Alex Avila has caught on rather quickly
At 24, Tigers backstop has emerged as one of baseball's most productive catchers
Sons of big league dads cherish the memories of days they spent at the ballpark as kids. Prince Fielder barely acknowledges the existence of his father, Cecil, but his face lights up when he recalls his pre-adolescent wrestling matches with Tony Phillips in the home clubhouse at Tiger Stadium. And Ken Griffey Jr. freely admits he had the time of his life eluding the Riverfront Stadium clubbies during the Big Red Machine era, and sneaking into the back room in search of free bubblegum and candy.
As the son of a big league executive, Detroit catcher Alex Avila spent his formative years viewing the game from a different perspective. When he wasn't shagging balls in the outfield before Florida Marlins games, he was sitting in the draft day war room listening to scouts opine about players' tools and "signability'' over takeout deli sandwiches. He also tagged along on road trips to Edmonton, Alberta; Charlotte, N.C.; Portland, Maine; and other minor league venues while his father was checking out prospects on the farm.
For a kid who was part baseball rat, part student of the game, it was the perfect educational experience.
"Baseball was a lifestyle for us,'' Avila said. "I think back to all the family vacations we took that were centered around a baseball game. And if my dad had a day off from work, what would we do? We'd go hit in a cage. Baseball was always the center of our life. That instilled a passion in me and a love for the game.''
When the offspring grows up to swing a mean bat from the left side, and has no qualms about blocking balls in the dirt, absorbing foul tips off the knuckles and doing the other dirty work required of his position, it creates a sense of pride that spans generations.
The Avilas lack the public profile of the Boones, Bells or Alous, but the family legacy is special nonetheless. Ralph, the grandfather, left his native Cuba in the 1960s and became a respected Dodgers scout under general manager Al Campanis. He was at the forefront of MLB's initiative to find talent in the Dominican Republic and other Latin hotbeds four decades ago.
Al, the father, has spent 20 years in baseball front offices in Florida, Pittsburgh and Detroit. During his tenure with the Marlins, he played an active role in the signing and development of Livan Hernandez, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, Edgar Renteria and Josh Beckett, to name just a few. Since 2002, he has been Detroit's assistant general manager under David Dombrowski.
And now there's Alex, who has emerged as one of baseball's most productive catchers at age 24. He's a prime example of the power of nature and nurture working in harmony.
Between Buster Posey's season-ending ankle injury and Joe Mauer's disappointing numbers in Minnesota, the catching position has taken its lumps this season. But Avila has taken a step forward to become the American League's answer to Atlanta hitting machine Brian McCann.
Despite a rough July (6-for-40, .150 and no RBIs for the month), Avila ranks second to McCann among MLB catchers with an .849 OPS, and leads AL catchers with 19 doubles, 46 RBIs and a .490 slugging percentage. His rapid ascent has allowed the Tigers to plug Victor Martinez into the DH spot and lengthen manager Jim Leyland's lineup.
Avila also is making a positive impression as a game-caller and handler of pitchers. He caught Justin Verlander's second career no-hitter in May, making up for the disappointment of June 2, 2010, when he stood helplessly behind home plate and watched umpire Jim Joyce deprive Armando Galarraga of a perfect game with a blown call. Verlander bought Avila an engraved watch as a memento, and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gave them both trophies in honor of the achievement.
Avila's progress culminated in the biggest thrill of his young career, when he overcame a 600,000-vote deficit in the final two weeks to beat out New York's Russell Martin for the starting AL catching spot in the All-Star Game. He received a public endorsement from Verlander, who lobbied strenuously on his behalf on Twitter.
"I think most people saw that Alex was going to hit, but I don't think they saw him becoming this good a catcher this quickly,'' Verlander said. "He's fantastic at taking constructive criticism. Sometimes he's not happy to hear some things, but he immediately works on it and gets better at it. He always works his tail off, and that's how you earn respect in this game.''
