07/11/11 7:17 PM ET
Different experiences on tap for Tigers
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
He was a fan back then.
"Oh, yeah," Avila said. "I wasn't getting autographs or anything like that. I never did that. I grew up in a Major League clubhouse, so I never asked for autographs. But I just kind of liked the whole experience of watching a game full of All-Stars, the best players in the game at the time. That was the biggest thrill for me."
Come Tuesday night, when the American League team takes the field, he'll be looking at a diamond full of All-Stars from a different viewpoint, behind home plate. And it'll be one of the biggest thrills of the week for his Tigers All-Star teammates. For this year, at least so far, he's the best catcher in the AL.
"I was so happy for him," said Justin Verlander, who spearheaded the drive to get fans to vote in Avila as the starting catcher. "I know how excited he was at the prospect of it. I remember how excited I was for the first time."
Like Avila, Verlander made the All-Star team in his second full season in the big leagues, in 2007. Verlander is now at the point where he has become a regular. His selection was certain enough that he was able to rent a plane and fly his teammates here from Kansas City, along with Royals All-Star Aaron Crow.
Once he landed in Phoenix and arrived at the team hotel, Avila said, it hit him what this honor meant.
"When we got to the hotel, there was a lot of people in the lobby, just a lot of stuff going on, and you see the All-Star logo everywhere," Avila said. "I've been to All-Star Games before and kind of seen all this, with all the people and the fans, but obviously, I'm getting a different perspective this time. I'm putting on the uniform. I'm definitely excited about it."
He was one of those All-Stars. And the smile that was on his face as reporters talked to him on Monday morning never really left for the entire hour he answered questions, no doubt repeating himself.
AL STARTING NINE
"I think he was excited," said Miguel Cabrera, who started last year's All-Star Game as an injury replacement. "Having a chance to represent the Tigers in the starting lineup is something very special. His first year in the All-Star Game, he made the lineup. I think it's awesome. I feel proud for him. I feel happy for him, happy for our organization, because they're doing a great job."
As AL All-Star closer Jose Valverde saw the smiles on Avila and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, he could sense the mood.
"It's great for me," Valverde said, "because [Avila and Peralta] have been working hard every single day -- Avila behind the plate, Peralta at short. And I'm excited for these two guys."
When Avila gets behind home plate, he'll be the first Tiger who made it into the starting lineup by fan vote since 2007, when Detroit had three starters. One of them was Ivan Rodriguez, who gave Avila his first catching mitt when he made the position switch in college at the University of Alabama.
The last Tigers catcher to start in an All-Star Game before that was Lance Parrish, whose jersey number Avila now wears. Before that it was the great Bill Freehan, whose resume Avila knows well.
Avila will bat ninth in the All-Star lineup, and that's fine with him.
"Look at that lineup. Robinson Cano's batting eighth," Avila said. "My job is to protect him. That's an unbelievable lineup."
Whereas Avila will start the game, Valverde is expected to close it. AL manager Ron Washington said on Monday morning that Valverde will get the shot if the team takes a lead into the ninth inning.
If that happens it will give Valverde a chance to wrap up a win on the same field where he first became an All-Star, with the D-backs. That's a different thrill from being a first-time All-Star, and it's a chance that Valverde would relish.
"This is where I started playing baseball," he said. "This is where I threw my first pitch at 100 mph, in that stadium. I have good friends. I have exciting moments in that stadium. I had to be here, no matter what, because all my friends and my family are here."
The one All-Star guaranteed not to play is Verlander, who threw 119 pitches on Sunday and by rule isn't available. That's fine with him. Asked what the best part of this game will be for him, he sounded like a fan on vacation.
"This is the second time that I've been able to relax and enjoy it," Verlander said. "It's kind of a neat experience. It's very exciting. ... Obviously, I would like to pitch, but when you know you're not pitching, you just kind of sit back, and you're a fan of the talent and everything going on around you. I think you're able to soak up that part of it a little bit more."
Avila, no doubt, will soak it up as a starter.