Well-rounded Avila defined by formative years

December 11th, 2017

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Long before Al Avila ever dreamed of becoming a Major League general manager, he was an assistant baseball coach at tiny St. Thomas University in Miami. He was working under Paul Mainieri, who went on to earn national honors coaching at Notre Dame and LSU, and he was completing his education in one of the nation's few sports administration programs at the time.
At first, the job was a volunteer position. After Avila graduated and spent a brief stint as a Minor League GM, he returned to St. Thomas and became a paid assistant coach, but had to wear a few more hats, helping coach the women's cross-country and tennis teams.
"Those three jobs allowed the $18,000 salary," Avila said with a chuckle, "not to mention [being] the field manager and all that stuff. That was kind of the start."
In a sport where GMs are trending younger and front offices are increasingly filled with Ivy League graduates, Avila is an exception. His journey to Tigers GM took nearly three decades, but as he spoke Monday to a group of aspiring young Latino professionals pursuing careers in baseball at the Winter Meetings, he told them not to be so preoccupied with the destination job that they miss the value of the journey.
"No matter if you want to go through one path, if life takes you somewhere different, you use that to your gain," Avila said, "because it's going to help you along the way somewhere else. That's what happened to me, working in the Minor Leagues as a general manager, working with women's sports and trying to pursue your baseball career. It all helped put together enough experience."
Though Avila's family name is baseball royalty -- his father Ralph pioneered player development in the Dominican Republic -- Al Avila had to forge his own path. He was in his 30s when he finally broke into a Major League front office with the upstart Florida Marlins. He had succeeded Mainieri as head coach at St. Thomas, added athletic director to his duties, managed a foundation for Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula to provide scholarships for deserving students at St. Thomas, and worked with Team USA to form and manage a team against national squads from Central America in a tournament in Nicaragua.
The administrative work, as well as his work coaching women's cross-country and tennis, helped him learn how to budget. The work with Shula's foundation helped forge connections that led to then-Marlins and Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga. The international work opened the door for a Latin American operations job with the Marlins in 1992.
"Those connections helped me quite a bit," Avila said. "But one of the things that helped me the most was [as a student] at the university, one of my big assignments was to start a brand new franchise in baseball. It was a semester-long project, and I really went all out to the point where it really helped me in the interview process when the Marlins were an expansion franchise."
Avila received a B for the project, he said, but he aced the interview. A quarter-century later, that experience still helps him today. Yet as the industry evolves, Avila said, the learning process goes on.
"That's the name of the game: You have to be able to make adjustments and learn," Avila said. "You always have to keep on learning new things. You can't just say, 'This is the way we've always done it.' You have to keep up with what's happening and evolve with the times, and you have to learn a new way of doing things."
That led to Avila's embrace of analytics once he took over as Tigers GM in 2015. They're still catching up with other organizations, but they're rapidly expanding. At the same time, Avila has expanded and evolved the Tigers' scouting department, adding personnel while shifting experienced scouts to areas where he feels they can be most productive.
"Latin America is kind of one of the last frontiers where a pure scout, a talent evaluator, can still make an impact on your organization," Avila said. "The players are 16, 17 years old. There's not a history with them. From an analytics point of view, it's really hard to have an opinion. You don't have [tools] to figure out spin rates. You have to make sure you have talented scouts there."
Avila said he wants an analytics department that can compete with the Astros, Dodgers and Yankees. Yet he also wants a scout's opinion.
"You need to work with both sides in order to have a successful organization," he said.
That's the value of a well-rounded background. But for Avila, currently MLB's lone Latino GM, it wasn't an end goal.
"When I started in baseball, I never really wanted to be a general manager," Avila said. "I never set out to be a general manager. All I wanted to do was basically work in baseball. And quite frankly, at the beginning of my career, I enjoyed the coaching part. These are things that just kind of evolved for me.
"In today's world, everybody says, 'Map out your plan, step by step, a five-year or 10-year plan.' What I did was: Where I was that day, I tried to do the best job I could so that whenever I left there, they could say, 'That guy was really good.'"