AN ARTICLE FROM THE BASEBALL MAGAZINE:APRIL
HEY MAN, CAN YOU HOLD THE BABY?
Hector Villanueva and the 88 Pittsfield Cubs
Al Chambers had just grounded out and Hector Villanueva stepped up to the plate. The Pittsfield Cubs were winning 3-2 and the crowd, as they had done all season started chanting HECTOOOOR, HECTOOOR, HECTOOOR. Not that it was much of a crowd. There were only about 200 people in the stands but Hector was their man. With his roly-poly body and his .300 BA and his 12 HRs, he was among the league leaders in many offensive categories in the Eastern League. The Pittsfield Cubs were in first place now and Hector, Jerome Walton, Brian House, Dean Wilkins, Joe Girardi, Mike Harkey, and Ced Landrum were the men responsible for that.
Manager Jim Essian had a solid crew to work with and the players were responding well to him. At this point of the season Jerome Walton and Brian House were trading places in leading the Eastern League in batting. In seventh place was Villan- ueva with a .315 BA. Ced Landrum, although he was hitting only .235, was leading the league in stolen bases with 66. My feeling after having watched them play for several games was that Jerome Walton was a cant miss for ML stardom. He hit too all parts of the field, had great bat control, and was a wonderful outfielder as well. He did not have power, but could steal a base and seemed to be destined for a ML call up pretty soon. Brian House seemed to be in the same mold. Ah but Mr. Villanueva. He was special too. Nobody on the team was more fun to watch play.
It seemed he could play everything. Catching was his natural position, but he could play first and third and I also saw him in the outfield for a game or two. He shared the catching duties with Joe Girardi and Kelly Mann. Although Girardi was better defensively he couldnt match Villanuevas offensive power. When Hector got up to the plate there was always the feeling he could smack one out of the park. Like right now. With a 3-1 count on him, he hit a fly ball that carried to right center. Ken Griffy Jr. (who went 3-4 that day for Vermont) started going back to the fence, stopped a few feet from it, and watched the ball go into the trees beyond the fence. Hectooor, Hectooor, Hectooor. The Cubs eventually lost to Vermont by a score of 8-4 but it didnt matter. Villanueva had hit his HR. Ced landrum had stolen 3 bases, Walton had executed a beautiful bunt single and made a spectacular catch to rob DH Jim Wilson of a HR, and highly touted rookie Ken Griffey Jr. had added to his.350 BA with 3 hits.
What made it nice is that I kind of knew them all. With the permission of owners Mike Dunn and Rick Miller I had covered the team for One More Inning and had interviewed most of the players quite often during the season. Spending time with them in the locker room and in the dugout, I got to be friendly with some of them and ended up being referred to as Mr. Notes.
The game ended sooner than I thought it would and I realized I had at least 45 minutes before my wife was going to pick me up. I had almost all the Cubs autographs and so I decided to try to get Griffey Jrs and maybe some other Vermont players as well. I walked around to the back and there was Walton talking to a scout from the Cubs. The gist of the conversation was that they might call him up for the last few games of the season. (They never did. He did come up during the 1989 spring training period though, won himself a starting position, and then proceeded to become the Rookie of the Year). Over to the side was Ced Landrum and manager Jim Essian. Ced waved to me and said, Hi. We had talked during the season and along with Brian House and Joe Girardi, had become friendly enough to acknowledge each other. I Walked over to him and mentioned that I had heard that Walton might be called up to the Cubs. Ced smiled and said that maybe he would follow him. (He didnt). Jim Essian wanted to know where I had gotten my information. I pointed to Walton and the scout. Al Chambers came out of the clubhouse and joined us.
Al Chambers at this point of his career was on the way down. He had played in the Majors from 1983 to 1985 and had amassed a .208 BA. Here in 1988, in AA ball, at the age of 28, he was hitting .091 and had only played in 9 games. He was a nice guy, very friendly, but everyone knew that this was very likely his last season in pro ball. Its sad and its a way of life in the Minors. He wrapped his arm around Landrum. Hey buddy, what time do we have to be at that thing tonight? The Pittsfield Chamber of Commerce was throwing a party for the Cubs and of course all the players were going. I dunno, said Landrum. Ask Kelly. He knows all that stuff. Walton came over and manager Essian took him by the arm and walked him over to a corner. Two years after the fact and a week before I wrote this, Jim Essian became the Chicago Cubs manager replacing Don Zimmer.
