“When I’m hitting the ball,” said Héctor Villanueva, with a big smile, “people say I’m strong. When I’m not hitting, they say I’m fat.” The 6-foot-1, 240-pound catcher issued that quote on April 30, 1991, after breaking the game open for the Chicago Cubs with a three-run homer.i The very next afternoon at Wrigley Field, Villanueva had his only two-homer game in the majors as the Cubs won again, 11-8.
“I’m a streak home-run hitter,” Villanueva said. “When they come, they come in bunches. I hope it keeps up.” Teammate André Dawson added, “It’s good to see a guy like Hector step in and pick up where he left off last year.”ii The Hawk may not have been aware that Villanueva had also won the Triple Crown in the Puerto Rican Winter League in the winter of 1990-91, following his rookie year in Chicago.
The hefty slugger, who also played first base, went on to hit 13 round-trippers in just 192 at-bats that year. He attracted a cult following in Chicago. Villanueva never hit as well again in the majors, though; he did not return after June 1993. Nonetheless, he soldiered on in the minors, Mexico, Taiwan, and independent leagues through 2001. “It was my job,” he said in 2012. “I had to feed my four kids. That’s what kept me going so long.”
Héctor Villanueva Balasquide was born on October 2, 1964, in Rio Piedras, a district of Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan. His father, also named Héctor, was a salesman; his mother, Lourdes Balasquide, was a schoolteacher “for 46 years, until last year.” They had five children, all boys, of whom Héctor was the second.
“I lived right across from the field in Rio Piedras,” Villanueva recalled in 2012. “I was five or six years old when I started playing. I came up all the way through junior and senior leagues.” He attended Cupeyville High School in Rio Piedras and then went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He didn’t want to go to college, but his parents insisted. “We had a big fight about it,” he said in 1991. “I wanted to sign (California and Milwaukee were interested). I was a little wild. There’s no doubt it was the right thing for me.”
He spent three years at UAB (1982-84), playing under Harry “The Hat” Walker.iii When Walker was a big-league skipper, he was known for imposing his style of hitting on many players, and his approach didn’t change in college. “He changed my style completely, from day one,” said Villanueva in 2012. “I was a dead pull hitter, and he had me going to right field with an inside-out swing.”
Cubs scout Joaquín Velilla signed Villanueva as an amateur free agent on March 26, 1985. Until 1989, players from Puerto Rico and other US territories were not subject to the amateur draft, except if they were eligible after attending college. For example, Héctor noted that his fellow Puerto Rican Joey Cora – an opponent at Vanderbilt University – was drafted in 1985. Villanueva’s own situation was different; he lost his senior year of eligibility after a misunderstanding with a professor over Thanksgiving vacation and a make-up exam.
Although baseball references show that Villanueva played one game for Geneva of the short-season New York-Penn League, he stated in 2012, “I never played a day there. I went from extended spring training straight to Peoria.” He didn’t hit so well in the Class A Midwest League – .233 with just one homer in 65 games. That winter he played in the Puerto Rican Winter League (PRWL) for the first time, getting into 11 games with the Ponce Leones. He eventually played 18 seasons of winter ball on his native island.
Héctor’s second season in Class A ball was much more promising. In 1986 he hit .318 with 13 homers and 100 RBIs for Winston-Salem in the Carolina League, and was named to the league’s all-star team. He then spent the following two summers with Pittsfield in the Eastern League (Double-A). They were both solid, with batting lines of .274-14-70 in 1987 and .314-10-75 in 1988. Other future big-league catchers were in the Cubs system at the time, including Joe Girardi and Rick Wrona. Therefore Villanueva played a good deal of first base (especially in 1988) and a little bit at third too.
He also continued to develop in Puerto Rico. During his second winter, 1986-87, he again played sparingly for Ponce, going 2-for-23 in just eight games. However, he hit .345 with five homers in 33 games for the Leones in 1987-88. The following year, he got into 47 games, although his average dipped to .236.
