Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Interview Part 3: Jim Aylward, Great Experience

A Taiwanese newspaper featuring a photo of Jim Aylward swinging the bat. (Provided)
Part 1: Second Chance | Part 2: Proved Himself
Part 3: Great Experience

When Jim Aylward was in second or third grade, he told his grandmother that he would one day play professional baseball and play it in front of her.

It was a declaration by a gradeschooler, one easily dismissed. It was even easier to dismiss because his grandmother - his mother's mother - and his mother's extended family lived across the Pacific Ocean in Taiwan.

The weird thing was, Aylward recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently, he actually did it: He played professionally and his career path took him right to Taiwan and his grandmother got to see him play.

"She was 90-some years old when I was playing over there," Aylward recalled. "I played in front of her before she passed away.

"That was cool," Aylward added. "That was just great."

In all, Aylward played two seasons in Taiwan, nearly helping his Wei Chuan Dragons to a title his first year there. He took his game to Taiwan after four seasons played in the minor leagues.

When he returned from Taiwan, he chose Mexico over a chance at spring training, a decision he later regretted.
Some Taiwan baseball cards. Jim Aylward's is far right. (Provided)
Aylward spoke to The Greatest 21 Days recently from his home in Kansas, where he now serves as manager and instructor at the 365 Sports Complex in Inman.

He went to Taiwan in 1991 after a season in 1990 with the Angels were he started at AA Midland, moved to high-A Palm Springs and ended with the walk-off, championship-winning hit for single-A Quad City.

The offer from Taiwan came that December through his agent. Scouts from the Chinese Professional Baseball League had seen him play at AA and wanted to know if he'd be interested in a tryout.

It depended. Aylward had a AAA contract with the Angels. He recalled calling up the scout who signed him, future major league manager Joe Maddon and asking his advice. Maddon, he recalled, suggested as a friend he should go make some money, but also said the Angels didn't want him to leave.

"I can't say enough about Joe Maddon," Aylward said. "He's one guy in baseball that I respect, but also just a great human being just down to earth, just as solid as they get."

Aylward went for the tryout and he stuck. He was taken by Wei Chuan and he played well. He hit .305, with 12 home runs and 59 RBI, all either at the top or near the top of the league.

The transition was a big one, he recalled. There were four teams in the league and they played three games a week. The time between games meant that a pitcher who pitched well against one team would keep pitching against that team.
Jim Aylward, right, in a Taiwanese newspaper. (Provided)
"I loved playing every day," Aylward recalled of his time in the minors. "I played 140 games a year. I loved playing every day, not taking a break. That was the biggest adjustment for me. You start to swing the bat well one weekend and you have five more days you have to wait to play again."

But he came on strong late. He recalled being the most valuable player of the month of October and he won the RBI title.

Aylward's Dragons made the Taiwan Series his first year, losing in the seventh game. He recalled hitting well, .430 with a couple home runs. He recalled the team ended up being done in by rain. The team's starter, who had pitched well, couldn't continue after a delay and they lost.

"It was a great experience for me," Aylward said of his time in Taiwan. "I wish it could have lasted longer."

He returned to Wei Chuan for a second season and he played well enough to make the all-star game. But he also somehow hurt his back at the game. He didn't play as well during the second half and he didn't get called back for a third season.

Aylard healed up enough to be set to go back to spring training with the Brewers or the Angels. His agent then heard from a team in the Mexican summer league, offering Aylward a job down there. Aylward went to Mexico.

"It was probably the worst decision in my life," Aylward said, "because I could always go there and play. In hind-sight I should have gone to spring training with a club and I would have definitely been on a AA or AAA roster and who knows? I could have made the big leagues."
Jim Aylward, second from left, serving as a coach. (Provided)
"That's where I kicked myself the most," Aylward said, "because I didn't get a chance to play. I went to Mexico and ended up hanging them up after that."

Aylward recently moved from California to Kansas with his wife and twin 9-year-olds, a boy and a girl. He's owned some businesses since he retired and he was a financial adviser for a while.

He's now serving as a general manager with the 365 Sports Complex outside Hutchinson. He also does work with a friend's company.

His work at the sports complex allows him to stay involved in baseball, teaching the game to local youth.

"I love it," Aylward said of his job at the complex. "I just love working with them. I just try to to stress, try to relay to them the game is supposed to be fun. I just see these days there's so much pressure from parents with these travel teams."

He noted the long odds at making the pros and the majors.

"On the flip side, I say if you guys want to move on to high school, college and even pro baseball, there's no substitution for hard work. That's what it comes down to, you got to out work the next guy. That's all it comes down to."

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

Be sure to read Part 1: Jim Aylward, Second Chance

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