Monday, June 1, 2015

Interview Part 2: Jim Aylward, Proved Himself

Jim Aylward played in the Midwest League in 1988, 1989 and 1990. Pictured is the league's former Riverview Stadium in Clinton, Iowa, in 2014. (Greatest 21 Days)
Part 1: Second Chance | Part 2: Proved Himself
Part 3: Great Experience

Jim Aylward remembers that reliever's first pitch. He had an idea what it was going to be and he guessed right.

The result, he recalled, was a walk-off win for his single-A Quad City Angels. More importantly, it was also a walk-off Midwest League championship.

"They brought in their closer," Aylward recalled. "He was throwing pretty hard. I knew they were going to start fastball and I turned on it."

The ball went off the two of the wall and the runner who'd started on first came around to score.

"Everyone says 'World Series, coming up with two outs,' right?" Aylward said. "Basically that was my World Series."

Aylward picked up that championship having been assigned to Quad City for the playoffs. He added that one to titles his teams won in college and in high school.

After that minor league championship, Aylward found himself with a decision to make. Did he want to continue to pursue baseball and championships in the United States? Or did he want to seize an opportunity to pursue championships and a better paycheck overseas?

Aylward ended up choosing Taiwan and the Wei Chuan Dragons. He also almost won a championship there.

Aylward spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently from his new home in Kansas, where he now serves as manager and instructor at the 365 Sports Complex in Inman.
Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield, Ca., in 2012. Jim Aylward played in Bakersfield with Reno in 1988 and with Palm Springs in 1990. (Greatest 21 Days)
His pro career lasted seven seasons in all. He spent four of those in the affiliated minor leagues, two in Taiwan and one in Mexico.

That career started in 1987 with the Phillies at short-season Bend. He'd been signed late the previous summer by Philadelphia as an undrafted free agent. His first in-game time came with the Bend Phillies.

"It was a great experience," Aylward recalled of his time with Bend. "It was a dream come true wearing a Philadelphia Phillies jersey. ... It was just a dream come true, but I think sometimes you can get caught up on that. They say there's only one place to play and that's the big leagues."

Aylward played first base for the club, getting into 73 games. He hit a respectable .261 and hit four home runs.

Despite seemingly playing well enough to get another shot and another season in the organization, Aylward was released. The news came via a letter in the mail. He recalled calling one of his old coaches. The coach didn't even know.

The only thing Aylward had to go on to answer why he was released was rumor that amounted to Aylward finding himself impacted by a situation that had nothing really to do with him.

The result was Aylward thinking his career was over.

He went to an open tryout in Los Angeles. That involved the basics, running, fielding and some hitting. It didn't go well. So, he went back to his old school Grand Canyon University and figured he'd finish his degree.
Community Field in Burlington, Iowa, in 2010. Jim Aylward played at Community with Quad City in 1988 and 1989. (Greatest 21 Days)

That's when the stars seemed to align and Aylward ran into Angels scout and instructor Joe Maddon as Aylward watched a Grand Canyon game. This was the same Joe Maddon who later managed the Rays and manages the Cubs in 2015.

"It just happened that Joe Maddon was there and I was given a second opportunity, really," Aylward said.

The Angels had been watching Aylward and had had him on their list of draftees had he stayed for his senior year at Grand Canyon. With that history, Maddon got Aylward signed with the Angels with a chance to make a team.

"I knew at that point I had to perform. I had to do well and improve myself," Aylward said. "I had that same mentailty every year. I had to prove myself and do what I knew I could do."

Aylward made two teams that year. He played at single-A Quad City and high-A Reno. He hit .266 in 111 games between them.

When he got to Quad City, Aylward remembered not having a position. His regular first base job was taken. He then pinch hit for the regular first baseman and recalled hitting a double.

"I always remember the first baseman coming up to me and saying 'I guess you're going to be in there tomorrow," Aylward said. And he was. "The next day I got a couple hits started the rest of the summer at first base."

Aylward moved to third base full time in 1989. He played that year back at Quad City. He'd been on the AA roster until the last day of the spring. He ended up hitting .293 with 11 home runs that year.
Fiscalini Field in San Bernardino in 2012. Jim Aylward played at Fiscalini in 1988 with Reno and 1990 with Palm Springs. (Greatest 21 Days)
"I was more proud of my fielding efforts than I was hitting," Aylward recalled.  He kept his errors down and he led the team in RBIs with 77.

The thought was he'd head to AA for 1990. He was slated to go to Australia for winter ball there, but he was rerouted to Mexico. When he returned, he was AA bound, starting the season at Midland.

Aylward recalled always being a slow starter on the season and the club tried to get him more at bats in the spring. He still started slow, but he didn't recall being overmatched.

In 69 games there, he hit .263. He was then sent down to high-A Palm Springs. In his last game, he recalled going 3 for 4, with two doubles and a home run.

"That was definitely a low point, getting sent back down," Aylward said, "because I thought I wasn't really given a chance to perform as far as my capabilities."

But he also knew he had to keep working hard. If he did that, good things would happen. Aylward then went on a tear. In 59 games to finish out the regular season, he hit .347.

In one 11 at-bat stretch, he picked hits in each at bat, he recalled. Four of those hits were home runs.

"I wasn't thinking," Aylward recalled of that streak. "I was just going up there thinking I was going to get a hit."

Then came his playoff stint with Quad City. About three months later, he got a call from his agent. Would Aylward be interested in going to Taiwan? (Part 3)

Part 1: Second Chance | Part 2: Proved Himself
Part 3: Great Experience

Go to Part 3: Jim Aylward, Great Experience

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