ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Villanueva's journey has him back at Roosevelt

Contract pitcher signed with Mexican team ruled invalid. Now he is trying to get his grades up to regain his eligibility

There are spider webs not nearly as entangled or twisted as the strange odyssey involving left-handed pitcher Martin Villanueva of Los Angeles Roosevelt.

In January, Villanueva, a two-time All-City selection, dropped out of school and left for Mexico after being told a contract he had signed with the Mexico City Red Devils made him ineligible for high school sports. The Red Devils play in the Mexican summer league and are under the jurisdiction of minor league baseball.

On Feb. 1, after an investigation ordered by the Commissioner's Office, the contract was ruled null and void.

"It was a black and white issue," said Tim Brunswick, baseball operations director for the minor leagues. "The kid was not eligible to sign a professional contract."

Then came a frantic attempt by Roosevelt Coach Scott Pearson to track down Villanueva and get him back to school so he could become academically eligible for his senior year.

The cellphone number Pearson had for Villanueva was no longer working, so he tried to reach Villanueva's father, Salvador, on the night of Feb. 4, letting the phone ring what he estimated was at least 50 times before it was picked up.

Salvador then got in touch with Villanueva, who was staying with relatives in Jamay in the eastern part of Jalisco.

In the early morning, Villanueva took a six-hour bus ride, then another hour drive by taxi to the airport in Guadalajara. Pearson charged $187 to his credit card so that Villanueva could fly to Tijuana, where Pearson met him and drove him back to Los Angeles. On Feb. 6, Villanueva was back in school, trying to take advantage of a second chance.

"It was the worst experience I had," Villanueva said last week sitting on a couch in Pearson's cluttered baseball office among soup containers, water bottles and soft drink cans.

Villanueva was told to stay away from practice and concentrate on catching up on his studies. He needs to turn four Fs into passing marks by the next grading period to be eligible in early March. If not then, he'll try for April.

"He's got 3 1/2 weeks of work to make up," Pearson said. "If he really wants to do it, he'll do it."

And there's lots of motivation for Villanueva, a 17-year-old who was born in Mexico but has lived in Southern California since he was an infant. He's 6 feet 1, 210 pounds, throws a fastball 88 mph, has a terrific curveball and had a 14-1 record as a junior. He's eligible for the June amateur draft, which makes it important for him to get onto the field. He understands the predicament he has put himself in.

"It's on me and my dad," he said.

It was Villanueva's poor grades in the fall that apparently led his father to contact the owner of the Red Devils, Roberto Mansur. They were put in touch through an intermediary, long-time Dodgers scout Mike Brito, who knew Villanueva's father.

Brito's role caused the Dodgers to launch their own investigation over concerns of tampering. Brito said all he did was give Mansur's phone number to Villanueva's father.

Logan White, assistant general manager of the Dodgers, said, "I do believe Mike tried to help the dad when the dad came to him."

Villanueva said he did not understand a contract he signed last October to attend an academy training camp in Monterrey made him a professional.

"I thought I was just going to a camp to get better," he said.

It was during his two-month winter break from Roosevelt that he went to the camp. Pearson didn't know Villanueva was playing baseball in Mexico until he received a text message from Villanueva over Thanksgiving.

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