Avila's personal growth is a testament to the power of perseverance and the willingness to adapt. He hit 90-92 mph on the radar gun as a high school pitcher in Florida, and he was a corner infielder until University of Alabama coach Jim Wells made him a full-time catcher in 2008. When Avila hit .343 with 17 homers in his junior year with the Crimson Tide, big league organizations began paying serious attention.
The Tigers were at the top of the list. Flash back to the team's draft room in June 2008, and scouting director David Chadd, Dombrowski and Al Avila were among a large group of talent evaluators at the table. The Tigers had used their first four picks to select college pitchers Ryan Perry, Cody Satterwhite, Scott Green and Brett Jacobson, and as the No. 163 overall selection approached, it became clear that some head-butting was in store.
Alabama catcher Alex Avila was still on the board, and his father was apprehensive, to put it mildly, over the prospect of hearing his son's name called.
"I just didn't want people to feel we were picking Alex because I was here,'' Al Avila said. "I didn't want him to have to go through certain things once he got to the minor leagues and people asked, 'Why did he get promoted?' There would have been that extra question -- why this or why that? I didn't want any extra speculation.''
Chadd quickly flexed his decision-making muscle, for a couple of reasons. He was convinced Alex Avila was the best player on the board, and it would have been foolhardy to avoid him simply because of the family's organizational ties. Good drafting is also about eliminating variables, and Chadd had personal knowledge of Alex Avila's intangibles from his days in the Florida front office in the 1990s.
I think most people saw that Alex was going to hit, but I don't think they saw him becoming this good a catcher this quickly. He always works his tail off, and that's how you earn respect in this game.” -- Tigers pitcher Justin
Verlander on Alex Avila
"If you could ever say, 'At 10 years old, this kid has all the ingredients to be a major league player, not just from an ability standpoint, but from a preparation and focus standpoint,' it was Alex,'' Chadd said. "He was always observing and watching and listening to everything that was going on. He was a student of the game at a very young age.
"Nobody in our draft room sat there and said he was going to be an everyday catcher or an All-Star. If we were that smart, we would have taken him in the first round. But I truly believed Alex was going to hit. And if you hit, you find your way into the lineup somewhere to move through the minor league system. That's what made the selection fairly easy.''
Alex Avila is the latest heir to a long and proud catching tradition in Detroit. Mickey Cochrane finished up his Hall of Fame career as a Tiger in the mid-1930s, and Bill Freehan and Lance Parrish combined to make 17 All-Star teams behind the plate. And Rudy York, Parrish, Matt Nokes and Mickey Tettleton make Detroit the only organization in baseball to boast four catchers with 30-homer seasons.
There are constant reminders of the legacy Avila must uphold. When the Tigers drafted him in 2008, Pudge Rodriguez gave him a catcher's mitt from his personal collection. Avila donned it for his first professional stop in the Midwest League and wore it to the point that it's now "unusable.'' He put it in a zip-close bag and put it away for safekeeping.
When Aliva arrived in Detroit for his major league debut two years ago, Tigers clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel handed him the No. 13 jersey and reminded him that Parrish had worn the number with pride for a decade with the club. As a student of baseball history, Avila didn't need reminding. He wholeheartedly embraces the responsibilities of his position.
"Catching is a tough job, but I love every minute of it -- even the hard parts.'' he said. "If there's a runner on third base and we're up by one run and there's a tough pitch in the dirt and I take it off my wrist, it hurts like hell. But there's a certain pride there.''
Those Avila baseball bloodlines run deep. Alex's younger brother, Alan, recently graduated from college and took a job as a baseball operations intern with the Atlanta Braves. While he learns the ins and outs of life in an MLB front office, his father and brother are enjoying a happy bonding experience in Detroit.
"Sometimes I sit back and feel blessed that things turned out this way,'' Al Avila said. "You couldn't have written it any better. I thank the Good Lord every day, not only for Alex, but for my family in general.''
The Tigers' assistant general manager is brimming with fatherly pride. His son is an All-Star. And nepotism speculation is taking a serious hit this summer in Detroit.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick