The natural temptation was to bail out.
The slider from Joe Nathan is a pitch that makes right-handed hitters weep, that looks like it will do them harm before sweeping back over the plate and clipping the outside corner. But Mike Aviles is not into bailing out at the first glimpse of adversity.
And so, he fought the feeling of gelatinousness in his legs, stayed on the full-count pitch and flipped the slider just over the head of Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus and into shallow left field for the game-winning hit in the Red Sox’ 2-1 win.
It was another moment in the highlight reel of Aviles’ career-long defiance of probability, and of his resistance to a different and more far-reaching instinct to bail out. It was just four years ago, after all, that the Red Sox’ starting shortstop was asking himself whether he could stay in the game.
At that stage, Aviles was in the sixth season of a professional career that got underway with few expectations and even less money. He was taken in the seventh round of the 2003 draft by the Royals out of Concordia College in New York, and truthfully, he was selected in no small part because the Royals knew that, as a college senior, they could sign him for next to nothing. To say that they envisioned him as a future big leaguer at that time would be revisionist history.
He had been passed over in the draft time and again. Not one organization had deemed him worthy of a draft pick prior to that, even though he’d been a tremendous performer against his competition in college, winning Division 2 Player of the Year honors as a senior, when he hit .500 with 22 homers at Concordia. It wasn’t exactly the SEC, but Aviles knew he could play, and so when given the opportunity to do so by the Royals, he wasn’t going to back away.
Aviles had no leverage in his negotiations with Kansas City. There was just a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a $1,000 bonus and a plane ticket to play for a minor league affiliate. Aviles wanted to pursue the dream of pro ball, so it was a no-brainer for him to accept it.
“You have everything to gain and that's how I felt when I got drafted. I got a thousand bucks,” he said. “I had everything to gain. If I failed, it didn't matter. Nobody was going to lose their job if I failed. Not one scout, not one front-office guy. But if I succeed, I look good, front office looks good and those kinds of things.
“You persevered through four years of college without getting drafted,” he continued. “You go out there and you're like, 'I want to prove I belong with these guys.' For the most part, that's how I felt. Every day I stepped on the field I was like, I want to prove that -- OK that guy signed for $3 million, good. I want to prove that I can play right there alongside with him and I can move up the ladder, too, and I can play in the big leagues as well.”
But even though he’d performed well in his minor league career, hitting for average and a little bit of pop coming up in the system while moving steadily up in the Royals system, in 2008 -- about five years after being drafted -- he stared at a career crossroads.
Aviles was a 27-year-old father who was making next to nothing. Unlike early-round draftees who get bonuses of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, he had been able to put just $1,000 in his bank account when he started his pro career. He was making $2,500 a month to play baseball, and he’d reached the point where he wondered whether he could continue in his chosen profession.
“In 2008, pretty much in my head it would probably be my last time playing baseball,” recalled Aviles. “I remember telling my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, I said, 'You know, this is going to be my last year.' And she's like, 'Why? You're still young, you're still doing well,' she's like, 'You know you can play.' I said, 'Yeah, but financially I can't do this anymore. I'm racking up credit card debt on my two credit cards. I can't afford to do it anymore.’
“I'm supporting myself, my daughter, you know, my wife who was working at the time but still it's nothing. At that time I'm like, 'I can get a regular job and make more than this.' And you know you just get to that point where it's frustrating because you see, you see how close you are to the big leagues. You're in Triple-A, you're doing well, and you know you can play in the big leagues but you just need that chance, you just can't get it.”
Aviles made a bit more money in the offseason by playing winter ball and, when not doing so, working at various jobs that allowed him to take on debt during the season. His then-girlfriend also had a job, but still, the minor leagues hardly offered him a path to financial stability.
But in 2008, Aviles had his breakthrough. At 27, he hit .336 with a .370 OBP, .631 slugging mark and 1.001 OPS for Triple-A Omaha. The Royals were getting no production at shortstop, and so at the end of May, Aviles got called up. He made the most of the opportunity, hitting .325/.354/.480/.833 with 10 homers and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
He was a big leaguer. Suddenly, he had financial security. He could take care of his family while still living his career dream. His girlfriend made him take stock of the development following that season.
“At the end of the year she was like, 'Are you still thinking about not playing anymore?' ” he chuckled. “No. Now I'm thinking about putting it in sixth gear and going forward. I'm not looking back. It's just how things are. Sometimes one phone call can just change you life. I know for me in 2008 that one phone call early in the morning changed my life. I'm glad it did, because I like this game. This game, I would play it for free. The thing about it is, at that point I was going to go home, get a real job and then play rec ball on the weekends because that's what I love to do. It just worked out well. I was able to play the sport I love.”
He continues to do it, and he continues to defy skeptics along the way. He’s been the everyday Red Sox shortstop for nearly two-thirds of the season, and he’s played at a level that has exceeded expectations.
A player whose glove was viewed with considerable doubt entering spring training has been an above-average defensive shortsop. Offensively, while his on-base percentage (.283) has left something to be desired, he's nonetheless delivered in the most meaningful situations throughout the year. His .260/.283/.407/.690 line (with 10 homers) has netted 51 RBIs, thanks to a .337 average and .897 OPS with runners in scoring position.
He will not be confused for a superstar, but there will also be no mistaking the fact that he has established himself -- despite his inauspicious origins in pro baseball -- as a legitimate big leaguer. That, in turn, means that he no longer has to fret about his family's future.
This offseason, he was eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, resulting in a $1.2 million salary for this season. For the Sox, that represents a tremendous bargain for a player who has been an everyday shortstop. For Aviles, it means that, at the end of this season, he likely will be secure in the idea that his three daughters (he has 1-year-old twins now in addition to his older daughter) will have money set aside for college.
While that financial security is meaningful, however, Aviles still approaches his profession in the same way he did when he took that first $1,000 bonus check. His enthusiasm for being in the game remains palpable, as does his determination to maximize his talents to be the best player possible.
"I don't think there's any amount of money that's going to change the way I play because of how much I love this game," he said. "I play the game with a certain passion. I don't really care how much money I'm being paid for it."
And on nights like Tuesday, he enjoys the fruits of his labors and struggles, getting to bask in the on-field glory from which he was once prepared to walk away. There is satisfaction in the accomplishment.
“You can't scout a person's heart or determination. I've always said that,” Aviles said. “You can scout tools. There are some people that have all the tools in the world. Sometimes just, heart's not always in there and determination just isn't there when it needs to be to get to the big leagues.
“The top prospect that signed for $4 million and gets to the big leagues, good for him. Happy for him. You should get to the big leagues. You got $4 million. Somebody thought you were a big league player,” Aviles said. “The guy that signed for nothing or got a plane ticket, gets to the big league, I like those guys. Because it shows you persevered through everything, you probably were skipped over by prospects on top of prospects and you still were around, doing what you needed to do to finally get that chance.”
It is one thing to get the chance, and another to make the most of it. And Aviles -- for whom the Red Sox traded in a little-noticed move almost exactly a year ago -- continues to do the latter.