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Gangbanger? Try modest Abe

PORTLAND, Maine -- The national anthem ends. He picks up his hat from the dirt, places it upon his bushy black
hair, and deliberately turns the flat-billed cap nearly 45 degrees to the left.

He steps onto the pitchers mound as those who have never met him
instantly form opinions.

Probably cocky. Likely arrogant. No doubt he's disrespecting the game.

Based solely on appearance, Abe Alvarez is judged.

But the strangers are wrong.

The 21-year-old minor league pitcher hears the bashing on the radio
broadcasts and the heckling from the stands, and he brushes it off like a
veteran, seeming almost amused by the ignorant, inaccurate stereotypes.

"I'm not worried about the way I look or the way people look at me,"
he said. "They probably think I'm weird or some wacko or something, but
they're not going to be someone close to me, so it shouldn't matter."

He makes his presence known on the field for the Portland Sea Dogs --
the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox -- and keeps to himself when he
steps off it. "A speak-when-spoken-to kind of guy," described one teammate.

So it's not often Alvarez opens up about the poverty he grew up in.
The robberies, the food shelters, the dangerous neighborhoods.

Never does he bring up the fact that he became the fastest player in
organization history to move from short-season Single-A ball to starting a
game in the majors.

And rarely will he bother to give the reason why he wears his hat to
the side.

Unless you took time to look past his crooked bill, you would never
know Abe Alvarez is legally blind in his left eye.

And you would never know Abe Alvarez.

Only then would you realize that baseball really doesn't need a guy
like him.

It needs one on every team.

Seeing is believing
Sitting in the Sea Dogs dugout hours before game time on a hot August
afternoon for Maine standards, Alvarez uses his hand to cover his right eye.

A notebook with fairly legible handwriting is placed a few feet in
front of him.

"I can't read any of it," he says.

The notebook is moved in closer.

"Nope."

Now inches away.

"I can see it's there, but I can't read anything."

It's true.

The pitcher with the most wins on the Sea Dogs roster this season has
an eye as useful as a stereo without sound. But he says it rarely affects him. Not with reading. Not with driving.
Not with pitching.

He has to turn his head a few more notches to look toward second base,
but that's if a batter even gets that far.

His eyes appear normal. One just doesn't work.

And he's never known it any other way.

Imagine the crust in your eye when you wake in the morning multiplied
by a hundred. That's the infection Alvarez was born with.

His mother began dripping prescribed drops into her newborn child's
eye, but the infection would not clear. There were alternate medicines, more
powerful ones, but they would put his vision at risk.

His mother had no choice but to try the stronger drops. The side effect occurred.

"I'm still looking out of one eye," Alvarez says. "I don't know what
it is to see clear."

He began playing T-ball at age five in southern California, and he
began to love the game. Until high school, he wore glasses while on the mound, with one thick
frame and one skinny one.

"It kind of looked dumb," Alvarez laughed.

He tried wearing one contact, but nothing made a difference, and his
eyes are naked now.

He wouldn't let his condition get in the way of his dream. Just
because he had trouble seeing didn't mean he couldn't believe.

The chance
His bio was impressive. A two-time Big West Conference pitcher of the
year at Long Beach State. A lefty with not a ton of speed, but plenty of
control.

After his junior year in college, he was ready for the pros. Then, two weeks before the draft, Major League Baseball came to
conduct routine eye tests.

"I already knew what the results were going to be," Alvarez said. But the scouts didn't.

For the first time in his life, Alvarez heard the term "legally blind"
used to describe him.

Although he was never quick to tell anyone about his condition, he
knew it was inevitable that people would soon find out.

"I couldn't care less if they knew I had a bad eye," he said. "It
never stopped me before with what I wanted to do."

The phone began to ring off the hook. Scouts began showing up to conduct their own tests. Alvarez began to worry.

"They're going to think I won't be able to pitch," he thought. "But I
just trusted myself and what I had done already to show that I could."

A handful of teams were scared away by the news.

"There were about five or six that got a little bit nervous," said
Paul Cohen, Alvarez' agent. "But there were definitely seven or eight that
fell in love with him. And you only need one team to love you."

With the 49th pick of the 2003 June draft, the Boston Red Sox selected
Abe Alvarez.

That summer, he pitched 19 scoreless innings in short-season Single-A
ball for the Spinners in Lowell, Mass. -- a 20-minute drive from Boston --
allowing him to leap straight to the Double-A level the following season.

"We think he's going to be a good major league pitcher," said Ben
Cherington, the organization's Director of Player Development.

The opportunity would come sooner than anyone, including Alvarez, ever
imagined.

The news

It was a Tuesday night in late July. The Sea Dogs were on the road in
Norwich, Conn., for a three-game series when manager Ron Johnson called
Alvarez into his office.

The calm, laid-back kid didn't believe what he was hearing at first.

Start for the Red Sox. Against the Orioles. In Fenway Park. Leaving tomorrow. Pitching the following day.

"That's the most excited I've ever seen him," Johnson said. "He
actually kind of turned his head a little bit and smiled. It was perfect Abe."

Nervousness settled in soon, but sleep didn't come that night until 5
a.m.

Alvarez flew his parents from California to Boston the next afternoon,
knowing that he was heading into the most important day of his life.

Although he gave up five runs and eight hits in five innings, he was
commended for his control on the mound.

"He possesses what I consider well-above-average composure and
maturity for a 21-year-old man just coming out of college," said Sea Dogs
pitching coach Bob Kipper. "He has an ability to separate what just happened
and get into what he needs to do with his next pitch. That's maturity."

The day after Alvarez' start in the majors, his coaches found the
pitcher running the treadmill back in the Sea Dogs workout facility.

He didn't mention a word of his "dream-come-true" to any of his
teammates until asked about it.

