Héctor Villanueva: from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, to the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame

Mike García sent a direct tweet to the author, July 17, 2020: “Héctor [Villanueva] was a really nice guy but he wasn’t nice at all at the plate when he played Winter Ball. He torched the [Puerto Rico] league’s pitchers.” This perfectly sums up Villanueva’s approach to the game. Four days earlier, Villanueva told Jorge Colón Delgado and Raúl Ramos, on their Baseball Entre Amigos show that “I was mean on the field…had to be focused since the opponents had maña (trickery). But off the field, it’s different…enjoy life and get along with everyone.”

This begins a series on talented catchers from Puerto Rico who played in the big leagues and in their Island’s Winter League, from Héctor Valle (1965 Los Angeles Dodgers) and Eliseo Rodríguez (1968 New York Yankees) to the present. Villanueva played collegiately (University of Alabama-Birmingham); in seven Caribbean Series events; in the Mexican (summer) League; and Taiwan. Villanueva transitioned to first base (1B) and DH in his pro baseball career but remains one of many fine catchers produced by Puerto Rico. He is one of four players in Puerto Rico history to win that league’s Triple Crown (1990-91). He tied Elrod Hendricks (another catcher) for third-place in career Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL) HR, with 105. Villanueva was inducted into the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame in 2015 for his hitting exploits in 1990-93, 1997, 2000 and 2001, including earning MVP laurels of the February 1993 competition.

Villanueva’s excellent SABR bio by Rory Costello https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/hector-villanueva/ This blog will use information from that bio; from the July 13, 2020 Baseball Entre Amigos program; from the author’s interview with Villanueva, January 1993; and other sources.

University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), 1982-84

Villanueva turned 18 in Birmingham, Alabama, October 2, 1982. His parents insisted that he attend a university after graduating from Cupeyville High School, Rio Piedras. “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. Birmingham was the right tonic. “I spoke English well,” said Villanueva. “Harry ‘The Hat’ Walker, my manager, set guidelines. In Puerto Rico, one can [easily] get a drink, but in Birmingham, you could not get beer without an ID. Several UAB teammates were from Mountain Brook, a Birmingham suburb. UAB played in the Sunbelt Conference, and played non-conference games against Southeastern Conference schools like Vanderbilt—where Joey Cora played—and Mississippi State, featuring Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro. “I had met Palmeiro, before we were Cubs teammates,” said Villanueva. “He played 1B for Mississippi State [1983-85]. Joey [Cora] was drafted in 1985, but I signed with the Cubs as an amateur free agent, March 26, 1985.” (Costello noted a misunderstanding with a professor over a make-up exam, resulted in Villanueva’s loss of eligibility for 1985.)

Harry Walker once managed Roberto Clemente with the 1965-67 Pittsburgh Pirates. Walker was known for imposing his style of hitting on many players, including Clemente, the 1966 NL MVP, with 29 HR and 119 RBIs. Coincidentally, Villanueva—as a child—admired Clemente. Walker continued to influence hitters at the college level. “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.” Walker led UAB to a 1982 Sunbelt North Division title. He was 211-171 overall at UAB, 1976-86, a .552 PCT. (UAB is 558-539-1 tie in its baseball history.) Walker was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi (1918) and passed away in Birmingham (1999).

Amateur World Series, Havana, Cuba (1984)

Villanueva was a 22-year old reserve catcher with Puerto Rico, during the two-week (October 14-28, 1984) Amateur World Series in Havana. Cuba (Gold), Chinese Taipei (Silver) and USA (Bronze) took the top three spots. Puerto Rico, 6-7 overall, defeated Cuba, in the round-robin phase, but the host country (11-2 overall) was too powerful with MVP Víctor Mesa and others. Villanueva went two-for-13 with a double. Team USA had LF Barry Bonds with a .565 SLG.

