YOKOHAMA, Japan — Eddy Alvarez finished his swing. He didn’t need to. The game was over. Japan had won gold over the U.S. in a 2–0 tilt that never felt that close. But he was standing in the on-deck circle as Japan closed it out, and he is a baseball player, and he saw his Olympics through to their very last moment. Then he sank to his knees and bowed his head and watched as Japan celebrated.
In some sports—speed skating, for example—you can win silver. But in baseball, you can only lose gold.
Alvarez knows that as well as anyone. On Saturday, as he mourned that gold medal, he became the third American, and sixth person, to medal in both the Summer and Winter Games, after winning silver in the 5,000-meter speed skating relay in 2014.
The U.S. finished 0.271 seconds behind Russia in Sochi. In the years to come, that country in general and that speed skating team in particular would be busted for a massive doping scheme, leaving Alvarez and his teammates frustrated that they’d been robbed of gold. But at the time, they were proud of the result.
“It's an honor to bring back a silver to the United States,” Alvarez said then.
On Saturday, his baseball teammate Triston Casas said he was “borderline embarrassed” by the color of his medal.
Alvarez was more measured with his words. A coach on that 2014 speed skating team had reminded him and his teammates to celebrate silver, and they had. Alvarez tried to remember that advice on Saturday. “It’s bittersweet,” he said.
He had one hit in the gold-medal game, a two-out single to right field in the third inning. The team stranded him there.
The pitchers traded zeroes for most of the game: a 10-pitch inning here, an 11-pitch inning there. But Munetaka Murakami put a changeup into the second row of seats in left-center in the third. Starting pitcher Nick Martínez winced when he saw it go. Japan added a run in the eighth when, with men on first and second, Masataka Yoshida lined a ball into the gap and centerfielder Jack López's throw home was halfway to third base. That second run did not much matter, though. The Americans never seemed capable of putting anything together.
They had chances. In the fifth and six, U.S. runners made it as far as second; in the seventh, they had a man on third. Alvarez grounded out to end the fifth and then again to end the seventh. After the second missed opportunity, he slammed his helmet into the dirt beyond first base and grimaced as he took his position at second base.
He could feel the game—and the Olympic version of the sport—slipping away. This was the first Games with baseball since 2008, and it will be the last until at least ’28, when Los Angeles hosts the event and could lobby for baseball’s return. After the game, some players made the case for bringing it back, but the truth is that baseball is an imperfect fit for the Olympics. Major League Baseball does not stop its season to accommodate the Olympics, so the U.S. roster was composed mostly of prospects and has-beens. Nippon Professional Baseball did shut down for these two weeks, and the quality of the Japanese team reflected that.
The real injustice was that fans could not attend. There were some 300 people here, athletes and delegations and volunteers, and at most a dozen of them were rooting for Team U.S.A. (In a strange scene, the jumbotron asked them in the middle of the fourth inning to dance to Uptown Funk. Few obliged.) Fans crowded around the ballpark they could not enter, some dressed as the Japanese flag and as Mt. Fuji, and many stayed even amid a typhoon to cheer for the team that won Japan’s first gold medal in baseball. After the final out, the players celebrated by tossing manager Atsunori Inaba into the air.
Meanwhile, the Americans trudged off the field. But not Alvarez. Not right away. “I really wanted that at bat,” he said. He really wanted to win gold. Now he hopes that someday he will believe he won silver.
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