Ralph Avila In Control Once Again

Maybe he should be retired. Obviously, though, like his good friend Tommy Lasorda, that word is not in the lexicon of Ralph Avila. So, while others his age may be sitting in a cabana sipping a tall, cool one, Ralph is situated in the sun, checking out ball players.

It's the latest chapter in a story that reads like a good novel for it started when he was a young man, carrying an M-1 in the hills, fighting for Cuba Libre behind his leader Fidel Castro. But when Castro came to power and revealed himself to be the dictator he became, Ralph quickly broke with him and fled his native land.

He arrived in the U.S. with nothing, taking whatever job he could until he finally gravitated to his first love, baseball and, eventually, to the Dodgers. At first, he was a part-timer in Florida but when he was sent to the Dominican Republic, he found his niche.

For a long time there was no better scout on the island and it was he who propelled the Dodgers to the forefront there- the great days of the Martinez brothers, Raul Mondesi, Adrian Beltré, Pedro Astacio and so many others.

His vision of a permanent base became Campo Las Palmas, the first and, in many ways, still the best of the many training sties that now dot the country. He became so much the main man in the sport down there that he was made the manager of the country's national team.

Ralph reached emeritus status a few years ago but , when Frank McCourt became alarmed about the manner in which the Dodgers have sagged behind others in obtaining Caribbean ball players, he asked Ralph to step in and straighten matters out.

He agreed and has been at it ever since. Most of the good scouts he had hired over the years have left the organization and he'd received reports that some of the newer guys were not all that diligent in their pursuit of players. So, he called a meeting.

"I told them I wasn't here to fire anybody, " he relates now. "I was giving them a rope. If they wanted to use it to hang themselves , so be it."

In the glory days, championships in the Dominican Summer League were routine but Dodger fortunes have declined to the point that this year's team is a sub .500 one. Scouts were able to come up with a couple of promising players pressed into immediate services. Ironically, the first was named- are you ready?- Pedro Guerrero.

No, he's not in any way related to THE Pedro who did such great hitting for the Dodgers of the 80's. This one's a skinny shortstop , just 17 , that they hope will fill out and develop. Another teen-ager of promise signed is lefthander Carlos Duenas, who also shows some promise.

What Ralph isn't doing is throwing McCourt's money around after players like some other teams. That he regards as madness. "The Yankees gave someone a million and a half; the Red Sox handed someone a million. That's crazy. They're not worth that much.

"I had a player we were looking at come to me and say , 'I can get $600,000.' I said, 'Not from me, you're not.' He said, 'No, the Rangers have offered me that.' I shook his hand and told him, "Take it.' "

He's trying to keep matters under control while finding the young kid who might develop. He remembers Ramon Martinez (who might be his alltime favorite.)

"He was this kid who couldn't throw 82 miles an hour. They wanted me to cut him. But he worked and grew and one day Don Drysdale said to me , 'What did you do to this kid? He was nothing and all of a sudden he's throwing in the 90's.' "

While Ralph enjoys talking about those days, he doesn't look back fondly to Cuba. Recent news of Fidel's illness had people in Miami's Little Havana dancing in the streets.

"What are they dancing for? Ralph scoffs. "Nothing's going to change there. They're kidding themselves. No matter what happens I don't want to go back there."

No, he's concentrating on the other areas of the Caribbean. "We have about three kids I want to sign. As for the scouts, I have a stack of reports this high," indicating a huge pile with his hands. "Are we doing well? Talk to me about the first of the year and I'll be able to tell you."

The old master is in charge once more.

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