Sunday, August 28, 2011

Avila's Toughness Surpassed Only By His Production

They say that Ray Fosse was never the same, after being run over by the freight train that was Pete Rose. It’s difficult to argue with that notion, because a look at Fosse’s numbers before and after the collision in the 1970 All-Star Game provides a stark comparison.

Fosse was a 23-year-old catcher for the Cleveland Indians when Rose of the hometown Cincinnati Reds motored home with the potential game-winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning, trying to score from second base on a single by the Cubs’ Jim Hickman.

Rose and the baseball thrown by Kansas City’s Amos Otis arrived at home plate at approximately the same time. This was the All-Star Game, not Game 7 of the World Series. Yet you couldn’t tell the difference, the way Rose drove into Fosse like a football lineman into a tackling sled.

Fosse was knocked practically into the first base dugout. His catcher’s mitt spun out of his hand like a Frisbee, the baseball bouncing harmlessly away.

And Rose scored the winning run, in front of his Cincinnati public.

Fosse writhed in pain, his shoulder on fire.

But true to the catcher’s code of toughness, Fosse was back in the Indians’ lineup when they resumed play two nights later. And he continued to play, right through to the end of the season, maintaining his .300+ batting average.

It looked like Fosse would survive Rose’s Charlie Hustle play, after all.

But in 1971, Fosse hit .276. In 1972, he hit .241. In 1974, .196. In 1975, .140.

Fosse didn’t survive Rose, as it turned out.

Pete Rose has, maybe unfairly, been blamed for ruining Ray Fosse’s career, with a baseball play that would have made the Gashouse Gang Cardinals teams of the 1930s proud. That Rose made the play in a meaningless exhibition game has been a sore subject with some folks, including Fosse.

Home plate has been the scene of some of baseball’s most notorious wrecks.

There was the famous “snooze” by Cincinnati’s Ernie Lombardi, who was knocked senseless in the 10th inning of Game 4 of the 1939 World Series by the Yankees’ King Kong Keller. As Lombardi fought unconsciousness, Joe DiMaggio scooted all the way around the bases, the baseball just a few feet away. The play was the key part of a three-run rally that gave the Yanks the World Series in four games.

Or how about the Cardinals’ Lou Brock trying to score without sliding in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium? Willie Horton nailed Brock at the plate, when Lou tried to run over Bill Freehan with no success. The play turned the Series around for the Tigers.

Today’s players are bigger and stronger than ever before, and the collisions at home plate are becoming more and more horrific. The catchers usually come out on the losing end.

If spectacular crashes are what you seek in baseball, be it ever so humble—there’s no place like home.

San Francisco catcher Buster Posey was lost for the season after he was turned into a crash test dummy back in May, his ankle mangled gruesomely.

The Tigers have a catcher who has been collided with, foul tipped into and used as a human backboard on an almost daily basis.

Watching Alex Avila toil behind the plate for the Tigers this season has been Chuck Wepner vs. Muhammad Ali—and Avila is most certainly Wepner.

You look at Avila getting run into by base runners, you see him take one foul tip after the other—even in the neck last week—and you watch him flop around and butterfly like Dominik Hasek as he fights off errant pitches, and you ask, “How much can this guy take?”

Which is exactly what we all screamed at the TV the night Ali pounded Wepner for 15 rounds in 1975.

These are the so-called “dog days” of the baseball season: late-August—deep into the schedule but not close enough to the end of the season to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This is the time of the year when the heat and humidity have been searing and steaming catchers for weeks like veggies in a boil-in bag on the stove.

Its the time when the catcher is supposed to be wearing down a little bit.

No less than Freehan, perhaps the greatest Tigers catcher of them all, used to point to this time of the year as when he’d start to feel his energy being “sapped.”

So what’s with this Alex Avila, whose perpetual 5:00 shadow makes him look like Bluto from the Popeye cartoons?

Avila recently started 18 straight games for the Tigers, a streak that ended on Thursday. No catcher starts 18 straight games anymore. No catcher starts eight straight—at least not as a rule.

Avila’s “mini me” impersonation of Lou Gehrig has been born out of necessity. Avila catches because no one else on the Tigers roster can, frankly.

Victor Martinez, the more-DH-than-he-is-catcher who the Tigers signed as a free agent last winter, has been anchored to the DH role lately because of a bad knee.

Don Kelly is listed as the team’s emergency catcher. If that sounds like a punch line, I understand.

Brandon Inge is back with the Tigers after his one-month exile to Toledo, giving manager Jim Leyland another option, but Inge hates catching and squatting repeatedly is probably not good for his surgically-repaired knees (yes, plural).

So that leaves Avila, and not only did he catch 18 straight games, he—get this—seems to be getting stronger as the dog days move along.

What Avila has done in August is strap on his gear—the “tools of ignorance” as the great Bill Dickey called it—everyday, and subject himself to more physical abuse than any Three Stooge not named Moe. All while smacking the baseball around at a .450-ish clip for the month.

This after a bad July that saw Avila register just one measly RBI. Ironically, the month included Avila’s first-ever All-Star Game appearance.

It was during July, when Avila’s batting average had sunk about 30 points from its .300+ level, that I thought the young man was hitting the proverbial “wall.” Avila is only 24 years old but catching can age you faster than being the President of the United States.

Then Leyland had no choice but to play Avila because Martinez’s knee went pop.

Leyland penciled Avila in for those 18 straight games and not only did Alex not tire, his bat became as scorching as the temperature.

Quite a turnaround from Opening Day in New York, when after just one game talk radio was filled with blowhards accusing the Tigers of nepotism, among other vitriol, because of Avila’s status as the son of assistant GM Al Avila.

The blowhards wanted to run Alex Avila out of town after one lousy game—admittedly not one of his best performances but still a typical Detroit sports fan overreaction.

I wonder, don’t you—how do they like him now?


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