “But she was back there like a champ. I was really impressed. I have a lot of respect for her.”
The World Cup, which is played every two years, is coming up again this summer — Aug. 10-19 in Edmonton, Alberta.
Alvarez is one of the first players the United States coaches invited back for the final tryouts, which will be held in San Francisco in late July. By Aug. 1, the United States will cut from 36 players down to 20.
“I think her chances of making our team are very high,” said Ashley Bratcher, the general manager of Team USA. “I have full faith in her.”
Bratcher and Team USA assistant coach Jenny Dalton-Hill raved about Alvarez’s defensive and leadership skills.
“Veronica is the life of the party — maybe that‘s the Miami in her,” Dalton-Hill said. “I can’t imagine the 2012 team without her.”
Alvarez, in turn, can’t imagine her life without baseball. She’s been passionate about the sport for as long as she can remember.
She played Little League baseball and also served as the bat girl at her older brother Raul’s games. But by age 10, coaches convinced her to leave baseball — where she was told there was no future for females — and play softball.
She did reluctantly.
“I didn’t think the softball players were very good,” she said. “I was an arrogant little girl.”
Alvarez became a two-time All-County player at Miami Carrollton and earned a softball scholarship to Villanova University, where she earned a communications degree.
She returned home and landed a job as a news editor at a local TV station 6. But when her former Villanova teammate Shannon Williams called her with the hope of resuming her softball career, Alvarez leaped at the chance.
“A pro team from Italy wanted Shannon, but she didn’t want to go alone,” Alvarez said. “They didn’t need a catcher, but I started emailing teams in Spain.”
A team from Valencia quickly responded, asking what Williams and Alvarez wanted to close the deal.
“I thought it was way too good to be true,” Alvarez said.
Fortunately for the two women, it was real, and they enjoyed their experience, which included no salary but a rent-free apartment and a stipend for food.
BACK TO BASEBALL
The deal lasted for only one season because it was impossible to find a job in the United States that would allow her to be gone half of every year while she traveled to Spain.
Alvarez got a job as an administrator for Miami Dade County Public Schools — where she still works — and her experience in pro softball ultimately led her back to her first love, baseball.
She hit .750 for the 2008 World Cup team, which played in Japan. In 2010, Alvarez hit .325 in the World Cup in Venezuela, which was played while heavily armed security guards hovered around every corner of the stadiums.
Alvarez said a player from China was shot in the leg — apparently by a stray bullet from one of the surrounding neighborhoods. She was playing shortstop when she was struck.
The player survived, but the tournament was suspended for three days.
“The news didn’t even make the ticker on ESPN,” Alvarez said, lamenting the lack of coverage for women’s baseball. “Can you imagine?”
Alvarez still gets frustrated when she says she plays baseball, and people respond: “Oh, you mean softball.”
No, Alvarez will reply: “I think I know what I play.”
Padron, the coach at Florida Christian, said Alvarez has a strong arm and frames and receives the ball well behind the plate.
Offensively, Padron said Alvarez had to adjust to the increased velocity. Women baseball players can throw up to mid-70s mph, which is significantly slower than male high school or college players.
“But she’s got a very good swing,” he said. “She squares up a lot of balls and hits gap to gap.”
Alvarez practiced with Florida Christian’s team during the second half of the Patriots’ 2012 season.
“I think they thought I was an alien,” Alvarez jokingly said of the boys’ initial reaction to her. ”But after awhile, I was just like another teenage boy on the team.
“That, to me, is respect.”