Mike Aviles did not have a very successful baseball season in 2016. In fact, it might have been the worst of his career. After signing with the Detroit Tigers in the winter, the utility man batted just .210 with one home run in 68 games. In August, the Tigers traded him to the Atlanta Braves, who released him after five days. Seven months later, he remains a free agent at age 36.
Yet Aviles has much to be happy about right now. For one, he is on the Puerto Rico team that will play in the World Baseball Classic championship game Wednesday night in Dodger Stadium, his second consecutive WBC title game with the country.
Much more importantly, his young daughter, Adriana, is free of cancer after being diagnosed with leukemia almost two years ago.
“It’s been crazy. I’m not going to lie,” Aviles said last weekend during the second round of the WBC in San Diego. “It’s put my life into perspective with everything going on. I know from the last WBC until now, it’s been just a lot of turmoil or hectic-ness. But for the most part, my life has been crazy since day one, anyway. I don’t know any different. That’s normal for me.”
Aviles is playing for the Puerto Rico team even though he grew up in the Bronx. He says he has never considered himself anything but Puerto Rican because his parents and grandparents are from there.
“If anybody’s ever been in the South Bronx around Yankee Stadium, it’s pretty much Latins all over the place — Dominicans, Puerto Ricans,” he said. “I remember my grandfather always saying, ‘I don’t need to speak English because everybody around here speaks Spanish.’ …
“When there was an opportunity in 2009 to play for the Puerto Rican national team, my grandmother looked at me and said, ‘If you say no, I might disown you.'”
Aviles started his major league career with the Kansas City Royals in 2008 back when they were regularly losing 90 or so games a season. The Royals traded him in 2011 to the Boston Red Sox, with whom he reached career highs in home runs (13) and RBIs (60) in 2012. He was dealt again that offseason to the Toronto Blue Jays, who turned around and sent him to the Cleveland Indians two weeks later.
He stayed with Cleveland for three seasons, but in May of 2015, Aviles received the devastating news that his daughter, then 4 years old, had leukemia. He was placed on the medical leave emergency list before returning to the field 12 days later.
“In the process of all of that it was always the walking out the door that was always the hardest thing,” Aviles said. “It was that fight of, ‘Should I go to the field or should I stay here? What do I do? How do I help my family?’ And I knew at the same time that I needed to go out there and provide for my family, and that was the way I was going to be able to help my family so I could stay sane and be there for my wife and my kids.”
His Cleveland teammates shaved their heads along with Aviles and wore “Team Adriana” T-shirts in support, while the front office announced that the team would not trade him that summer because his daughter was being treated in a Cleveland clinic. After the season, Adriana received bone marrow transplant that successfully treated her cancer.
While there are always concerns the cancer could return, Aviles says life is good right now.
“My daughter’s doing great. She’s healthy. She’s got way longer hair than me right now, beautiful curls. She’s running around all over the hotel full of energy, more energy than anything,” Aviles said. “And the only side effect from everything for her was that she has to wear glasses right now. And if that’s all it is, I’ll take that any day of the week, and I know she will. So in her words, she kicked the sicky bug’s butt.”
As rough as his daughter’s experience with leukemia was, it also has taught Aviles important lessons. He says he used to “live and die around baseball.” No longer.
“I realize now that’s not who I am and that’s not the way to live life,” he said. “That’s not really how it is. At the end of the day, it’s, ‘I woke up today. I’m breathing. I’m healthy.’ That’s the highlight of my day. I don’t care if I go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts; I don’t care if I go 4-for-4 with four homers. I woke up, I’m breathing, my kids are good, my family is good, everybody is great, we had another good day. And we’re going for the next day.
“You kind of live day by day because you learn to appreciate each day. It puts some perspective into how big life is.”
Aviles had a very big baseball day Saturday when he went 4-for-5 with three RBIs in Puerto Rico’s 13-2 victory over Venezuela in San Diego. He struck out in his only at-bat in Monday’s semifinal game against the Netherlands in Los Angeles. Puerto Rico won 4-3 in 11 innings, though, improving its record to 7-0 in this WBC and providing another chance at its first championship.
Will Puerto Rico win? Will Aviles get a contract? We will see. As Aviles learned, life is day to day. As he also has learned, it’s best to keep looking for something good to happen.
“I truly believe in miracles,” he said, “because my little girl is a living miracle.”