Villanueva advanced to Triple-A in 1989. He had a fair year with Iowa of the American Association (.252-15-57 in 120 games). He then joined a new team in the PRWL, the San Juan Metros. Although he hit eight homers, his average fell off to just .206. However, San Juan won the league championship and thus represented Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series (held in Miami’s Orange Bowl that year, which proved to be a debacle). Héctor’s 13th-inning single led Puerto Rico to victory over Mexico and meant that the sixth game of the round robin would decide the championship.iv Although the Dominican Republic won the finale, Villanueva was named first baseman on the all-tournament team.”v
That winter also featured a visit to an eating-disorder clinic. “I guess you could call it a fat farm,” he said.vi Yet of greater interest was a prophetic column in USA Today as the Caribbean Series was taking place. It said, “Hector Villanueva has the potential to be a cult hero in Chicago. With his bulging biceps and beartrap hands, he’s a big bruiser seemingly built to make a living smashing baseballs out of Wrigley Field.”vii
The same columnist, Mel Antonen, later expanded. “Last winter, Villanueva, 25, made it clear that he wanted to be a catcher. The Cubs said fine, but made it clear that he needed to lose weight before he’d see Wrigley Field wearing the Cubs’ pinstripes. Villanueva hit the running track and went from 265 to 235 pounds in three months.”viii
Villanueva returned to Iowa for his sixth minor-league season. He produced well (.266-8-34 in 52 games). In late May the big club was “desperate for offense.” They sent Rick Wrona down and called up Héctor for the first time – he had never been on the 40-man roster before that.
Villanueva made his debut in St. Louis on June 1, popping to second in his first at-bat as a pinch-hitter for Mark Grace. Villanueva then stayed in the game at first base, and in his second at-bat, he hit a two-run homer – estimated at 430 feet in spacious Busch Stadium.ix That chased Ken Dayley, who had retired him earlier, from the game, but the Cubs’ rally fell short. Even so, it remained Villanueva’s top memory of his time in the majors. “I got home, I was out of breath, I ran so fast,” he said in 2012. He also recalled with amusement what happened several days later when he reported to Wrigley for his first home game. “I was staying at the Palmer House hotel and took the train straight to the field. They didn’t recognize me because I was new. I had to come in from right field and when I got to the clubhouse everyone was saying, ‘Hey, where you coming from?’”
The rookie hit three homers in his first six games as a Cub. On June 16 the Tribune wrote, “Hector Villanueva can hit. He can play first base. He can catch. He will soon play third base. ‘If he could pitch, you know. . .’ said manager Don Zimmer.”x In fact, Héctor had made a few brief appearances on the mound in the minors, although he never did appear at the hot corner in a big-league game.
For the year, he hit .272 with 7 homers and 18 RBIs in just 114 at-bats. His seventh homer, on August 19 at Wrigley, was a game-winning two-run blow in the bottom of the eighth inning off Kent Mercker of Atlanta. “His parents had spent three weeks watching rookie catcher Hector Villanueva play in the majors and were scheduled to return to Puerto Rico. . . . Villanueva didn’t want his parents to go home without seeing him do something.”xi
After catcher Damon Berryhill returned from shoulder surgery in September, Villanueva became the number-three receiver.xii The Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Villanueva has made defensive progress in six pro seasons. He credits ex-catcher Jim Essian,” who had managed him in the minors from 1986 through his first call-up.
With San Juan in the winter of 1990-91, Villanueva hit .347 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs in just 49 games played. He became only the fourth man to win the Triple Crown in the Puerto Rican Winter League. The others were Hall of Famer Willard Brown – who did it twice, in 1947-48 and 1949-50; Elmo Plaskett (1960-61); and Wally Joyner (1985-86). “I believe that’s what got me a job in the big leagues for real,” Héctor said in 2012. In other words, his production outweighed perceptions of his body type. “I was never skinny, but I could always hit. And growing up, my brothers and I played basketball, volleyball, and water polo too.”
