The money doesn't make the player. People around baseball like to say that, executives who have seen cash whirl around the toilet, and the axiom is generally true: The sizes of paycheck and production don't always mesh.
"I am where I am because of money," said Mike Aviles, the Kansas City Royals' rookie shortstop and indeed the exception. The money represents everything to him: the doubts, the questions, the skeptics – the fuel that has him hitting .335, the American League's highest average for a player with at least 200 at-bats.
The money – $1,000, to be exact – made Aviles. Part of Kansas City's penny pinching earlier in the decade included offering insulting signing bonuses to draft choices knowing they had no choice but to accept. In 2003, the Royals used their seventh-round pick to select Aviles out of tiny Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y., located about 20 miles north of Manhattan. And they told him that he would sign for $1,000.
Take it or leave it.
The player chosen before Aviles signed for $130,000, the one after him for $138,500. They were bonus babies. He was a bonus zygote. Never mind that Aviles had hit .500 in his senior year and won Division II player of the year honors. He was a small-school guy with 20th-round-or-so talent and zero leverage. So he signed and put the check toward that month's credit-card bill.
"It was either that or go work a real job," Aviles said. "And right from there, I was out to prove that I was worth more than $1,000. I said to myself that I'd get that $1,000 back someday.
"I knew I was worth way more than that. I just had to go and prove it all over again."
Aviles understood the drill. He was short, maybe 5-foot-9 in spikes, and stout. He looked more Weeble than ballplayer. His only scholarship offer came from Concordia. Scouts thought he lacked the range to stay at shortstop. They wondered how his swing, with its twitchy pre-pitch waggle, would ever catch up to a big fastball.
Then Aviles won MVP of the Arizona Rookie League. And the next year, he made the Carolina League All-Star team. And the year after that, he was a Texas League All-Star. The Royals kept promoting him, figuring he'd turn out to be a nice organizational player, good to fill in a hole at shortstop or third base or second base or wherever they needed him in the minors. He was on their major-league radar like a fleck of dust on NASA's.
Even this offseason, following a year in which he slugged 17 home runs at Triple-A, the Royals did not place him on the 40-man roster. He was available in the Rule 5 draft. Any team could have had him for $50,000. None bit.
"The game's the ultimate evaluator," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "A scout's judgment, a player-development (person's) judgment matters. But not as much as a player's judgment of himself."
Aviles turned 27 during spring training, and even he had started to wonder. In baseball, 25 is a late bloomer. The Royals couldn't deny what Aviles had done, yet the hang-ups still existed, some in the organization lamenting that he wasn't originally made a catcher, where his body might have translated better.
When Aviles hit 10 home runs in 214 at-bats at Triple-A, the Royals called him up at the end of May and figured he might inherit a utility role. Though manager Trey Hillman said, "I don't ever go into a situation like that putting limitations on guys," he did just that with Aviles initially. After Aviles' first game, an ugly 0-for-3 showing, Hillman, in his postgame news conference, made an offhanded remark as to how the idea of playing Aviles full-time ahead of the awful Tony Peña Jr. seemed a ridiculous idea.
A week later, Hillman used Aviles for the second time. He started at shortstop against the Yankees, his hometown team. He went 2 for 3 with two doubles. The next day, he tripled and scored a run. By the end of June, when Aviles was still hitting over .300, Hillman started saying to himself: Maybe this isn't a fluke.
"Sometimes it shocks me," Aviles said. "I'll take it. I'm not done trying to prove people wrong. I'll tell you that much. I've still got a lot to do."
Questions do remain. Aviles' defense remains average, and some wonder whether he'd profile better as a second baseman. His plate discipline, with only nine walks in 234 at-bats, is ravenous. And Aviles is hitting .367 when he puts the ball in play, a number that says Aviles is going through a particularly lucky stretch and may be nothing more than average when things even out.
"There's still more," Aviles said. "I've got the rest of the season. And then there's next year. And the following year. And the year after that. There's always something. And as long as I have that, I'll be able to be the kid who had nothing and showed us he wasn't who we thought."
Plenty wish he was. Ozzie Guillen, Ron Gardenhire and other managers around the AL have lavished Aviles with praise. He fits in, they say. He looks like a major leaguer.
Aviles is starting to conduct himself like one. Last year, he bought a 2001 Nissan Maxima with more than 100,000 miles. With his $2,500-a-month salary at Triple-A, he needed to keep the car payment at $170. During Aviles' drive from New York to Arizona for spring training in February, the car's alternator broke in Ashland, Ohio. He's hoping the Maxima lasts another week, before his new Dodge Nitro truck – "It's reasonable," he said – arrives.
Still, there are moments that tickle Aviles, and he couldn't help but recall the best day of his short career, June 12. It was his sister's birthday. He hit his first major-league home run. The Royals won. Music thumped in the clubhouse. When Aviles got to his chair in the clubhouse, there it was: His first major-league paycheck.
He pulled it open. It was for more than 10 times what the Royals had given him six years earlier. Aviles clutched the check. He was right. He was worth more than $1,000. A lot more.