Alex Avila's road to the 2011 All-Star Game included a summer with the Ann Arbor Braves
Before Alex Avila was an All-Star, his road to the major leagues ran through Ann Arbor.
The third-year Detroit Tigers catcher, who will start Tuesday's All-Star Game in Phoenix thanks to a late fan voting push, still looks back fondly on his days with an Ann Arbor-based amateur club.
Photo courtesy of Steve Putnam
Coached by Steve Putnam, the Ann Arbor Braves started as an Ann Arbor Rec and Ed team with a roster full of kids from the northwest side of the city.
As some of the players grew into blue chip talents -- including Putnam’s sons, Zach and Dylan Putnam -- the team too evolved into an elite travel squad, attracting players from communities around Ann Arbor and the metro Detroit area.
Avila spent his freshman year of high school at Warren DeLaSalle before relocating to Florida. Because his father, Al Avila, was (and still is) the assistant general manager for the Tigers, Avila spent the summer of 2005 playing for the Braves.
“Alex joined our team and he just came as a finished product,” Putnam recalls, downplaying any influence he may have had on the All-Star’s career.
“The only credit I take for him becoming an All-Star is I voted for him 25 times on MLB.com,” he says.
Avila batted .489 with 13 home runs and 62 RBIs that summer as the Braves finished third at the American Amateur Baseball Congress Connie Mack World Series, widely considered the best amateur baseball tournament in the nation.
“We were a very good team,” Avila said. “I really don’t remember maybe losing two games out of 60 and, you know, it was just a fun summer.”
Avila wasn’t the only star on the Braves. Pioneer High School graduate Zach Putnam -- currently playing in with the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A affiliate, the Columbus Clippers -- was the reigning Mr. Baseball in the state and bound for an All-American career at Michigan.
Including Putnam and Avila, selected eight picks apart in the fifth round of the 2008 MLB Draft, the Braves roster that summer had five draftees and 13 players who play in college, 10 at the Division I-level. “We had a great team,” Avila recalls. “We had some really good players.”
“That team they had that year was pretty special,” said Michigan coach Rich Maloney, who signed Putnam and Adam Abraham from the Braves.
Because of scholarship limitations, Maloney said he wasn’t able to make a legitimate run at recruiting Avila.
“Alex was a great player then,” Maloney remembers. “That’s just the way recruiting goes sometimes.”
Avila pitched and played third base for the Braves and didn’t catch until his third year of college at Alabama.
Despite Avila’s late start at the position, Steve Putnam wasn’t surprised when Avila eventually made the switch to what’s considered the most knowledgeable position on the field.
“He was 17 or 18 when he was playing for me and his baseball maturity was off the charts,” Putnam said. “I don’t think he ever pondered any other occupation. He was always going to be a professional baseball player, and even then you could tell he looked at the game from the perspective of a pro.”
In just his fourth year catching, Avila, 24, has a fielding percentage of .994 and is batting .287, with 10 home runs and 46 RBIs. In a recent Associated Press interview, Tigers manager Jim Leyland referred to Avila as “the total package.”
While Steve Putnam doesn’t fathom that Avila’s one summer under his tutelage was the catalyst to such success, there is something Avila says he gleaned from his time with the Braves.
“One thing that I’ve always tried and taken from anything, I mean especially that summer, is how much fun baseball is,” Avila said.
HOMES OF THE BRAVES
Avila is the highest-profile player from the Ann Arbor Braves team that finished third at the 2005 Connie Mack World Series, but he wasn’t the only to play at a higher level:
Player, College, Pro organization, Current level
Alex Avila, Alabama, Detroit Tigers, MLB
Zach Putnam, Michigan, Cleveland Indians, AAA
Chris Rusin, Kentucky, Chicago Cubs, AAA
Adam Abraham, Michigan, Cleveland Indians, High A
Matt Williams, Duke, Chicago Cubs, retired
Chris Nadeau, Miami of Ohio
Jay Clites, Valparaiso
Alex Seyferth, Penn and Northwestern
Nick Marone, Western Michigan
Alan Hagadon, Madonna and Concordia
Brett Borock, Kalamazoo Valley
Casey Keenan, junior college
Photo courtesy of Steve Putnam
Booth Newspapers/MLive.com reporter Chris Iott contributed to this story.