Catching Up With MLB All-Star Alex Avila
Young Cuban-American player relates accounts of physical and spiritual revivals in the context of the communion of saints.
At only 25, Alex Avila is already making his mark in the professional baseball world. The starting catcher for the Detroit Tigers played in the 2011 All-Star Game, and, later in the postseason, his team made it to the American League Championship Series.
This near miss of a World Series Championship came not too many years after Avila had indicated such a possibility to his father, Al, who is vice president and assistant general manager of the Tigers.
Al Avila was telling his son, who was in high school at the time, that he did not care whether he played baseball. He simply wanted him to be happy and would support him in whatever field he chose. His son chose the baseball field, and, today, both of them are content with that decision.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie threw some questions to Alex Avila in anticipation of the 2012 All-Star Game, which takes place July 10 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
What was it like to start the 2011 All-Star Game?
It was one of the best experiences of my career so far. You have the best hitters and best pitchers out there going against each other, so it’s a special thing. It’s already special to be playing among the best players around on a day-to-day basis, but in the All-Star Game, you find the best of the best. It’s taken to another level.
It was also somewhat of a break for me and my four Tigers teammates who made it to the game, which took place in Phoenix last year, as well. We had played 37 games in 38 days previous to the All-Star break, so it was somewhat relaxing to play in a different sort of game. Even though we had to travel to get there, it broke up the routine we were used to.
What was even more enjoyable than the game, however, was just being with the other guys in the clubhouse. We would swap stories and interact together, not only to prepare for the game, but for the sake of the camaraderie itself. It was good to be there.
Another place it was good to be at was the American League Championship Series last year. What do you remember from that experience?
That was a lot of fun as well. We got very close to winning it all last year, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my father when I was in high school. It was getting around the time when I was really showing some promise and had the possibility of playing professionally. My father didn’t want me to think that because he and his father were so involved with pro ball that I had to be as well. He sat me down and explained that he didn’t care whether I played baseball or not, that he would support me in whatever I decided to do.
My father never pressured me into playing. In fact, it could be said that I pressured him into playing. Whenever the time came for some kind of break, he would always want to go fishing, which is common in south Florida, where we lived, but I would always want to go to the batting cage or do long toss. This was in addition to the countless other times I would be playing baseball in games and practices. It was just something I always enjoyed doing.
But back to the ALCS. In that high-school conversation, I said to my father that baseball really was what I wanted to do and that, who knows, maybe one day he and I would be with the same team and win a World Series together. That almost happened last year, so if we both stay healthy, it could all come together.
It can be tough to stay healthy as a catcher, which is a demanding position. Do you ever plan on changing to another position?
No, not at all. Getting a little beaten up comes with the territory, but there are too many good things about being a catcher to change to another position. You’re actively part of planning and implementing the game plan, and you get to be involved in every play.
Calling a good game brings me more satisfaction than hitting a home run. It’s more of a comprehensive, all-encompassing, quality experience than one great hit. It’s connecting and working with the team, but especially the pitcher, in a unique way.
I’ve been blessed to catch some great pitching performances already in my short career. I caught Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game in 2010. Last season, I caught [American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner] Justin Verlander’s no-hitter, which was in addition to his other near no-hitters.
People ask me if it’s difficult or stressful in situations like that, with the pitcher doing an unbelievable job. They think maybe there’s more pressure, but that’s not the case at all. When the pitcher is playing well, it’s much easier. Everything just works. It just falls together almost effortlessly.
When a game or life in general is not effortless, do you find strength in your Catholic faith?
Absolutely. One of the toughest times in my life was when our family moved from south Florida to Detroit. My father had worked for the Florida Marlins as their vice president and assistant general manager, a position he now holds with the Detroit Tigers. I was a sophomore in high school, and that time of life can be full of adjustments already. Adding a move to another state, another climate and almost another way of life, was difficult.
The underlying theme with our family, however, was the importance of our Catholic faith. Just like Jesus himself, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, as it says in Hebrews 13:8, the Catholic faith he taught us remains the same. He is one with his teaching. No matter where you are in the world, that doesn’t change.