Some of the players wives came into the area and I could see that Villanuevas wife had brought their two week old baby with her. Everyone crowded around and she was really something to see. Round faced, and dark skinned, she looked like a kewpie doll version of Hector. Kelly Mann walked out of the locker room followed by Brian House, Joe Girardi, and a beaming Mike Harkey. Hey, hey, Im going up, Im going up. Im gonna be with the big boys now. That was Mike, he had just gotten the news from the same scout that had talked to Walton. Im going up tonight man, tonights the night, tomorrow Im a Cubbie. Tomorrow I throw for the big guys. Suddenly the Villanueva baby was forgotten and everyone was around Harkey.
Mike Harkey arrived with the Cubs the next day and two days later got banged around in his first Major League start and absorbed the loss. Considered to be the jewel in the Cubs Minor League system, he had a four star rating as a pitcher. He possessed a blazing fastball, good control and a fierce determination to win. It didnt work out that way! He played for the rest of the season, absorbed some injuries and ended up with a losing record. He did better during the 1990 season, but once again he had to battle injuries. For this season (this was being written in 1991) great things were expected of him but the injuries have popped up again. The same sort of thing has happened to Jerome Walton. After his fine rookie season in 89, his 1990 year was a disappointment. Injuries sidelined him for a good portion of the year and have hampered him in 1991 as well.
Hey Kelly, when is that party tonight? Kelly Mann, who was a close friend of Villanuevas, was holding the baby. He was dressed in a sport shirt with a tie and had on brown slacks. He looked very collegiate. Even though he and Villanueva were both catchers and in competition with each other, they had become close friends and traveled in the same circles. I dont know for sure. Probably around nine. I think you have to wear ties. Im not sure but Ill find out.
Kelly Mann was considered one of the best catching prospects in the Cubs organization (higher even than Villanueva). I couldnt understand why. He didnt hit (he was now batting around. 205) and in the games I had seen him play he looked poor defensively as well. He wasnt throwing runners out and was making an awful lot of errors behind the plate. Still in all, in the last two years, I still read where hes considered to be a fine prospect. (He eventually ended up in the Atlanta organization, played in 18 games in two years, and left baseball with a .173 BA.)
Some of the Vermont players came out and Griffey Jr. was among them. I walked over and asked him if he would sign his card for me. While he was doing so I mentioned that I had gotten his dads autograph and now I was pleased to get his also. Without looking up, he shoved the card back to me, put my pen in his pocket and while walking away said I dont give a fuck whos autograph you have.
From the moment Ken Griffey Jr. started playing pro ball he was considered a great prospect. In 1989, after I saw him play with Vermont, he entered the Majors and fulfilled that prediction. Blessed with great natural ability, he came close to winning Rookie of the Year and lost out because of injuries. In 1990 he had a fine year and is doing well this year too. (Remember this was initially written in 1991). He is just over 20 and looks like he is heading for super stardom. Still .I have that memory of him of our moment together in 89. It has stayed with me for two years now (add another 13 more) and it has dampened my enthusiasm for him.
It was getting late now. Many of the players had left. Sitting at a table in the picnic area was Jim Essian being interviewed by a beautiful blonde reporter. Some of the players had made comments about her and I could understand why. She was a knockout. Kelly Mann was sitting next to Villanuevas wife and the baby. John Lewis and Bob Bafia came out of the locker-room and took a peep at the baby. God shes ugly, said Lewis. Looks like her daddy. With that out came Hector Villanueva dressed in a tight teeshirt, tummy sticking out, and wearing an even tighter pair of shorts. Hey man you watch that or Ill bop you. He said to Lewis and raised a black bat over his head, He came towards Lewis and took a lunging swing
at him and missed. Lewis and Baffia did a kind of Karate like dance around him and then they left. Hector took the baby in his arms, took out a bottle and started feeding her.