U.S. Minors (1985-95)

Villanueva was in the Cubs system (1985-92); plus, Louisville (1993), St. Louis system; Ottawa (1994), Montreal organization; and Richmond (1995), Atlanta system. He appreciated Pete Mackanin, his first skipper, 1985 Peoria Chiefs, Class A Midwest League; and Jim Essian, his 1986 Winston-Salem and 1987/1988 manager with the Pittsfield Cubs, Class AA Eastern League. “Mackanin also managed in Puerto Rico [Santurce],” recalled Villanueva. “I recommended Essian to [Ponce owner] Chiro Cangiano, when I played for the Ponce Lions.” In extended spring training (1985), Villanueva benefited from coach Wito Conde’s wisdom.

As a 1985 backstop with Peoria, he caught Greg Maddux. “Greg was from Las Vegas, 6’0,” 150-pounds, but real determined,” stated Villanueva. “He liked the way I caught; we got along well; he knew what he wanted with pitches…games lasted one hour, 45 minutes, or 1:50. He studied the game and the hitters…would stretch with a towel; he never lifted weights.”

With 1986 Winston-Salem, he was Class A Carolina League All-Star catcher for a 82-56 pennant-winning team, which defeated Hagerstown, three games-to-one, in the post-season. Villanueva (.318 AVG, 13 HR, 100 RBIs) followed this with two seasons for Pittsfield (.274-14-70 and .314-10-75) in 1987 and 1988, respectively. “I showed Essian and my teammates I was a good basketball player,” said Villanueva. “It was very cold the first two weeks of the 1988 season…practiced indoors and played basketball to stay in shape…” Chris Hoiles, Glens Falls Tigers, 1988 Eastern League All-Star catcher, played 1988-89 winter ball for Mayagüez, against Villanueva’s Ponce team. Mark Grace, Pittsfield 1B, was Villanueva’s minor-league roommate, with Pittsfield. Mackanin (1989) and Essian (1990) managed Villanueva at Class AAA Iowa.

Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals (1990-93)

Villanueva pinch-hit for Mark Grace in St. Louis, June 1, 1990, in his MLB debut. After popping up, his second AB was a 430-foot HR off LHP Ken Dayley. “I got home, I was out of breath, I ran so fast,” Villanueva told Costello in 2012. “Harry Walker, my UAB manager, watched me make my debut with the Cubs,” recalled Villanueva (Baseball Entre Amigos). It meant a lot.” 

Another special moment was when Don Zimmer, his 1990 Cubs manager, called him into his office, and gave Villanueva a $5,000 bonus check, for being called up. “Zimmer was a true player’s manager,” affirmed Villanueva. “We all liked him.”

Villanueva played chess with catcher Joe Girardi, a graduate of prestigious Northwestern University. (Girardi spoke some Spanish, having played 1988-89 winter ball for Venezuela’s Zulia Eagles, under Mackanin.) Girardi was amazed that Villanueva outsmarted him! “I learned how to play chess from my grandfather,” said Villanueva. “My mom was a long-time educator (teacher), so learning was a big priority in our family.”  Andre Dawson, a Cubs teammate, was fine with Villanueva using some of his bats. Greg Maddux enjoyed having Villanueva as a Cubs (1990-92) teammate. Ryne Sandberg, per Villanueva, liked to play pranks on his Cubs teammates, liked putting chewing gum in Dwight Smith’s glove.

In 1990, Villanueva hit seven HR in 114 AB for Chicago, with 18 RBIs. His first three HR were hit in six games. On August 19, he hit HR # seven off Atlanta’s Kent Mercker, a game-winner. His parents got to see that one, after spending three weeks in the States, on a baseball vacation. The following (1991) season, he got more playing time in April, when Girardi had a disc issue in his back, and Damon Berryhill slumped at the plate. Essian replaced Zimmer at the Cubs helm in May 1991. Villanueva was sent to Iowa for several weeks in August. He had a late-season hitting surge to bring his AVG up to .276, with 13 HR and 32 RBIs, in 192 AB. In 1992, he hit his 21st NL career HR, at home, against a strong wind, versus St. Louis (April 12), prompting Cardinals manager Joe Torre to compliment that blast. Villanueva was Greg Maddux’s personal catcher, until being sent to Iowa (again), but Maddux defended him, calling Villanueva “a competent catcher” and recalling that he (Maddux) went through a 13-game winless spell with the Cubs.

