FORT MYERS, FLA. -- This could be the story of a fisherman, a dignified man of Cuban descent who has been around a long time, one who has experienced a terrible run of misfortune but who is confident things will be changing soon. A fisherman who one day hooked the biggest prey of his life, fought it for hours and hours, feared he had lost it more than once, but who finally landed the huge, almost allegorical creature.
But nah. That story has already been told, and brilliantly. This one is about baseball.
“I love fishing, and [catching a 586-pound swordfish] was a thrill, a great day. Nothing like it,” old man Alex Avila said of the sea. “But I’d rather win a baseball game.”
He hopes he’s come to the right place. After an 11-year career frequently interrupted by injury and still tinged by postseason disappointment, Avila, 33, signed with the Twins in December for a reason that Hemingway could surely appreciate. “At this point of my career, it’s just about winning, about having a chance to make the playoffs and the World Series,” he said. “That’s one of [my] biggest regrets, not being able to win one” with the Tigers earlier this decade.
The Twins had an opening for a catcher to back up starter Mitch Garver when Jason Castro’s contract expired last fall, and they quickly zeroed in on Avila, son of Tigers General Manager Al Avila, grandson of former Dodgers executive Ralph Avila. Not that his connections had anything to do with it, not directly.
“His makeup and his reputation are very strong, and I imagine that has a lot to do with growing up in the game with his dad and his grandfather,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said. “But we signed Alex for a number of important reasons. We were looking for a lefthanded complement to Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo at the plate. We wanted someone whose traditional defensive tools are strong, and who rates well under modern measurements. And we wanted someone with a willingness to work with young catchers, who brings added value as a mentor. And Alex fit all of those.”
Avila has been in the majors for 11 seasons and spent most of them catching Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and David Price for his dad’s Tigers, a quartet that has won seven Cy Young Awards — but never a championship in Detroit. He’s been an All-Star once but has never been known for his bat, though his mastery of the strike zone allows him to walk far more than most players and has earned him an impressive .348 career on-base percentage.
But Avila takes pride in how he’s learned pitch framing, and in being able to block balls in the dirt and throw out baserunners. He foiled 11 of 21 attempted steals last season with the Diamondbacks, a success rate that looks pretty good to a Twins team that hasn’t caught even 30 percent for the past six seasons.
“One thing about catching is, I always felt like you can directly impact the pitcher just with your mentality back there,” Avila said. “A pitcher should have confidence I’m going to block everything in the dirt, so he can throw a pitch down there. Why take a pitch away from my guy? I’ve got to do my job so he can do his.”
That approach has gotten Avila noticed just a week into camp.
“He’s great to have around. He’s really experienced, has some different views on receiving and in how you present the ball that are really interesting,” said Bill Evers, the Twins’ coach in charge of the catchers. “Each pitcher is different, and he catches each of them in a different way. If you can adjust to each pitcher, make them comfortable, make them be themselves, that’s what’s best.”
Avila occupies Joe Mauer’s old locker in the Twins’ spring clubhouse, a coincidence that seems a bit ironic given his own history of foul-tip concussions. Avila had a reputation for toughness in Detroit, born of a series of head injuries that he feared might shorten his career. But Avila said he hasn’t suffered a concussion since 2014.
“Changed my helmet, that was the main thing, to a more protective model,” Avila said. “And I made some changes to my catching stance, to where I set up, that’s cut down on the number of times I’m in harm’s way.”
“There’s no doubt he’s tough,” Levine said. “He’s a competitor.”
He proved it two days after Christmas in 2016, when he and six friends and family members set out on his boat from Fort Lauderdale, where he lives, on a gorgeous, calm day. They drove about 25 miles off the coast and dropped a heavily weighted bait into 1,800 feet of water. So began one of the great battles of Avila’s life.
“I’ve fished all my life. I’ve caught all kinds of fish. But that day, we hooked into this swordfish, probably one of the biggest thrills you can have on the water,” said Avila, who has had nothing but near-misses with swordfish, before or since. “It took us about 3 ½ hours to land him. He dragged us about 10 miles from where we hooked him to where we finally brought him in. And there were probably six different times when I thought we were losing him.”
Even after they harpooned the fish and finally killed it, it was a monumental task for the group to get the 13-foot-long carcass onto his boat. “The sword of the fish was sticking out one side and the tail was sticking out the other,” said Avila, who competes in fishing tournaments with that same group of friends each winter. “There were a couple of times where we were taking in water trying to get him in, because he was so heavy.”
He was 586.5 pounds, to be exact, so big it couldn’t be lifted onto the dock. Avila had it filleted on his boat, producing nearly three freezers full of huge swordfish steaks.
“It was a battle, and it was fun,” Avila said. “But fishing is just a hobby. I’m OK if I don’t catch anything. Baseball, though — I want to win.”