After reinforcing the Puerto Rican squad in the Caribbean Series, Villanueva continued his hot hitting in spring training for the Cubs in 1991. However, he suffered a broken metacarpal when hit by a batting-practice pitch and missed nearly all of April.xiii But when he came back, an opportunity arose because Joe Girardi had a disc problem in his back and Damon Berryhill started very slowly with the bat. Villanueva then made his splash at the end of the month, and as the Chicago Tribune noted, “Zimmer likes to ride with a hot hand as long as he can, so Villanueva will likely remain in the lineup until he cools off. He doesn`t have as many defensive skills as Berryhill and Girardi have, but he has been adequate enough to impress Zimmer. The only question is whether Cub pitchers, who have grown accustomed to the seasoned Berryhill calling their games, can adjust to Villanueva.”xiv
A couple of weeks later Villanueva did in fact go into a slump. The Sun-Times observed that the Cubs did not want to start him more than three games in a row. “They feel his throwing suffers and he starts chasing breaking pitches.”xv Though he started to regain his eye in July, Chicago sent both him and Berryhill down to Iowa in August in order to make room for Rick Sutcliffe (coming off an injury rehab assignment) and Girardi.
Villanueva returned after a couple of weeks, though, replacing sore-armed pitcher Frank Castillo. On August 23, as a pinch-hitter, he hit one of his two triples in the majors, part of a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth that gave the Cubs a 5-4 win over San Diego. The blow also prompted a funny line from Jim Essian, who had become the Cubs’ manager that May after Zimmer was fired. “I certainly didn’t imagine that by sending Hector up there, I’d get a triple. Certainly not an inside-the-park triple.”xvi
Villanueva then got really hot again in September. He hit three homers in four games from September 11 through September 16, and had six altogether that month. “Right now, it’s just very simple,” said Essian. “Hector’s hitting the ball well and with authority, and he’s going to have to keep doing that. It just makes sense to play Hector right now.”xvii He finished with a .276 average, 13 homers and 32 RBIs in just 192 at-bats.
In his third appearance of the 1992 season, on April 12, Villanueva hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning at Wrigley to give the Cubs a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. “He’s very strong,” said Joe Torre, then managing the Cardinals. “He killed it.” The ball had to be well hit, since it was a frigid day at Wrigley and the wind was blowing in at 20 miles per hour. It barely made it over the left field basket. Héctor himself said, “I got most of it.”xviii
Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times led his recap of the game as follows: “He kind of looked like The Babe as he waddled around first base Sunday, tummy wiggling, shirt buttons straining not to pop. The stats said Babe, too. It was the 21st homer in just 313 Cubs at-bats for the eternally fascinating Hector Villanueva, who now owns a Ruthian ratio of one every 15 at-bats. Riddle: How can George Bell’s power be replaced? Solution: Villanueva should bat seventh and catch every day.”xix
It didn’t work out that way – although Villanueva did serve as personal catcher for staff ace Greg Maddux. “Husky Hector,” as Mariotti dubbed him, never lifted his average above .238 that year. Maddux said that June, “Hector can hit, we all know that, and I think he’s a competent catcher. He’s struggled at the plate, but I went 13 starts (in 1990) without winning a game. I know the feeling.” Villanueva hit just one more homer as a Cub, another game-winning three-run blow against the Cardinals, this time off changeup artist Bob Tewksbury. “I promised myself I wouldn’t shave until I got another home run,” he said.”xx
In early July, hitting just .162, Villanueva was sent down to Iowa. The writing was on the wall because a couple of weeks before Chicago had brought up lefty-hitting catcher Rick Wilkins, who was also viewed as a better thrower. Villanueva went .239-9-35 in 49 games with the Oaks, and the Cubs recalled him that September. He went 1-for-13 in 13 more appearances that month. On November 9, despite his popularity, Chicago released him.
