Avilas working toward dream of catching ring
Tigers' father-son tandem enjoying unique World Series experience
DETROIT -- Al Avila is the middle man in a three-generation baseball family, the son of a trailblazing scout. He has no problem talking to his son with the voice of a talent evaluator. He has no problem talking to the Tigers' All-Star catcher with the voice of a father. He has no hesitation mixing the two.
Alex Avila heard the scout's voice when he was a junior in high school, trying to follow in the family business as a player. He learned the game from such figures as Tommy Lasorda, was a standout player in high school, but not necessarily a high Draft prospect, and he was looking for an evaluation. Al Avila was president and general manager Dave Dombrowski's top assistant in the Tigers' front office, having worked his way up as a scout.
"He'd been the fourth batter on his team since he was in T-ball," Al Avila once recalled. "He made every All-Star team. He was a darn good player growing up. But I told him at 17, 'Look at yourself. You've had a great career as a kid, but you're not even close to being a Major League prospect.' And I showed him where he has to get to.
"And at that age, I told him, 'You're not even close. To get a chance, you have to do all this work.' And it's not talking about doing it for three months. You're dedicating your lifetime to do this if that's what your career is, just like a lawyer, a doctor have to be studying those books, day in and day out, to get those tests, to learn more."
A few years later, Alex Avila was a promising young infielder at the University of Alabama, grinding his way through grueling fall practices and working like his dad had said. The Tigers were in the 2006 World Series, and Al Avila was among the front-office folks reveling in the renewal of a franchise that lost 119 games three years earlier.
When they opened the World Series at Comerica Park, the young Avila came home, aching legs and all, to enjoy the moment with his father. There, Al Avila said, the thought crossed their minds.
Two years later, when Tigers scouting director David Chadd recommended drafting converted catcher Alex Avila despite his father's concerns about fans thinking nepotism, the World Series was more than a thought. It was a conversation.
"When I got drafted, me and my dad joked about that," Alex Avila said. "That's something we talked about."
On Tuesday, as the Tigers were taking batting practice at AT&T Park, that was the moment. Al Avila spent his afternoon like he usually does in October, phone attached to his ear, working on planning ahead. Alex Avila was taking his pregame hacks while getting ready to catch Justin Verlander. They had a nice moment in the dugout.
It wasn't a big moment, but they both remembered joking about it years ago.
Al Avila earned a World Series ring in the Marlins baseball operations department in 1997. His father, Ralph Avila, was part of championships for years in the Dodgers front office. Alex Avila is trying to become the third generation with a title.
Al Avila doesn't like talking too much about his son, preferring to let him speak for himself. Still, it's impossible to miss the pride in his son and his growth. On the field, he has grown from an offensive-first catcher into a respected presence behind the plate at just 25 years old, a backstop who has earned the trust of one of the most talented rotations in baseball, everyone from strong-willed Verlander to new arrival Anibal Sanchez.
"I think he's matured a lot," manager Jim Leyland said. "I think he was a little bit on [edge] the other night, to be honest with you, the World Series action for the first time. So that's behind him now.
"He's done a great job for us, and obviously hasn't hit as well this year as he did last year, but we thought he'd be somewhere in between. But he's done a fantastic job handling the staff. That's why we caught him with Verlander the other night [in Game 1]."
Off the field, Avila, who will become a father for the first time this offseason, has grown into a leadership role on a team with no shortage of stars. When the Tigers held an informal team meeting last year after being swept in Cleveland, Avila was one of the figures involved. When Detroit traded Brandon Inge at the end of April, Avila moved into his locker, a key one for the club because of its location near the door where the media enters before and after games.
Avila, not surprisingly, has grown into a go-to figure for media after games, taking blame and deflecting credit.
Meanwhile, the son of an organizational man has become the team's player rep for the MLB Players Association, a role previously held by Verlander.
Like a coach's son, he has done it all without fanfare. He has taken what he observed being around teams and clubhouses growing up and applied it. For his game, he has allowed his play to do a lot of the talking for him.
"The biggest way to earn the trust [of pitchers] is just to have good games," Alex Avila said. "I think that's how I was able to get the trust from Verlander and a lot of our other pitchers as far as just being back there, knowing that they know that I've done everything that I can to help them win the game. In my job back there, that's what I have to do. I've got to know the hitters inside and out."
As two figures in the same building, Alex and Al Avila talk pretty much daily. They'll talk a lot about the games, and they'll talk about family, too. Then Al Avila will go upstairs into Dombrowski's suite, and the front-office man takes over.
Not even this run has changed that.
"He looks at [games] just like an assistant general manager," Alex Avila said. "At this point, everybody's living and dying with these games. When he watches games, even though I'm playing, he looks at them like he always has for the last 20 years.
"What is nice, though, is that he didn't get to see me play much in high school or college. He gets to watch me play now in the World Series. He's pumped about that. I'm obviously very excited, and hope we'll be able to win a World Series together for the same organization."
They've valued this well before the World Series was a realistic thought. Now that they have a chance to earn a ring together, it could be the biggest moment of their careers.
It won't be a three-generation moment, at least not in person.
"I wish my dad could've made it, but he's not able to travel just yet," Al Avila said. "But he'll be watching on TV, as he has most of the games."
It'll be over, one way or another, at some point. Then Al Avila the assistant general manager will have the Tigers' offseason issues on his hands. Among them will be an All-Star catcher's arbitration case, something he has made a point to stay out of.
That's down the road, though. For this longtime scout, he won't forget being a proud papa.
"In my career, I was away a lot," Al Avila said a couple years ago. "And now, being able to see him almost every day, again, it's been a blessing. That's very uncommon in this game. Again, I thank God every day for it."