Villanueva’s days with the Cubs were numbered after Rick Wilkins—who caught for the 1991-92 San Juan Metros in Puerto Rico, as Villanueva’s teammate—was called up by the Cubs, mid-season, 1992. St. Louis signed Villanueva to a 1993 contract, for $225,000, but he did not hit well for them. He caught René Arocha, a Cuban defector who spoke no English; and two hurlers from Puerto Rico: Omar Olivares and Mike Pérez. After his demotion to the Louisville Redbirds, where he played 40 games (.242-5-20, in 124 AB), St. Louis released him in August 1993.

PRWL (1985-86 to 1990-91)

When Villanueva joined the 1985-86 Ponce Lions as a 23-year old catcher, Art Howe was the manager; José “Cheo” Cruz was the veteran OF; Joey Cora played 2B; Luis “Papo” Rosado and John Mizerock (from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania) were the top two catchers. Tom Candiotti was Ponce’s best starter, but the 24-29 Lions finished fifth of six teams. “I remember Cheo hit a HR at Mayagüez that was rained out,” said Villanueva. That HR would have tied Cheo with Bob Thurman with 120 career HR. Villanueva’s eventual 105 PRWL career regular season HR would be third-best all-time, after Thurman (120) and Cheo Cruz (119). Villanueva had 24.4 AB per HR, slightly better than Thurman’s 24.8. It surpassed Cheo’s 26.0 AB per HR. Willard Brown (19.2) and Orlando Cepeda (20.8) had the fewest AB per HR, for 13 players listed in Table I.

Table I: PRWL Career HR Leaders, 1,500 + AB

PlayerABHRAB per HR
Bob Thurman2,97812024.8
José “Cheo” Cruz3,09511926.0
Elrod Hendricks2,31610522.1
Héctor Villanueva2,56610524.4
Willard Brown1,94010119.2
Buster Clarkson2,0639821.1
Canena Márquez4,0189741.4
Candy Maldonado2,4169226.3
Orlando Cepeda1,8498920.8
Guillermo Montañez3,0718635.7
Carmelo Martínez2,1308624.8
Ismael Oquendo1,8448521.7
José A. Pagán3,7818544.5

Source: https://beisbol101.com/lideres-de-todos-los-tiempos/

Villanueva played three more seasons for Ponce (his parents’ hometown), before his trade to the 1989-90 San Juan Metros. In 1986-87, Ponce had Adalberto “Junior” Ortiz, backed up by Papo Rosado, catching. Villanueva had 23 AB, but got to warm up David Cone, Ponce’s top starter. Then, in 1987-88, Villanueva broke out with a .345 AVG (30-for-87), his best season in Ponce, before regressing to .236 in 1988-89. The 1989-90 Metros had Puerto Rico’s best native manager (Mako Oliveras). Mako would win his second league title in 1989-90, before winning five more, to claim seven, one more than George Scales achieved with Ponce (five) and Santurce (one) between 1941-42 and 1950-51. The 1989-90 Metros had co-League MVP’s: Edgar Martínez (.424 AVG) and Carlos Baerga. Villanueva (.206-8-25) had a sub-par regular season, but helped 27-23 San Juan win the post-season, and advance to the February 1990 Caribbean Series.

In 1990-91, Villanueva became the fourth player in Puerto Rico history to win the PRWL Triple Crown, post-Willard Brown (Santurce, 1947-48 and 1949-50), Elmo Plaskett (Ponce, 1960-61) and Wally Joyner (Mayagüez, 1985-86). Villanueva recorded .347-12-44 in San Juan’s 58 games. The Metros (33-25) won the regular season pennant but were last in the four-team round-robin. Villanueva was chosen to reinforce Santurce in the February 1991 Caribbean Series.