Yet three decades later, Héctor’s two-plus seasons with the Cubs remain part of club lore – one reason being the comic mispronunciations of his name by Harry Caray, the Chicago announcing institution. A series of these was captured on the tribute CD in memory of Caray that WGN Radio released in 2011.
In December 1992 the Cardinals signed Villanueva. “I had 72 hours to either sign with them or become a free agent. I didn’t really want to sign with St. Louis. I wasn’t really happy with the money, $225,000, but I had to sign. Things didn’t work out too well there.”
He split the Puerto Rican season between San Juan and the Santurce Cangrejeros, and after Santurce won the league championship, they went on to the 1993 Caribbean Series. In Mazatlán, Mexico, Villanueva became the series MVP. Puerto Rico won the tournament with a 5-2 record as Héctor (playing first base) went 9-for-18 with 2 homers and 9 RBIs.xxi
Villanueva made the St. Louis roster as backup catcher in 1993; among other things, he caught on days when Cuban defector René Arocha, who did not speak English, was pitching. “I also caught a couple of other Puerto Ricans, Omar Olivares and Mike Pérez.” However, Héctor hit just .145 (8 for 55) with three homers in 17 games before the Cards demoted him to Louisville. Villanueva performed reasonably well in 40 games at Triple A (.242-5-20), but the organization released him that August.
In 1994 Héctor played in Mexico for the first time. “In Puerto Rico, there was a Mexican guy staying at the hotel. I got a call about 1:30 A.M. one day, I heard that they were trying to reach me, and I said, ‘Hey, they gotta come out to the ballpark!’ They offered me money – it was $10,000 a month and another $10,000 under the table – plus they offered tickets for my family to see me a couple of times. The Astros made me an offer, but it was at Triple-A, not such good money. I had already been to Mexico for the Caribbean Series, and I liked it there.”
Playing for both Puebla and the Tigres of Mexico City, Villanueva led the Mexican League in homers (30) and RBIs (108) while batting .333. He then signed with the Expos organization and played for their Triple-A team at Ottawa. The Lynx used him at first base and designated hitter, not behind the plate. In 26 games, he hit .215-4-11.
In 1995, amid Major League Baseball’s continued work stoppage, Villanueva was slated to be a replacement player for the Atlanta Braves. Another Puerto Rican replacement, Boi Rodríguez, mentioned one factor in the decision. “I know guys who are owed a lot of licensing money – $70,000 and $80,000 – and they haven’t seen it yet. One of my friends [Villanueva] played four years in the majors and he asked, ‘Where’s my check?’ and he got no reply.”xxii
That March Villanueva said that he “didn’t lose any sleep over his decision . . . to ignore the union and play in exhibition games. ‘I’ve been part of the union for four years. I’m well aware of what it stands for. But when I called the union and said I needed money, that I have four people to take care of, the union didn’t have a response to me at all.’ ”xxiii
When the strike ended, Villanueva rejoined the Mexico City Tigres; the club had a working agreement with Atlanta then.xxiv In 53 games, he hit a torrid .374 with 12 homers and 47 RBIs. He also played 10 games for Atlanta’s top farm club, Richmond, but went on the disabled list with Achilles tendinitis. There was more to the story, as he recalled in 2012. “Mexico released me. They needed a pitcher instead of a hitter, even though my numbers were good. I went home to Puerto Rico, and Carlos Ríos, who was with the Braves organization then, said, ‘Be ready to be called.’ ”
“I thought there was a good chance in Atlanta, with Javier López and Greg Maddux [who never meshed as a battery, whereas Maddux and Villanueva had an established rapport]. But after a month and a half, playing with the babies, all of a sudden I had to report, no practice, I hadn’t swung a bat since leaving Mexico. I got to Richmond, I had to tell them, ‘I’m not a coach here, I’m still an active player.’ I talked to Grady Little, the manager, I said, ‘I’m 30 years old, I’m not ready to be teaching.’”
