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Avila picks up scouting honor

Avila picks up scouting honor

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Al Campanis would have been proud.

Campanis will forever be remembered for his fateful words on a Nightline interview, instead of a 46-year baseball career during which, as personnel chief of the Dodgers, he once hired a Cuban expatriate to be his eyes and ears in the Caribbean searching for talent.

Ralph Avila went on to become a vice president of Latin American operations in the organization, and on Tuesday he was honored as Major League Baseball's first International Scout of the Year.

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Avila, a semi-pro ballplayer in Cuba, participated in the revolution that overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista, but a rival party led by Fidel Castro took over the country. Avila eventually fled for America, returned for the Bay of Pigs invasion and then returned to Florida.

A sheet-metal worker who ran a free baseball clinic in Miami to keep Cuban refugee kids out of trouble, he hooked up in 1967 as an unpaid "bird-dog scout" for Campanis. Avila was hired full-time in 1971 to scout Florida, and he spotted eventual first-round pick Rick Rhoden. In 1974 Campanis tabbed Avila to comb the Dominican Republic looking for baseball players.

Under Avila's direction, the Dodgers established a relationship with the Licey professional club in the Dominican and with it a foothold in the country. It started an unprecedented flow of talent that led to the establishment of the organization's development complex outside of Santo Domingo, Campo Las Palmas, where young farmhands from 24 countries have begun their Dodgers careers.

"I really miss Al," Avila said of Campanis, who died in 1998. "He was my mentor, my teacher, my advisor. He taught me scouting. He taught me the Dodger way, and to this day I still use Al's system. I always was, am and will be an Al Campanis man. He was like my father."

Campanis and Avila seized an opportunity in building the academy. As signing bonuses escalated because of the amateur draft in the United States, talent from the Caribbean (not subject to the draft) was less expensive. With Castro preventing Cuban players from leaving his island and Major League expansion creating more total roster spots, the players had to come from somewhere.

Avila won the admiration of then-owner Peter O'Malley, who gave Avila the vice president title in 1989. Avila remains active as a senior advisor for player development. Among the players that passed through the academy began by Avila and Campanis are the Martinez brothers (Ramon and Pedro), Raul Mondesi, Jose Offerman and Mariano Duncan. Now, virtually every team has a complex on the island.

Avila's son, Al, is assistant general manager of the Detroit Tigers.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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