Sunday, December 09, 2007
Chatting With Luis Ayala
Until his right elbow started having problems from overuse in 2005--Luis Ayala was quickly becoming one of the finest SETUP Men in the game. The Man With The RUBBER ARM. Almost daily, it seemed--during that Inaugural Season of Our Washington Nationals, then Manager Frank Robinson slowly walked out of the dugout in the 8th inning and signaled for Our Number 56 to bring in his glove, take the baseball, and get Our Washington Nationals out of a jam. Did Luis ever respond--22 holds in a fine season in which Chad Cordero set The Franchise Record for saves with 47.
Only a few other bullpen mates combined to perform so well together during that 2005 campaign. Ayala and Cordero were quite the tandem. And, The ANCHOR STRENGTH behind one of the best Bullpens in the game that year. A Force that was cut short when Luis felt a twinge in his right throwing elbow, late during that summer. His constant appearances had finally taken its toll. Shutdown for precautionary measures in September of that year--Our Number 56 went through minor surgery to repair a bone spur. There were no complications. Luis Ayala would be ready for Spring Training, 2006. Or, so everybody thought.
Then, The First World Baseball Classic was held during the 2006 February/March Time Frame. And, Ayala--against the wishes of Our Washington Nationals--decided to compete. Although--he had just began to throw fully--once again--pressure from former teammates--Esteban Loiaza and Vinny Castilla--was too great to allow Luis to see The Big Picture. And, as most every one knows now--he was wasn't even close to being 100% ready to pitch at the WBC. The awful sight that spring evening, seeing Luis Ayala holding his right elbow while walking, dejectedly, off the pitchers mound during a World Baseball Classic Game--gave the appearance of a funeral taking place. As a fan of Our Washington Nationals--it was a sad, gut wrenching moment. For love of his Native Mexico, Su Pais--Our Number 56's Major League Career might well be dead. Over with, done for--forever. Reconstructive Elbow Surgery was performed. Never did Ayala pitch in another Major League Baseball Game until this past June 22nd, 2007--against The Cleveland Indians--over 20 months between MLB appearances.
Knowing he had let down his Major League Teammates--Luis Ayala worked hard to get back into playing shape. "I worked harder than I ever had in my life, " he told me. "I didn't want to disappoint again. I didn't want to go through that feeling."
During that very first game back--Our Manager Manny Acta put Luis Ayala right into The Fire, that is Major League Baseball. And, he responded--holding a 1-1 tie in check by retiring Travis Hafner--Cleveland's Big Slugger on a bases loaded double play grounder in the 5th inning. A TRIUMPHANT RETURN you usually only dream about.
Nervous at first--Luis Ayala settled down and his 2007 comeback campaign was decent--though not spectacular. But, by the end of this past season--he was becoming--once again, a respected, trusted player, out of Manny Acta's Bullpen--late. And, even recorded his only save of the year during his penultimate appearance at Shea Stadium in New York on September 26th.
Now--with the start of the 2008 Championship Season--just a few short months away--Luis Ayala was kind enough to give me some of his time this past Thursday afternoon at The ESPN Zone in Washington, DC during his Guest Appearance there for Our Washington Nationals Boys & Girls Clubs of Washington Holiday Party. With a half season of Major League Baseball now, once again behind him--Luis says he is looking forward to what his future has in store for him.
“Chief and I were Special in 2005. We had something really good going. I came in, set him up. Then, he came in and closed the door. I would very much like to enjoy that success all over again (in 2008). That, was not only fun—but each game was a pleasure to go out and compete--every day. I want to feel that excitement again.”
You have already been working out—since you only played a half season (coming back from injury). How is it going so far? (SBF)
“I was very excited about how the season (2007) went for me. I know my arm is healthy now. My body is healthy too. So, I was happy to go home, relax and take some time off—especially after all the time off after the injury to my elbow. But, I realized, I now wanted to work out even harder (than I did) from the past. About two weeks ago, I began to work out again really hard. Really, I can’t tell you how excited I am to have the opportunity to come back and play here in the new stadium. Now, I am excited just to be back here in Washington."
So, here we are in early December—and you are already throwing? (SBF)
“Yes, I am on my normal program, throwing, working up my arm strength again. This is how I stay in shape. Really, I didn’t want to play Winter Ball, because I wanted to come back 150% (both of us chuckling) next season. I need to give my Good Team (The Nationals) my best stuff, my best effort. Those are the people that are supporting me the most.”
How difficult was it for you to come back after such a long period of time away, due to your two elbow surgeries? You might have felt good last spring—but you really were not ready? (SBF)
“Yes, that’s true. I felt great. I was not in any real pain (during spring training). But, I had not built up enough strength. Also, I had a problem in my neck. My shoulder was sore. (The Medical Staff) said I was not 100% ready. I needed to take my time after being away for such a long period of time. In fact, I was told, I needed a complete 9 or 10 months to fully recover. So, they told me: 'No—you are not ready.’(at Spring Training) OK, I said. But, I remember I felt bad. I couldn't help my team. So, I took my time, got ready, got my arm healthy, worked out and came back (in June).”
