I’ll always love the underdog. The stars will receive their share of press, that’s a certainty, but I’m more interested in the backstories of baseball’s unwashed: the journeymen, the utility men, the eccentric characters in the back of the bullpen. Those are the guys I root for, the guys whose stories are of most interest to me.
Luis Ayala is this year’s Yankee underdog. If you could have predicted that Luis Ayala, 33-year-old right-hander, would make the 25-man Opening Day roster, then you should be using your predictive skills by purchasing as many lottery tickets as possible. I would have given Mark Prior, Sergio Mitre, Greg Golson, or Justin Maxwell far better chances of sticking with the Yankees for the start of the regular season. But they’re all back in the minor leagues, or with other teams, and Ayala is not. Somehow, he’s a Yankee.
Luis Ayala is not to be confused with Bobby Ayala, the stocky right-handed reliever who once pitched for the Mariners and faced the Yankees in that haunting 1995 American League Division Series. That Ayala once had one of the worst seasons in the history of modern day relief pitching; in 1998, he went 1-10 with a 7.29 ERA and allowed a cascade of 100 hits in 75 innings. He is long since retired, having last pitched in 1999 for the Cubs.
Luis Ayala is also not to be mistaken for Benny Ayala, an outfielder from an earlier generation who made his big league debut for the Mets in 1974. Benny earned a World Series ring as a backup flychaser with the 1983 champion Orioles. For the most part, Benny was a part-time outfielder who never achieved more than platoon status with the Mets, Cardinals, Orioles, and Indians, but was surprisingly popular because of his lyrical name. Mets fans, in particular, loved to yell out, “Benny Ayala!” as they mimicked Met broadcasters Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson. It became a rallying cry, of sorts, in some Westchester neighborhoods during the swinging seventies.
No, this is Luis Ayala, a native of Mexico, who has had a surprisingly decent six-year career as a middle reliever, forging a lifetime ERA of 3.67. After toiling in the Mexican League, Ayala was purchased by the old Montreal Expos after the start of the new millennium. He made it to the major leagues in 2003, a part of Frank Robinson’s pitching staff. Over his first four seasons with the Expos/Nationals, Ayala was highly effective, posting three seasons with ERAs below 3.00. He ranked among the best set-up relievers in the National League.
Like many relievers, Ayala’s fortunes fluctuated. He pitched so dreadfully for the Nationals during the first half of 2008 that they dumped him on the Mets for the infamous player to be named later. Ayala continued to pitch poorly for New York, which gladly allowed him to become a free agent at season’s end.
In 2009, Ayala pitched for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, but was hit hard by the international opposition. Having signed with the Twins, Ayala threw mediocre ball for half a season; he requested a trade but instead drew his release. The Marlins picked him up, but watched him pitch horribly, posting an era of 11.74 in ten appearances. At the end of the season, the Marlins let him become a free agent once again, convinced that he had nothing left to offer at the age of 31.
Few could have blamed Ayala for calling it quits, but he stubbornly persisted in his belief that he could still pitch effectively at baseball‘s highest level. First he had to overcome a harrowing experience. In January of 2010, several gunmen emerged from three vehicles and invaded his home located near Los Mochis, Mexico. They shot down the door and handcuffed Ayala, who appeared to have been targeted as their kidnapping victim. Fortunately, police intervened and prevented Ayala from being abducted. Both Ayala and his family were unharmed.
Undeterred by the bizarre incident, Ayala went to spring training with the Dodgers. Over the course of 2010, he pitched for three different organizations, logged ineffective stints in each of their minor league systems, and failed to make it back to the big leagues with any of them. Without a single major league inning to his credit in 2010, it seemed obvious that Ayala should retire.
He didn’t. The Yankees signed him to a minor league contract, with an invite to spring camp in Tampa. Ayala pitched well almost every time out, permitting only one run in 11 innings spread over 11 appearances, with nine strikeouts and an ERA of 0.79. Still on the outside looking in, Ayala then watched Pedro Feliciano go down with an oblique strain and saw Mitre leave via a trade for spare outfielder Chris Dickerson. Against every imaginable odd, Luis Ayala earned the seventh spot in the bullpen and the final spot on the 25-man roster.
If you haven’t seen Ayala pitch, his delivery is a little weird, to put it kindly. He short-arms the ball, throwing from a semi-sidearm motion. Funky and awkward, It’s a bit painful to watch, and he doesn’t seem to be throwing the ball very hard, but hitters in the Grapefruit League hardly touched him during spring training.
I don’t know how long Ayala will remain in the Bronx, but I do know this: I’ll be rooting for him every time he steps onto the mound.
Bruce Markusen observes the Yankees from a perch in Cooperstown, NY.