Villanueva went to a new Mexican team for 1996, Monclova, and again he put up good numbers (.287-25-94 in 114 games). That August he joined St. Paul of the independent Northern League just before the league’s deadline for freezing rosters ahead of the league’s playoffs.xxv He played in 14 games with the Saints.
The 1997 season brought Héctor across the Pacific Ocean to the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan. With the China Times Eagles, he was 38-for-104 (.365) in 29 games, with 5 homers and 24 RBIs. The team suffered from a game-fixing scandal in ’97 – something that plagued Taiwanese ball in general in those years. “Taiwan was a disaster,” said Villanueva in 2012. “When we made the deal, I said, ‘I can’t spend the summer without my wife and family.’ They said they’d pay for tickets, the manager was a schoolteacher, he was speaking English just like you and me. Then after about the first month, he claimed there was a misunderstanding about the tickets. There were a lot of rules, the house wasn’t too comfortable, it was a so-so league with tight little parks. And the gambling was unreal.
“I gave them a week’s notice, but I had to talk to the embassy to get my passport back. I came home and sat for a month, and then I got a call from Cancún. They said, ‘When can you get here?’ I said, ‘I’ll get in shape in a week.’ The manager said, ‘I want you in my lineup the next day, batting cleanup.’ I went, I’m a warrior!” he said with a chuckle. He hit .300-6-29 in 54 games for the Quintana Roo Langosteros.
Héctor continued to move from one club to another south of the border. In 1998 he was with Nuevo Laredo (.301-20-56 in 117 games). Then in 1999, he played just 21 games for Yucatán and Oaxaca (.225-3-13) before returning to indie-league ball in the US with Atlantic City of the Atlantic League. The club featured various other former major leaguers, including one who made a successful comeback: fellow Puerto Rican Rubén Sierra. “The independent leagues couldn’t pay what Mexico could,” Villanueva observed in 2012. The visibility was higher, yet there was no interest in him from big-league clubs, even though he hit strongly (.323-16-45) in 59 games for the Surf. “I was getting older, and I got a little bigger size-wise,” he said.
Villanueva had become a fan favorite at the Sandcastle, the Atlantic City ballpark, so he returned for the 2000 season. That April, the Press of Atlantic City described him: “Hector Villanueva grabbed an oversized mitt and danced gracefully – at least as gracefully as any 280-pound man can dance – around the first-base bag for infield practice. He wrapped tape around a long, thin-handled bat, dug his sneakers into the concrete-like dirt and yanked pitch after pitch down the left-field line.”xxvi He remained the big gun in the Surf lineup that summer, hitting .308 in 124 games with 38 homers and 95 RBIs. Mexico tried to lure him away again in midseason, but he decided to stay.xxvii
Villanueva brings to mind another portly player who enjoyed great popularity in the indie leagues and wherever else he went: Brian Traxler, who had a cup of coffee with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1990. Both Héctor and Trax had easygoing personalities and a deep love of the game, and the ordinary fan could form a bond with them. Villanueva remembered Traxler, as a Dodgers farmhand and from the Atlantic League.
Villanueva returned to Mexico for one final summer in 2001. He played in 90 games for Córdoba and Puebla (.266-9-46) and finished his Mexican career with total of 105 homers, 393 RBIs, and a .304 average in 578 games. When asked for his opinions on the Mexican game, Héctor responded, “The traveling was good for me. I had an agreement that I could take a plane if the bus ride was longer than four or five hours. But the last couple of teams, they weren’t winning as much, and I had some problems getting my paychecks on time. They treated the imports a lot better than the Mexican players. They don’t have a players association down there, they’re at the mercy of the owners.”
Héctor retired from summer ball because “I was tired of traveling. I got a good job offer, working at the park where I grew up, being in charge of the fields. My kids were getting older, they needed me.” Still, he remained in the game at home for two more winters, finally quitting after 2002-03. He never missed a single season in Puerto Rico while he was a pro, and he compiled 105 homers – tied for third on the league’s lifetime list, along with Elrod Hendricks, behind only Bob Thurman and José Cruz, Sr. He had 425 RBIs in 754 games, to go with a .259 average. In addition to the two championship teams already mentioned, he won another title with Caguas in 2000-01.
