On Opening Day, it seems the Indians have traveled thousands of miles this winter in their journey to build a winner.
Mike Aviles can relate with long travels.
Beginning his sixth Major League season and as part of his fourth organization, it would be easy to label Aviles a veteran journeyman. While he fits the description, he is more the journeyman off the field than he is on the field.
Each season Aviles drives from his home to spring training, and from his home ballpark city back to his home at the end of the year.
“I always drive. I do a lot of driving across country. I enjoy driving and hitting the road,” Aviles said. “Going, I get that mental clarity to turn the page to baseball mode, let’s start the season. On the way home, it’s like that mental wind down, we’re done. Now, it’s family time.”
His cross country drives have not always been as smooth and a calming mental wind down as Aviles makes them seem, however. In 2008, Aviles was a minor leaguer in big league camp for the first time with the Kansas City Royals and looking to make the major league roster.
He and his then girlfriend — now wife — left Middletown, N.Y., for Surprise, Ariz., home of the Kansas City Royals training camp. The 36-hour, 2,500 mile drive was intended to take the couple four days.
Unfortunately, the couple encountered a pitfall just eight hours into their journey, in Ashland, Ohio.
“We were driving and it started snowing,” Aviles said. “The next thing you know, the lights went out on the car and it just shut off. I’m driving on the highway and the car just stops. I literally just pulled it off to the side in the middle of a snowstorm.”
Stranded on the side of the road, in a snowstorm, in a town they’ve never been before, Aviles called AAA for road side assistance. Their highway help, however, did not initially calm they young, couple’s fears.
“The driver himself was a little scary looking,” Aviles said. “I’m not gonna lie.”
Just a few evenings before, Aviles and his girlfriend watched the movie, “No Vacancy,” a story about being trapped inside a roadside motel and the creepy characters who live there. Initially, the cold couple kept seeing scenes from the movie come to life.
“I just remember everything that was going on was something that happened in the movie,” Aviles said. “I told my wife, ‘Whatever happens, just run. Take the dog and run and don’t come back. Find a way home. I’ll be OK. I’ll meet up with you, I promise.’”
But their fears were wrong, as anyone who has driven this stretch of I-71 has seen the roadside signs proclaiming Ashland to be the, “World Headqurarters of Nice People.” The citizens proved their city moniker correct.
“It turned out the mechanic and the truck driver looked scary, but they were two of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Aviles said.
Aviles needed a new alternator and was told it would take three to four days to get the necessary parts and get the couple back on the road. The mechanic made some calls and found the necessary alternator overnight and was able to get them back on the road in just a day, keeping Aviles on pace to reach his destination in time for his report date to spring training.
“I told them I played baseball and was trying to get to spring training,” Aviles said. “I was in the minor leagues and that I didn’t have much money and I’m just trying to get out there as quick as possible. I can’t thank those people enough for what they did.”
Back on the road, Aviles reached Surprise in time and for spring training, and while he didn’t make the team out of camp, he was called up from Triple-A in late May and appeared in 102 games that season, hitting .325, with 10 home runs and 51 runs batted in. He finished fourth in the American League in the Rookie of Year voting.
Despite his alternator mishap in Ashland, Aviles still makes his cross country journeys to start and end the season. However, now on a big league salary, his wife can afford to fly, so he now makes them alone.
“It’s actually the first time, and last time, too, that my wife went in the car with me,” Aviles said.
Now, he and his family live in Utah, making this spring’s drive to Goodyear, Ariz., the shortest of his career. Last year, he made the 40-hour journey to Florida to join his Red Sox teammates, and plans to make the ride home from Cleveland at season’s end.
“It turns the page one way going, it turns the page at the end to leave it behind,” Aviles said.
“Last year it was from Boston to Utah, it was 40 hours,” Aviles said. “I did it in four days. I just take my time. Stop where I want to stop. There’s no reason to get home quick. I enjoy the driving part. If I was in a hurry, I’d fly.”
While Aviles turns the page from one chapter of his life to the next, he uses the time to reflect, look ahead, think about life and enjoy the open road. He listens to his music, talks on the phone and enjoys the countryside. He also is drawn to a good roadside deal when he sees one.
“Sometimes I see stores that are cool little outlets,” Aviles said. “I just pull over and see what they have. I end up buying a bunch of knives along the way. I always see knife stores and I enjoy them. I end up coming home with a bunch of crap I don’t need.”
Last season, Aviles was the Boston Red Sox starting shortstop, but after being traded twice this winter, he finds himself as the Indians utility player and super substitute. Having played a bench role at times in the past, he is comfortable in this position. His long drives and mental clarity helps prepare him for a role that changes from day to day, not knowing if you are in lineup or quickly being called upon in late-inning situations.
“I like to mentally clear my mind as much as possible,” Aviles said. “At the end of the day, this game can be stressful. It can take a toll on some people. When you can, you need to take that mental break. I think driving to and from helps me with that stuff.”
Regardless of role, Aviles is ready for wherever the long, winding road of his baseball journey takes him.
Photo: J. Meric/Getty Images