It had gotten dark and I wondered how long it would take for my wife to get there. It felt like it might rain at any minute now. Hector finished with the baby and his wife went to the womens room. He motioned to Kelly Mann and said, Hey, come with me for a minute, I wanna show you somthin. Mann put his newspaper down and said, Whats that? We better make it fast. The car will be here any minute now. Just come with me inside. I want you to see this. said Hector. I was sitting nearby and he looked at me. Hey man, can you hold the baby? I said, Yeah sure, walked over and took her in my arms. I couldnt get over how much the baby looked like her father. Some drops began to fall and I went under the table umbrellas in the picnic area. Dean Wilkins came out and I asked him where Hector was. Hell be back in a minute. He chucked the baby under the chin and left.
In 1988 Wilkins had a great season for the Pittsfield Cubs. He led the eastern League in saves with 26. Chicago brought him up and he did reasonably well for them. Midseason the batters caught up with him and he has since divided his time between the Majors and the Minors.
Villanuevas wife came out and took the baby from me. Wheres Hector? I said he was inside and would be out in a minute. She looked upset and when Hector came out she said something to him in Spanish. Hey man hes OK. I seen him around a lot, hes a reporter. He interviewed me and the guys we in his magazine. Ceddie (Ced Landrum) knows him good. The wife didnt seem convinced and held the baby tight against her chest. Hector came over and put his arm around my shoulder. Hey man, the baby give you any trouble? I answered back that she hadnt and I enjoyed it. Suddenly the rain came down and we all scattered for shelter. Hectors wife put his daughter into a stroller and then put a net over it. Within seconds of that my wife came. I shook hands with Hector and Kelly Mann, wished them well for next year, and left.
Two years have gone by and eight people from that team have made it to the big leagues. Dean Wilkins and Kelly Mann are now with Atlanta and have been up and down. Mike Harkey, Joe Girardi, Jerome Walton, Ced Landrum, and Hector Villanueva are with the Cubs. Jim Essian the Pittsfield Cubs manager is now the brand new skipper for Chicago. Al Chambers is playing semi-pro ball and Brian House is still in the Minors. Griffey Jr. is a step away from being a superstar with Seattle.
Hector Villanueva was brought up midway through the 91 season. In his second time up in the Majors he hit a towering homerun. He played on a part time basis and performed well. This year (1991 ) his weight has ballooned up and hes not playing that often.
Its been two years since Ive seen Maria (Hectors baby). Wonder what she looks like now.
2004 POSTSCRIPT: ONE YEAR LATER THE CUBS TOOK THEIR FRANCHISE FROM PITTSFIELD. THE METS CAME IN, ESTABLISHED A SINGLE (A) TEAM THERE, AND ATTENDANCE WENT FROM 200 TO 3,000 FANS PER GAME. OWNERS MIKE DUNN AND RICK MILLER OWNED THAT TEAM AS WELL. THREE YEARS AFTER THAT, MIKE WAS BROUGHT UP ON CHARGES OF PASSING BAD CHECKS (HE OWED OVER TWO MILLION DOLLARS) AND ENDED UP IN JAIL FOR SEVERAL YEARS.
THE PLAYERS .AH THE PLAYERS.
NOBODY REALLY MADE IT BIG. HARKEY BATTLED ARM PROBLEMS FOR AWHILE AND DROPPED OUT. MANN, LANDRUM, AND WILKINS, HAD VERY SHORT CAREERS. JEROME WALTON NEVER EQUALLED HIS ROOKIE YEAR, SUFFERED INJURIES FROM THAT PERIOD ON, AND HAS SHUTTLED BACK AND FORTH FROM THE MAJORS TO THE MINORS. JOE GIRARDI HAS BEEN AROUND FOR AWHILE AS BOTH A REGULAR AND PART-TIME PLAYER. IN HIS FIFTEENTH SEASON IN THE MAJORS HE IS NOW IN SPRING TRAINING WITH THE NEW YORK YANKEES AND MAY END UP BROADCASTING FOR NEW YORK. .
AND THEN THERE IS HECTOR VILLANUEVA. HIS WEIGHT DID HIM IN. IN HIS SECOND SEASON WITH THE CUBS HE BALLOONED UP AND AFTER THAT HE JUST HUNG ON . HIS CAREER LASTED FOUR YEARS. HE NOW LIVES IN PUERTO RICO .AND I GUESS ILL NEVER GET TO SEE LITTLE MARIA AGAIN. WONDER WHAT SHE LOOKS LIKE NOW.