Villanueva remained connected to baseball in his homeland. “I do a little managing in the amateur leagues. Edwards Guzmán, who played catcher for a couple of years in the majors [1999; 2001; 2003] – he’s still playing there.” In addition, he serves as a referee in volleyball and team handball. Héctor married Gizelle Krebs on December 26, 1987. They had four children – Alana, Soleil, Omar, and Joshua.
Looking back on his career in 2012, Villanueva reiterated a main theme. “I love the game – I wanted to play until I was 50! And it was a good-paying job.”
Grateful acknowledgment to Héctor Villanueva for his memories (telephone interview, January 22, 2012). Continued thanks to SABR member Jorge Colón Delgado, official historian of the Puerto Rican Winter League, for details on Villanueva’s career there.
Pedro Treto Cisneros, editor, Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano (Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V.: 11th edition, 2011).
José A. Crescioni Benítez, El Béisbol Profesional Boricua (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Aurora Comunicación Integral, 1997).
http://twbsball.dils.tku.edu.tw/wiki/index.php/%E5%A8%81%E6%A0%BCH.V (Taiwanese statistics)
i Bill Jauss, “Villanueva powers Cub rout,” Chicago Tribune, May 1, 1991, Sports-1.
ii “Villanueva, Cubs Outslug Astros, 11-8,” Associated Press, May 2, 1991.
iii Andrew Bagnato, “Villanueva’s Rise One for the Books,” Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1991.
iv Associated Press, February 11, 1990.
v Mel Antonen, “Escogido wins series, beats Puerto Rico 16-5,” USA Today, February 12, 1990, 4C.
vi Dave Van Dyck, “Cards' speed too much for lackadaisical Cubs,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 4, 1990.
vii Mel Antonen and Jim Myers. “Cubs have hard time sizing up catching prospect,” USA Today, February 9, 1990, 3C.
viii Mel Antonen, “Cubs rookie loses weight and gains spot on roster,” USA Today, July 12, 1990, 5C.
x Andrew Bagnato, “A week for sweeps: Phils do it to Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1990, Sports-1.
xi Associated Press, August 20, 1990.
xii Joe Goddard, “Williams sputters vs. Cards,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 15, 1990.
xiii Joe Goddard, “Fracture in left hand to sideline Villanueva for April,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 1, 1991.
xiv Bagnato, “Villanueva’s Rise One for the Books.”
xv Joe Goddard, “High pitches hurt Berryhill,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 21, 1991.
xvi Andrew Bagnato, “Villanueva ignites Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1991.
xvii Andrew Bagnato, “Cubs lose, but Villanueva’s catching on,” Chicago Tribune, September 17, 1991, Sports-3.
xviii “Villanueva’s Homer Lifts Cubs to Win,” Associated Press, April 13, 1992.
xix Jay Mariotti, “Husky Hector deserves chance at everyday job,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 13, 1992.
xx “Chicago Cubs: Dugout Chatter,” The Sporting News, June 29, 1992, 16.
xxi “Villanueva Designado Jugador Más Valioso,” El Nuevo Herald (Miami, Florida), February 11, 1993, 2C
xxii Alan Robinson, “Replacement player fires back at union,” Associated Press, March 23, 1995.
xxiii Bill Zack, “Atlanta Braves: Looking for the union label?” The Sporting News, March 20, 1995, 16.
xxiv “Braves Notebook.” Atlanta Constitution, July 5, 1995.
xxv “Saints get Villanueva, Burgos Before Playoff-Roster Freeze,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 20, 1996, 1F.
xxvi Bill LeConey, “Villanueva Remains Big Hit with Atlantic City Surf,” Press of Atlantic City, April 19, 2000.
xxvii Bill LeConey, “Villanueva Weighs Options, Decides to Stay,” Press of Atlantic City, July 11, 2000.