February 24, 2008
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.
On Dec. 8, Villanueva returned to the Southland and the next day was told he had become a professional and needed to report to the Red Devils in February.
Pearson started doing his own research, calling agents, lawyers and the Dodgers to find out what had happened to his standout pitcher.
The Commissioner's Office learned of the growing controversy and directed Brunswick to investigate.
Mansur and the president of the Mexican baseball league, Plinio Escalante, were informed in a letter dated Feb. 1 that Villanueva's contract was not valid.
"Major League Rule 3(a)(2) states that high school students are not eligible to sign a professional baseball contract during any period in which the student is eligible to participate in high school athletics," according to the letter from Pat O'Conner, president and CEO of minor league baseball. "Because we have confirmed that Mr. Villanueva was eligible to participate in high school athletics, he was not eligible to enter a professional contract with the Diablos Rojos."
Reached last week on his cellphone, Mansur, speaking in Spanish, continued to insist that Villanueva was under contract with the Red Devils and expected him to show for the start of training camp last Sunday.
"If he doesn't show up, it's no problem," he said.
Brunswick said he is still reviewing if any action will be taken against the Red Devils.
What's clear is that Villanueva isn't going to be drafted by the Dodgers in June.
"This kid could throw lights out this year and I won't touch him," White said. "Just because of how it would look. I hope the kid does well. And hopefully the kid gets drafted. You want good for the kid."
Asked what he learned from his experience, Villanueva said, "Never sign a contract without knowing what it has on it."
Staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this story.
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