“I went to Jose Rijo. I went to Manny (Acta). I talked to Jim (Bowden). They said they were waiting for me. For the day when my arm was healthy, but not before. Now, I can say, I am ready. Next year (2008), I want to give them my very best during Spring Training. I want to give them my best season of my entire career.”
“My confidence is back. I believe in myself again.”
How different will it be without Brian Schneider as your catcher this season? (SBF)
“I can’t say anything special about that issue. Trades are a part of the job. We are professionals--you never know what is going to happen in baseball. The Nationals traded Schneider. Its good for him—as he has a chance to play for a very good team. Its good for us—as we have another good young catcher (Jesus Flores). It’s a part of the job. We, as players, need to accept every change in the team.”
Personally, you may not like any trade, but the business aspect, you must accept. That’s true. (SBF)
“Yes, very much so.”
Back a bit to last season. When you started playing again for The Nationals—were there days that you simply didn’t have it? I was reading were some doctors have written that baseball players recovering from elbow surgery—can feel strong one day—then feel like they are starting their re-hab all over again the very next day. Not a single pitch can find the plate. This, just as a result of the elbow still working its way back into shape. (SBF)
"Yes, I had a cutoff point on pitches before the All-Star Break. Before I got recalled, I was pitching pretty well in The Minor Leagues—AAA. Then, I remember my first game back against Cleveland. I said to myself: ‘I don’t feel 100%.’ You can get away with that at The Minor League Level more so than The Big League Level. But, I had a greater desire to play (for Washington) and my adrenaline was flowing. I didn’t think I was ready. But, you have to say you are ready. Its why you are here (in The Big Leagues). So, I just had to get comfortable. And, to do that, I needed to pitch in key situations. I get put in and now the bases are loaded (in that first game back) against Travis Hafner (Indians Slugger). I said: “Wow—welcome back to The Big Leagues!!” (Both of us laughing). Then, I made the pitches that help save the game (inning ending double play). It was a GREAT FEELING. I felt I belonged again. And, the crowd at RFK gave me a nice ovation. It really felt good. I was happy.”
"I went to the dugout and said to Manny: 'OK—I am ready!!' (Luis and I bust out laughing—he’s now smiling greatly)."
"But, seriously, I needed to be careful. And, the team (medical staff) worked well with me."
Now, since you did only play that half season—do you believe you can be that workhorse you were before? (SBF)
“Yes, most definitely. Over the last month of the season (2007), I pitched more and more—back to back games. It helped more than anything—to give me my confidence back. My arm was ready then. I didn’t have any pain, any problems. I was ready. I told Manny I was ready to pitch everyday. He said—‘NO, NO, NO!!-take your time’ But, next year, I want to pitch more. Happy I am to be back, and I know my arm is ready for anything.”
Although, I know you feel you are ready right now—take it easy. This Team needs you. (SBF)
“I do keep telling Manny--I am ready right now. He tells me to calm down. Don’t do too much. We are not even in Spring Training. Take it easy. But, its hard—I really want to play and show my teammates they can count on me again.”
[You could just feel his enthusiasm to play. If somebody had told Luis Ayala he could go out to New Nationals Park and throw off the new mound that afternoon—I would bet he would have made the effort—despite the snow. SBF]
So, final question—are you still fooling “The Chief” with those card tricks? (At Spring Training, 2007 in Viera, Florida—Luis Ayala one afternoon, in the Nationals Clubhouse, showed me a series of hocus pocus card tricks. Slight of hand maneuvers that Luis claims always befuddles Chad Cordero. We had a good laugh then.)
And, Luis Ayala LOVED THIS LAST QUESTION. He didn’t stop laughing for about 15 seconds.
“I’ve been working on some new ones—BETTER TRICKS!!!” (everyone breaking out laughing—even the Nats PR Person in attendance. “Chief better be ready.”
I love that story that you told me last spring, I said to Ayala. One of my favorites. (SBF)
“Yeah, it’s a good one. Hopefully, I will have some more to tell. We shall see!!” (all of us laughing mightily)
With that, a hearty handshake and embrace concluded my chat with Luis Ayala. He's straight forward, honest with his thoughts. And, most pleasing for me, Our Number 56 is quite the character. Seemingly, always has time for others. And, enjoys the interaction of meeting different folks. When he mentioned to Principal Owner Mark Lerner later that afternoon at The ESPN Zone that he wished to remain a member of Our Washington Nationals for the remainder of his professional playing career—he meant every single word of it.
“This is a great place to play. Good Atmosphere, Great Fans—Fun is the only to describe it. I really love it here in Washington, DC.” Luis Ayala concluded.