Baseball is a great way to connect with people, but sharing the same religious beliefs is an even deeper connection. Not that the two have to be separated, as they really aren’t in our family.
Some of your baseball-faith connections involve Tommy Lasorda, right?
My paternal grandfather was vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers when Tommy Lasorda was still managing the team, and even a little beyond that. This is how our family came to know Tommy, who is actually my godfather, and his name, Thomas, after St. Thomas Aquinas, is my middle name.
There are so many stories that come to mind about Tommy and my grandfather, who are still both working for the Dodgers today, but in more limited capacities. They would go somewhere to eat lunch, and they’d start bantering about baseball. It might begin at 12:30 and sometimes wouldn’t end until 9:30 that night. They’d really get into baseball and end up making a day out of it. You get those two in a room — and watch out.
Both of my grandfathers actually fled from Cuba during the Communist Revolution in the 1950s, so it’s not surprising that they share in Tommy’s conservative political outlook. When your own government won’t allow you to participate in the most basic freedoms — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to own private property — then you want to come to a country where such things are allowed. We take those freedoms for granted, but they aren’t automatic anywhere, even here, unless we work to preserve them.
If my grandfathers hadn’t escaped from Cuba, they may not have survived, and the same is true with my parents, who were very young at the time. That would obviously leave me out of the picture. You have to praise the Lord for the gift of life.
Even before my paternal grandfather’s escape, he had an amazing story of survival or, you could say, revival. According to the doctors, he was supposed to be stillborn. They said he had already died in his mother’s womb. His father, my great-grandfather, was beside himself and asked St. Barbara (Santa Barbara) to intercede for him on behalf of his wife and son.
His son, my grandfather, was born dead, as the doctors had indicated. However, neither the doctors nor my great-grandfather gave up, and, despite the fact that my grandfather was showing no signs of life for about five minutes outside the womb, he came back to life. They revived him or St. Barbara revived him — however you want to say it.
Ever since that time, even up until today, our family has had a special appreciation and veneration for St. Barbara. Every year on her feast day, Dec. 4, we gather for a family reunion and celebration. We celebrate that day and conclude at night with the singing of prayers to God in thanksgiving for the intercession of St. Barbara, through whom he has worked a miracle. It’s something that my wife and I will continue to do.
Aside from the intercession of St. Barbara, what do you appreciate most about the Catholic Church?
One of the best things, maybe the best thing, is the sacrament of reconciliation. We just talked about a physical revival, but in this sacrament, there are spiritual revivals. Sinners are brought back to life. Bringing sinners back into his friendship is the main reason Jesus came to earth, so participating in that beautiful reality is something we are privileged to do as Catholics.
It can be easy to take this sacrament for granted, but we really shouldn’t. It’s available to everyone, but it’s not taken advantage of. As they say, the lines to Communion on Sunday are long, but the lines to confession on Saturday are short.
We come up with all kinds of excuses for not going to reconciliation, but those excuses are basically a cover for the decision we’ve already made not to go. It’s a shame, because there is no sin, however great, that cannot be forgiven through the ministry of the priest. To think otherwise is a strange sort of pride, because then you think that your misdeeds are greater than God’s love and mercy.
Confession of sin and reconciliation to God is in the New Testament, especially near the end of St. John’s Gospel, but it’s also indicated in the Old Testament. Psalm 32 is an example of that. It describes how, before sin is confessed, we become weak and believe that life is very difficult. “Because I kept silent, my bones wasted away.” Then it describes how, once sin is confessed, guilt is removed: “Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide … and you took away the guilt of my sin.” The Psalm ends on a high note, talking of how mercy surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord and that we should rejoice in the Lord.
This points toward the superabundant grace of the New Testament priesthood, through which we can have any sin forgiven. God and the rest of heaven want this more than we want it here below. St. Barbara, St. Thomas Aquinas and all the other saints rejoice in heaven over our return to God. This is what Jesus referred to when he said that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous men who have no need of repentance. It’s not just a matter of a two-part relationship of me and God, but a real communion of saints. We’re the living, breathing, mystical body of Christ.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.