During his tenure as Tigers general manager, Al Avila has called many players to tell them that they had been traded.
For one of them, he had a special message.
“At the end of the call he was the one guy where I said, “I love you,'” Avila said with a hearty laugh.
That’s because the player he had reached on the phone soon after the Tigers had landed in New York on the eve of the July 31 trade deadline to tell him he was headed to the Cubs was his son, Alex.
Baseball always has been in Alex Avila’s blood. In addition to playing for his father for seven years with the Tigers, his grandfather, Ralph, was in the Dodgers organization for nearly 50 years and formed strong bonds with a couple of legendary figures in the organization, Al Campanis and Tommy Lasorda.
Alex Avila’s birth certificate reads: Alexander Thomas Avila.
Al and Tommy.
“My grandfather knew Tommy for decades working for the Dodgers as well as Al Campanis,” Alex, 30, said. “Their friendship spilled over into a family friendship and as a kid I remember going to Vero Beach every spring training.
“My whole family, our lives have revolved around baseball,” Alex added. “I grew up on a baseball field. That’s the way it was and is now. … Everything that had come up to this point as far as being traded has kind of prepared me for that because me and my dad and our family, we understand it’s just part of the game.”
“Alex grew up basically in the business,” Al Avila said. “He was pretty much school and baseball, that’s it.”
That education, which included a standout career at the University of Alabama that led to the Tigers selecting him in the fifth round (163rd overall) of the 2008 draft, is a key asset as the Cubs seek to repeat. When starting catcher Willson Contreras was injured shortly after the trade deadline, Avila kept the Cubs and their pitching staff afloat.
“There were actually about four clubs other than the Cubs that were interested in Alex but at the end, it was the best fit there because they did have the need for him,” Al Avila said. “I know that they did their due diligence. … That’s what you’re supposed to do. I feel good about it.”
So do the Cubs, who snagged a player who appeared in eight postseason series with the Tigers for 2011-14, including the ’12 World Series.
“The experience matters,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Alex having been there before and just watching him up to this point, he’s totally invested and he’s really bright and he does follow the game plan well.”
Alex Avila also knows about calling games for some of the top pitchers in baseball, working with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer for the Tigers. With Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, John Lackey and Jon Lester in the rotation, Avila believes the Cubs have the right pitching mix.
“You can look at any winning team and you’re going to see a few horses … guys who can really take charge of a game and give the bullpen a rest,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to catch a lot of very good pitchers so I know what that guy looks like and we have a few of them.”
The stint with the Cubs is Avila’s second time with a Chicago baseball team; he spent the 2016 season with the White Sox before re-signing with the Tigers in the offseason. He said he has fond memories of his time on the South Side.
“They are good people there,” Avila said. “I really enjoyed playing for Robin (Ventura). He was tremendous. I think (Rick) Renteria there is great. I loved working with him last year as the bench coach. I think he’s going to do really well there.”
Avila and his immediate family, which includes young daughters Avery and Zoey, again are enjoying everything Chicago has to offer, including the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier.
“My kids were there quite often last year,” Avila said. “(And) I really try to take advantage of the many great restaurants here. That’s what my wife, (Kristina), and I like to do on off-days.”
The Avilas spend the winter months in South Florida where Alex enjoys offshore fishing and “stuff that revolves around the kids — they have a lot of activities that we’re taking them to.”
“The last couple of years I haven’t had the opportunity to play meaningful games at the end of the season,” he said. “This is exciting.”