"It was unbelievable," Johnson said. "Most guys would come in with a
boatload of stories. Nah, not Abe."

A disappointing tone rang in the voice of Alvarez when he spoke of his
performance, but the reality that he had just pitched in Fenway Park at age 21
made him crack a smile.

"I'm out there facing Rafael Palmeiro, a future Hall of Famer. Miguel
Tejada's hitting bombs off me. You look back and you're like man, that was
fun."

Fortunately or unfortunately for Alvarez, how he pitched wasn't the
focus of the highlight reels the following day.

A handful of Red Sox, including Curt Schilling and Johnny Damon, were
seen in the dugout wearing their caps tilted to the left, offering support for
the rookie.

Alvarez had worn his hat the same way since Little League, but for the
first time, he and his hat were in the national spotlight.

A reaction was inevitable.

The perception
Todd Jamison was driving home when he heard the reaction.

The Sea Dogs radio broadcaster sat in his car and listened to a
national sports talk show host rip on Alvarez and his appearance following his
start in Fenway.

"Ruining the game of baseball."

"A gangbanger."

"He said some pretty harsh things I thought, especially for not
knowing anything about the kid," Jamison said. "It was harsh enough to where I
thought I should set the record straight."

Jamison dialed the number on his cell phone, and after a 10-minute
hold, he got through to the radio show.

He explained that Alvarez wears his hat to the left to balance the
lighting because he is legally blind in his left eye.

For a few seconds, the show went silent.

They're quick to judge Abe Alvarez, but hesitant to get to know him.

Even the Sea Dogs manager admits he had bad thoughts running through
his mind when Alvarez showed up for spring training.

"When I first saw the hat, I thought he was some screwball," Johnson
said. "But when he goes out, he competes and he gives you everything he has. I
don't give a s--- if he wears his hat backwards."

It may look peculiar to others, but it feels natural to Alvarez.

"That's just the way it goes on," he says.

"If it's a big deal and people want me to put it on straight, I'll
try. It just feels comfortable on my head.

"I'm just who I am. They can say what they want to say."

The reality
At first glance, he looks more like a rock star than an athlete.

His hair has been many shades since his mother, a stylist, likes to
get creative with it, but for now it is dark and curly and hidden beneath a
black Los Angeles Clippers cap - tilted to the left of course.

A yellow rubber band clings around his wrist for no good reason.

The armband resting under his shirt is worn at all times for good luck.

Along with being religious, he's superstitious as well.

After what he's gone through, he could use a little support.

Ironically, he wasn't that far from becoming a "gangbanger."

Three blocks away to be exact.

While growing up in Maywood, California, he would see helicopter
spotlights and hear sirens through the window of his bedroom, which he shared
with his older brother and sister.

Gangs hung out down the street, and his house was robbed on more than
one occasion. But he was too young to know what had happened.

"I didn't really understand," Abe said. "My parents didn't make it a
big deal. They didn't take much because there wasn't much that we had."

His parents, Alex and Mercedes, did all they could to raise their
children right, and kept them inside to avoid the danger.

"My parents kept us safe, and that's all that pretty much mattered,"
Abe said.

It was a struggle for Alex and Mercedes to start a family after moving
from Mexico to California at a young age. Job opportunities were limited and
Abe's father faced the horrors of unemployment after all three children had
been born.

After landing another job, Alex moved the family to Fontana,
California, when Abe was seven, in hopes of providing his children a safer
upbringing.

The house was bigger and the neighborhood nicer, but it was still far
from a perfect world.

Abe was in high school when he came home one day to find his door
broken down.

His house had been robbed. His mother was crying.

He remembers this one.

"You walk into your parents bedroom and all their stuff is gone too,
and it hits you. You got all your stuff taken away, and you're not getting it
back."

Abe had to wear some of his brother's old clothes to school the next
day. He packed what he could scrape up for the trip his family was taking to
Mexico to see family over the weekend.

This time, when they returned, everything was gone. The house had been
robbed again.

Alvarez was never used to having money. During grade school, he would
often have to explain to friends why he brought quarter stacks to school to
pay for lunches.

In college, he spent a semester sleeping on a friend's couch because
his scholarship did not cover the cost of living.

He has money now. A $700,000 signing bonus and an $8,100-per-month
salary for making the 40-man roster.

But when asked to describe how he spends it, he simply says, "I don't." Except for when he gives back.

Soon after signing his contract, he put his parents names on his bank
account. He's offered to pay off the remainder off their house payments, but
they decline.

He hopes to someday build them a home in southern Arizona on the
Mexican border, close to his mother's family.

"He'll do anything for my parents," said his sister, Andréa.

Throughout his childhood, Alvarez avoided the trouble, and became the
opposite of the people he grew up seeing every day.

"He doesn't get in trouble," said Johnson, the Sea Dogs manager. "If
they don't get in trouble, I don't know what they do. He's a manager's dream."

When he goes out with friends, Alvarez is the responsible one of the
group. He stops his car to let old ladies cross the street and says "thank
you" to the waitress after every drink refill.

His English is perfect and polite and his Spanish is fluent.

His host family, Rod and Cheryl Tibbetts, often find him writing
letters home to his real family on the opposite coast.

"He's one of the nicest ballplayers I've ever met," said Cheryl, who
along with her husband has hosted nearly 20 Sea Dogs in her home, including
Abe.

He hopes that you like him, but he doesn't want your sympathy.

And although he doesn't know it, he rubs off on you.

The yellow rubber band that sat in the Sea Dogs parking lot on that
hot August afternoon looked identical to the one Alvarez had been wearing on
his wrist.

But this one has a meaning.

It's kept to remember Abe Alvarez.

To remember that perception is a funny thing.

To remember that to him, we're all wearing our hats crooked.