Detroit – Alex Avila knew toward the end of last season the odds were long against him returning to the Tigers in 2016. He was going to be a free agent. And coming back to the Tigers meant playing a backup role to catcher James McCann. Not yet 30 years old, he wasn’t ready to give up on playing every day.
Still, it was an emotional moment last week when he signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Chicago White Sox, officially cutting the cord with the Tigers, the only organization he’s ever known, one currently being run by his father.
“It was mixed emotions,” he said in a teleconference Monday. “I wouldn’t say sad. But when you come to realize that something you’ve known for a real long time is not going to be the case anymore, especially with all the success we had as a team, it’s tough.
“At the same time, there’s a lot of excitement now with a new opportunity. I am excited about something new coming into my life – new place, new teammates, new opportunity. There is a motivating factor, for sure.”
Avila, a left-handed hitting, veteran catcher with a sterling reputation as a leader and handler of pitchers, had plenty of suitors. But his eye was on Chicago right from the start.
“I thought Chicago might be a good fit,” he said. “One of the things that was important to me was the opportunity to play, as opposed to being a straight, backup catcher. Through our conversations and going through the process, it seemed like that opportunity would be there.”
The plan going in for the White Sox will be for Avila to platoon with right-handed hitting Tyler Flowers.
“As much I would have loved to come back to Detroit,” Avila said, “a baseball player wants to play. He doesn’t want to sit on the bench. Coming off the knee injury last year and being healthy again, I still thought I could find an opportunity and produce at a level where I can play more regularly.”
Staying in the Central Division, Avila said, was also a plus.
“I think that will work to my advantage,” he said. “It will be interesting for sure facing the Tigers again and going to Detroit with all the friends and relationships I have there. It will be interesting and it will be a lot of fun. Seven years is a long time in this game to be in one place – a lot of relationships, and it will be nice to see them off the field.
“But at the same time, I can’t wait to kick their butts.”
The Tigers hadn’t yet pursued re-signing Avila. General manager Al Avila made it clear that his son would most likely get a better opportunity elsewhere. And Alex didn’t take it personal.
“It was a great thing that we got to spend seven years together and have the success we had,” Alex said. “I wish it could have gone on longer. But the decision of me not going back to Detroit or them not pursuing me had nothing to do with our relationship as father and son.
“We handled it like we did every year. It’s about the team. It’s a business decision. It has no effect on our relationship. It’s just the way the game works and the way the business works.”
When the issue of nepotism was raised during the teleconference, Avila bristled.
“Even if I were to sign with the Tigers, after seven years as a Major League ballplayer, the people who would look at that as nepotism probably shouldn’t be covering baseball,” he said. “When that (nepotism) comes up, it kind of bothers me. Like, do you really think that Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski would put their jobs on the line to bring me up in the middle of a pennant race seven years ago just to please my dad?
“To me, it never made sense. And it showed this offseason. If my dad thinks the team is better off without me, I am not going to be on the team.”
Avila said being in the same organization with his father was never awkward on the baseball side.
“The tough part for him and myself, especially last year, was when we were playing poorly and the stress of the job for both of us was high,” he said. “There were a lot of things we couldn’t talk about because we never crossed that line. We were very professional with each of our jobs and we never came anywhere near crossing that line.”
All things considered, Avila said, being able to spend the first seven years of his career in the same organization as his father was a blessing.
“He got to see me play every day in the big leagues,” Avila said. “What dad wouldn’t want to do that with his son?”