By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
9:06 PM EDT, March 13, 2012
Luis Ayala said he has never thought about giving up baseball, never imagined doing something else.
Could anyone blame the 34-year-old, though, if he did consider just saying enough is enough?
Like maybe back when he was a scared kid who went from the Mexican League to the majors in one year and fought not just one but two language barriers.
Or how about when he was so excited to play for Mexico in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, only to tear an elbow ligament during the tournament, putting his career in jeopardy?
That was nothing compared to when his life — and his family's future — was at stake in January 2010, when rifle-wielding bandits burst into his house in Mexico and held him at gunpoint for 40 minutes in what apparently was a case of mistaken identity.
The Orioles' new sinkerballing reliever has had to deal with an inordinate number of curveballs — in baseball and in life. And he keeps beating the odds, keeps coming back.
"When you have a lot of bad things happen, you can't always focus every day," said Ayala, who signed a one-year, $925,000 deal with the Orioles this offseason with a $1 million option for 2013. "Everything has happened, from 2006 to 2010. Sometimes you've got to put things away, out of your mind."
Ayala didn't do that in 2010; he couldn't get past his home invasion. He had driven several hours from a game in the Mexican Winter League to his home in Los Mochis, Mexico, because his son was ill and he wanted to be there for the next day's appointment. It was late at night near his hometown when he noticed a car following him for miles; it passed by slowly when he arrived at his house.
About an hour later, a group of men with AK-47 assault rifles burst into his home. He had time to call the police from a cell phone before Ayala, his wife and his sick baby son were held captive by what were at least 25 men.
Reports on the incident differ slightly. An Associated Press news story said the group targeted Ayala but fled when police came. But Ayala said at the time that the outlaws, probably associated with a drug cartel, thought he was someone else and left before the cops came.
"They confused me with another guy, but they trashed my house," Ayala said Tuesday.
He is crystal clear about the impact the incident had on him, the fear emanating when he thought that he and his family might die.
"It was the worst, because you never know what will happen, what they would do," Ayala said. "It was something that was in my mind that whole year."
He bounced around to three organizations in 2010, all at Triple-A, and posted a 6.42 combined ERA in 36 games. It was the first time since his contract was purchased from the Mexican League in 2002 that he had spent time in the minors in a season without getting a call-up. It would have been an understandable time to retire.
"I remember in 2010, when I went to Triple-A and I was like, 'Wow.' It was hard for me because I had played mostly in the big leagues," Ayala said. "And I was like, 'What is going on? I've got to do better. What can I do? I focused and worked hard and went day by day, and I had to keep in mind that I can do it."
He agreed to a minor league deal with the New York Yankees after that season and appeared to be spring training depth last March, not much more. But he made the team, and excelled, posting a 2.09 ERA — his lowest as a big leaguer — in 52 games.
His nasty sinkerball returned. And with it came confidence. And then success.
The Orioles signed him in February to be another solid arm in the bullpen, and he is a lock to make the club despite having appeared in only two exhibition games (one earned run allowed in two innings), partially because he has been dealing with extreme allergies this spring.
He was also signed to be a positive influence on the club's young cadre of pitchers.
"You look back through the road he has traveled," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, "there's not a lot that is going to happen that he's not going to be able to say, 'Been there, done that.'"
Showalter said Ayala has made a point of talking to the younger players, but he doesn't just regurgitate what they want to hear. Instead, he levels with them.
"It's pretty obvious what you've got to bring [to be successful], and he'll tell them. I know. I've heard him," Showalter said. "If they are looking for a sympathetic ear or something, he is not going to be the guy to talk to."
Ayala doesn't wish away any of the bumps in his career. He became the poster boy for why not to have the World Baseball Classic during spring training when he blew out his elbow in 2006 and missed the regular season — one in which he was being counted on by the Washington Nationals as a key late-inning reliever. Yet he represented Mexico again in the 2009 WBC.
"[The injury] was part of baseball. It could have happened at any time," Ayala said. "I think the WBC is a good thing because you want to play for your country, to compete and play at that level."
Ayala suffered culture shock when he first made the majors, a year after he was discovered by the Montreal Expos while pitching in Mexico. He stuck with the Expos as a Rule 5 draft pick for all of 2003 (he had signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2002 offseason but was taken back by Montreal that December) and won 10 games in relief.
"When I started out in the majors, I didn't speak any English, any French, but guys took care of me," Ayala said.
And so he's paying back that debt of gratitude by talking to the younger players and taking some of them, like reliever Pedro Strop, under his wing.
"I think I can tell them a lot, about what things happened with me. I can tell them about their personal lives to try to make things right because opportunities don't come around a lot," Ayala said. "I tell them about my experience and taking the opportunities when you are young. Don't try to push things and throw your first years in the garbage. You have to keep in mind you've got bad times and they can come at you anytime."
One Oriole who is listening is Strop, a 26-year-old hard-thrower whose chances of making the team lessened somewhat when Ayala was signed.
"He's always trying to help you," Strop said. "He will come to you. With me, he has been talking to me about pitching. In this game, there are things you don't really realize until somebody tells you."
His lessons come with an upbeat personality, Strop said.
"He is always laughing, smiling, making jokes and stuff like that," Strop said. "He is not boring. He is great to have around."
Ayala has come a long way as a professional, literally and figuratively. The secret, he said, is not dwelling on the past but not forgetting it either.
"I always look to the present," he said. "And I know I have had many good things in my life."
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