Father's eye as scout a boon to catcher Avila
Al direct in advice for Alex at a critical age
Al Avila has been a proud, supportive papa for his son, Alex, and the career he has built for his himself. But perhaps his biggest moment to be there for his son was when he talked to him as a scout, not as a dad.
It was very direct.
"He basically just would lay it out and say, 'This is what you have to do if you want to not only get drafted [and] make it to the Major Leagues, but then stay there,'" Alex Avila said. "And he basically left it up to me. He's like, 'You don't have to do this. I want you to do what [makes you] happy. But if you want to, you've got to go about it the right way. Don't half-effort it.'"
All through his upbringing, Al Avila gave his son tips on watching games as a scout. This was his look at his own son, and his son's look at himself.
"He'd been the fourth batter on his team since he was in tee-ball," Al Avila said. "He made every all-star team. He was a darn good player growing up. But I told him at 17, I said, '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."
Alex put in the work. His dad was there for him.
He was not the kind of dad who was at all of his kid's games. He couldn't do that with his job. But for the elder Avila, there's another moment he likes to remember, besides the talk. They were driving together from Florida to Detroit, and stopped along the way to spend the night. Alex was a pitcher at the time, and he needed to throw. So Al got out his glove, accompanied his son into the parking lot of the hotel, and caught a bullpen session.
It wasn't pretty, especially with pitches off the pavement. But it's what they had to do. Baseball is their life, has been ever since Alex's grandfather, Ralph Avila, revolutionized the game with his efforts to find talent in the Dominican Republic for the Dodgers.
The Avilas spent their lives in baseball, but Alex is the first to play in the big leagues. He couldn't have done it without family, and especially without his father.
"Between him and my grandfather, they were the ones that taught me how to play baseball. When we moved here, I went to De La Salle. We would have 6 a.m. workouts. I'd go there, we'd work out, go to school, and then our assistant coach had batting cages. So I'd go there and hit, and [dad] would either meet me there from work and throw batting practice to me, and we'd end up getting home at 8 o'clock or something like that. Or after school, I'd end up coming here if the team was on the road or during the offseason, and hit in the cages down here [at Comerica Park], and then go home. That was every single day.
"The thing is, he would get tired, but I'd be like, 'Let's go to the cages,' and he would like, 'Don't you want to do something different?' And I'm like, 'No, let's go to the cages.' I mean, him and my grandfather, they've taught me everything I know."
In terms of baseball, that's plenty. When Al Avila served as scouting director for the Florida Marlins years ago, Alex was on a lot of trips with him. Sometimes, the entire family would go, on the road to Minor League stops, college games or high school showcases. Other times, it was father-and-son Avila at the ballpark.
"Even though we were going to a baseball game to watch a player or going around to the different Minor League teams, it was more going and hanging out with my dad," Alex said. "But then again, I got to travel a lot. When I was a kid, I remember one summer going to Maine, New York, Boston, Connecticut, North and South Carolina, California. We went to all those places in just one summer."
He learned to watch the game a different way, being with his dad. Instead of watching his favorite player at the plate, he learned to watch how pitchers would set up hitters, or what hitters would try to do in various situations. Sometimes, it was what his dad said. Other times, it was basically by osmosis.
"He was privy to sometimes riding with me and being with scouts," Al said, "or talking to scouts about players and how to put together a draft. He was actually in the Draft room a couple of times. But mostly, it was on the field. He was able to travel to the Dominican and actually play down there."
At that point, it looked like Alex had a scouting future in him. Once he began to look at a future as a player, though, he learned skills that would help him in life, not just in baseball. And that talk played a big part.
All that work in high school didn't earn him top prospect status, but it earned him a spot on the team at the University of Alabama. The work he put in there earned him a much bigger look from those scouts Avila used to follow as a kid.
He took his father's words to heart, perhaps more than his dad could've envisioned.
"He took all that," Al said. "It was a lot of hard work, because God didn't give him the tremendous ability. Yet the majority of guys are like that. I mean, you've got the Miguel Cabreras of the world that are born with tremendous ability. And you have a lot of guys, like my son, that you have to work your butt off to even get a chance. But if you don't, you're never going to smell a chance.
"So yeah, I've taught that. I've shown him examples. Now he's got to do it. Well, the thing is, a lot of players show you some potential, and they work some. But again, it's a lifelong commitment, and in order to do that, you really have to enjoy your job, because it is a job."
Alex Avila gave himself a chance. But under his father's watch, he never lost sight of the opportunity he had as an education. Al Avila was the first in the family to graduate from college, with a degree from St. Thomas University in Florida. A chance at an education at Alabama was a new pinnacle for the family.
"I can't tell you how many times in college, where I got a bad grade or something like that, and I'd get a phone call from him," Alex said, "and he'd get into me reiterating that you have an opportunity here. You're in college to get an education. Baseball's great, but at that point growing up and going to college, school always came first."
The growth Al Avila saw in his son after three years was tremendous -- not just as a player, but as a person. The Tigers took notice, and basically against Al's recommendation, drafted Alex in the fifth round two years ago. His work never stopped, and it led him to an opportunity in the big leagues barely a year after his pro career began.
All the work, all the extra swings in the cage, led to father and son both calling Comerica Park their workplace. Al Avila can look at his son now and see a Major Leaguer, potentially the answer to the Tigers' perpetual search for a young franchise catcher. But more important, he can see an incredible kid.
He didn't try to drive him to this, but he's proud to see what he has done with it.
"In my career, I was away a lot," Al Avila said. "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."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.