- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- To anyone who has ever experienced a brush with death, the following story will seem familiar. Not necessarily familiar in its details or its circumstances but familiar in the feelings it evokes, the raw emotion of it all, the fact later on it is often difficult to recount too many of the specifics of everything that happened because when you were going through it, you weren't nearly as focused on the who, what, where and why as you were on simply surviving.
Maybe you were swimming in ocean waters rougher than you realized, and the 60 or so seconds you spent caught in a rip current seemed more like an hour. Maybe you were on a commercial flight experiencing an in-flight emergency with an alarming absence of reassurances coming from the cockpit. Maybe you hit a patch of black ice on the highway and began spinning into the path of an oncoming big rig.
Now, imagine it wasn't only your life that was in danger, but the lives of your entire family, as well.
Now you have a little hint of what Luis Ayala was feeling in the wee hours of Jan. 4.
The veteran reliever, who is in camp with the Dodgers this spring as a non-roster invitee, is a bit fuzzy on the details. That's understandable considering his front door was kicked in and his home was invaded by men carrying high-powered weapons. Ayala says he believes were AK-47 assault rifles. It's even more understandable considering it all took place in the middle of the night after he already had driven some five hours from Mazatlan, where his Mexican Winter League team, Culiacan, had just finished a three-game series, to his home in Los Mochis.
Ayala's recounting of the events differed somewhat from an Associated Press story immediately after the incident. The story reported he was the intended target and the plot was foiled when police arrived and scared off the assailants. But given he was the one who went through it, along with his wife and infant son, Ayala's version is considerably more compelling.
"We had a day off the next day," Ayala said. "My son had been sick, and my wife was going to take him to see the doctor the next day, so I wanted to be there and go with them. So a couple of my teammates and I decided to drive home. We got into the city around 2 a.m. I dropped them off at their houses, and then I went home."
It was on the last stretch, when he was driving alone, when Ayala first began to feel as if something wasn't right. The headlights he saw in his rearview mirror were there for an unusually long time, especially being as late as it was. Still, Ayala drove on until he reached his home, the suspicious car still tailing him.
"I thought the guy might have been following me," he said.
As he pulled into his driveway, the other car slowed down as it passed his house, but then kept going. Ayala wasn't sure exactly what it meant, but the car was gone now, and he was too tired to give it much more thought.
Ayala went in, said hello to his wife and went to bed. He now figures it must have been about an hour later when he was jolted awake by the sound of his front door being broken through. He says he looked out the window, saw about five cars, immediately closed his bedroom door and tried to pretend he and his family weren't home, hoping the strangers who were now in his house would fall for it.
They did not.
Ayala managed to call the police from his cell phone before the assailants came bursting through the bedroom door. The voice on the other end said help was on the way, but Ayala was less than convinced.
"There is so much going on in Mexico with the cartels," Ayala said of the country's drug crime. "There is a lot of police corruption too."
Ayala's account also differs here from the AP report, which said the assailants fled when the police arrived. Ayala said the police didn't arrive until after the assailants -- claiming they had simply hit the wrong house -- left on their own. Either way, the group of thugs, which Ayala says was about 25 strong, held Ayala and his family at gunpoint for about 40 minutes.
If 60 seconds in a rip current feels like an hour, what does 40 minutes of staring down the barrels of several guns feel like?
"They said they had the wrong house, but they could have made a mistake," he said. "They could have shot us before they realized that. ... I couldn't sleep for a long time after that night. I just can't explain what it was like."
Fact is, he doesn't have to. Anyone who has ever experienced true terror already knows what it was like. Ayala's recounting of the events took place last week, on the day Dodgers pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. He told the story, or at least his cloudy version of it, without hesitation. But the next day, when another reporter asked him to tell it again, he declined, saying he didn't want to relive the most horrifying night of his life.
That is kind of the way traumatic experiences work, especially when you are trying to move on from them. One day, you are fine with telling someone about it, maybe even finding it therapeutic to do so. Other days, you would prefer to pretend it never happened, and that's hard to do when someone else brings it up.
For the most part, it seems, Ayala has moved on. As spring training has transitioned from the hey-good-to-see-you-how-was-your-offseason phase to the business-as-usual, throw-off-a-mound-every-other-day phase, he appears to have settled seamlessly into his new surroundings. He will never be able to forget that night, or what the hollow end of an AK-47 looks like, or what it felt like to know he, his wife and his baby son were in real danger. But from a psychological standpoint, there is a certain safety in being here, in a baseball clubhouse, where he doesn't have to think about what could have happened because he is too busy thinking about other matters -- matters that might be less important but at the moment are more pressing.
If nothing else, in a camp where there are 64 players competing for 25 roster spots, Ayala can say this with some measure of credibility: The thought of having to begin the season in Triple-A isn't such a scary thing after all.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Dodgers pitcher Luis Ayala and his family are moving on after a horrifying ordeal.