He can’t get away from it.
The baseball career Sgt. Leonardo Aviles feels he cut short gave way to a softball habit in the U.S. Army.
Returning to his home in San Antonio on Monday from All-Army softball tryouts and camps; the Armed Forces Softball Championships and the Amateur Softball Association National Championships, Aviles has some time away from the sport.
But, the 28-year-old Ellison graduate and dental lab technician stationed at Fort Sam Houston is enticed by the baseball magazine that arrived while he was away.
“It’s all the same dream. This is like a substitute for what I could’ve been, what I could’ve done,” Aviles said. “I play softball so much. I’m sitting here, and I told myself, ‘Man, I’m done playing softball for about a month or two.’ I’m fed up with it. But, as soon as I get here, I open up a Baseball Express magazine, looking at gloves and shoes.
“I think it’s just that void that’s in my heart, I knew I could’ve been something better than what I was, or I could’ve still been playing baseball, but since I’m not, this is the path I’ve been put on so I’m just going to keep playing.”
Aviles played for the All-Army team that snapped the All-Air Force’s three-year reign as Armed Services softball champions two weeks ago at Fort Sill, Okla. Just this past weekend, he helped the All-Armed Forces team compete as well as it has in recent memory at the ASA Men’s “A” National Tournament in Oklahoma City.
“I play softball to just have fun and now it’s starting to get to where it’s competitive and people are asking me to fly to different states to play for their teams,” Aviles said. “I don’t know if it’s what I was meant to do, but since I’m doing it, I’m going to do it the best way that I can.”
Fork in the road
Aviles signed with Temple College after graduating from Ellison in 2002, despite receiving looks and offers from Sam Houston State and UT-Arlington to walk-on.
He didn’t play as a freshman because of a shoulder impingement — an irritation and inflammation of the rotator cuff muscles. The next season, finally healthy enough to play, his focus on baseball was unmatched. Not even by his studies.
Struggling with grades, his scholarship in a state of questions because of an injury that still lingered, Aviles’ college baseball career was slipping through his fingers. He felt it. Then, his professional career came and went.
While attending a friend’s wedding in Killeen, Aviles received a call from one of his Temple College baseball coaches: The Chicago White Sox, in town to scout one of his teammates, were asking questions about Aviles.
He raced back to the campus only to hear the scouts were gone. His chances of ever making the pros, he thought, gone with them.
“From there, it started going down,” Aviles said. “I felt like I had missed my opportunity. My shoulder, my scholarship, things got a little tough, and I feel like I took the easy way out. That’s why I say, to this day, I feel like I cut myself short.”
Growing up in a military household — his father and brother were both in the Army — Aviles said he’d never enlist.
But, in the midst of all that was going on in his life at the time, the Army seemed more and more like the best choice.
But the decision to join the Army didn’t go over well with everyone. Talking to a friend — the father of one his former teammates — Aviles braved a harsh truth. He’d never be able to move on if he stayed here.
“He was like, ‘You’re wasting talent. I can’t believe that. You just threw your life away. ... You’ll just be another nobody.’ When he said that, I said, I’m not going to be living up to your expectations of me, I’m going to do what I want to do for myself, to make myself feel accomplished,” Aviles said. “I got in the Army, got out of there.”
He’s still the same person that grew up in Killeen, helped a group of 13- and 14-year-olds win a select baseball national championship for Killeen in 1998 and played catcher as a tall, lanky teenager at Ellison High School.
“I’m the same guy, just now, I’m representing something bigger than a high school,” he said.
Though, he admits, he’s too old now to play catcher, anymore.
Same concept, different game
About six years ago, Aviles, then stationed at Fort Gordon, Ga., started playing shortshop for his unit just to give him something to do other than work and go to the gym.
Then, stationed in Korea, he saw his first regional, multi-post tournament — the Pacific Wide softball tournament, which featured teams from Hawaii, Japan, Korea, the Phillipines and Thailand among others.
“That culture of softball opened my eyes. I thought, this is pretty serious,” Aviles said. “The level of competition was different than just paying unit-level. Unit-level, you just get a few guys there to have fun and play, but when you’re playing against regions or post teams ... those guys would always come up there bringing it. They always have one or two ringers, some dudes that are like 6-5, big football player-looking guys that are just mashing the ball.”
With a new perspective, Aviles gave softball a serious go.
At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, there is no shortage of tournaments. And he goes. He plays and, inevitably, he’ll catch the eye of a better team.
“From then on, it just got bigger and bigger and my interest in the game got bigger and bigger, too,” Aviles said. “I’m always travelling, playing somewhere. ... It’s just fun. Softball’s fun. It’s kind of like baseball, not the same as baseball, but the concept’s the same.”
Aviles didn’t make the All-Army team last year, but his chain of command allowed him another opportunity to leave San Antonio to try out again this year.
He and four soldiers from Fort Hood — Maj. Ron Colombo, Staff Sgt. Brandon Sonnenburg, Staff Sgt. Stephen Williams and Sgt. 1st Class Lee Diaz — helped Army go 7-2 in the Armed Forces tournament Sept. 16-20, including winning two of three against three-time defending champion Air Force.
Aviles hit .731 with three home runs in the tournament and was asked to be a member of the All-Armed Forces team that went 2-2 at the ASA National Tournament.
“It was a constant world of softball,” Aviles said. “It goes from being fun to being work. A lot of people just think we just go out there and play softball and have fun, but every day, working out and going to practice, batting practice, weight rooms, double-headers, it’s crazy.”
Aviles doesn’t regret his decision to join the Army.
He’s been extended twice, re-enlisted once and he’s considered making it a career. But that doesn’t keep away the feeling that he could’ve gone on to other, possibly bigger, things in his life.
And a professional option remains close at hand in San Antonio, home of the San Diego Padres’ double-A affiliate , the San Antonio Missions. When he was at Fort Gordon, the Augusta Greenjackets, a Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, held tryouts for guys like him.
“I kind of don’t want to re-visit that because if I go back to playing baseball and I’m doing well ... it’s going to bring up all these memories that I’ve worked to just forget about,” Aviles said.
“I’m glad I joined the military, I’ve got a means to provide for myself and for my wife. It’s just something that, in the meantime, since I’m in the military and I’m trying to progress my career in that, hey, there’s softball to be played, let’s play it.”