Juan González, Héctor Villanueva and Rubén Sierra (photo Javier González)

1990 and 1991 Caribbean Series, Miami, Florida

The February 5-11, 1990 Caribbean Series took place at the Orange Bowl, a hitter’s ballpark. Villanueva went eight-for-24, a .333 AVG, plus a .750 SLG with three HR and eight RBIs, He was selected as 1B on the series All-Star Team. (Edgar Martínez was chosen at 3B). The Escogido Lions (5-1) won the event, under manager Felipe Alou, followed by 3-3 San Juan and 3-3 Caracas Lions, managed by Phil Regan. Hermosillo was last at 1-5. Then, Villanueva reinforced Santurce in the 1991 Caribbean Series, getting two hits in 13 AB, for the Crabbers.

PRWL (1991-92 and 1992-93) and 1992/1993 Caribbean Series

Villanueva hit 45 HR the next six winter seasons and helped two different teams (Mayagüez and Santurce) win the 1992 and 1993 Caribbean Series. He hit .255-3-22 for the 1991-92 Metros, when Rick Wilkins did most of the catching. Jerry Royster was the Metros skipper for 29-21 first-place San Juan, a team put together by GM Luis Rodríguez Mayoral. But Mayagüez edged San Juan, five games-to-four, in the finals, to play in the 1992 Caribbean Series, held in Hermosillo, Mexico. Villanueva reinforced 5-2 Mayagüez and drove in seven runs (in seven games) to help his team win the series and a tie-breaker over Venezuela’s 4-3 Zulia Eagles.

Reinaldo “Poto” Paniagua, owner—Santurce Crabbers—approved the 1992-93 in-season trade made by Ronquito García, his GM, for San Juan’s Carlos Delgado. “This (Puerto Rico) is a league to win; not to develop players,” said Paniagua. “Delgado was a raw talent and future superstar, but ‘Porky’ was a proven commodity, and we [Santurce] had not won a Caribbean Series in 38 years…since Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Don Zimmer, Bob Thurman…”  (Villanueva was also called “Porky” due to his physique.) Once listed at 6’1” and 220 pounds with the 1990 Cubs, he weighed closer to 265 pounds in 1992-93. The author conversed with him as he was completing treatment from Nick Acosta, the Santurce trainer, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Villanueva was eating a sandwich on “pan de agua” (French bread). He was “proud of his accomplishments with the Chicago Cubs” and “looked forward to helping Santurce win the February 1993 Caribbean Series.” Villanueva was easy-going and down-to-earth. He had an off-year, 1992-93, .206-4-15, saving his best for the Caribbean Series.

Mazatlán, Mexico, hosted the four-team series. Santurce won it over the Aguilas Cibaeñas from the Dominican Republic, in a tie-breaker. Villanueva drove in three runs in Game Three, a 5-4 loss to the Dominican squad, as Pedro Martínez won it, with José Lima’s save. In Game Four, on February 7, 1993, Villanueva’s two-run HR versus Venezuela propelled Santurce to a 10-4 win. In Game Five, his two-run HR was the difference in a 3-2 triumph over Mexico. Then, he went two-for-four in the 9-5, tie-breaker win, on February 11, to claim the Caribbean Series Triple Crown: .455-2-9, with 10 hits in 22 AB, and a series-leading .818 SLG! Villanueva was the All-Star 1B; teammate Dickie Thon, All-Star DH; and Tony Peña, Aguilas Cibaeñas, All-Star C. Villanueva publicly thanked trainer Nick Acosta, “for getting me ready to play.”

Mexican League (1994-99, 2001), Independent Leagues (1996, 1999-2000), Taiwan (1997)

Villanueva had a stellar career in the Mexican League, 1994-99 and 2001. With 1994 Puebla and the Mexico City Tigers, his 30 HR tied Marco Antonio Romero with Nuevo Laredo, for the league lead. His 108 RBIs were a league-best. In seven Mexican League seasons, he had a .304 AVG, with 105 HR and 393 RBIs. His one HR per 18.2 AB showed his power to Mexico’s fans. Villanueva enjoyed living in Puebla with cable TV and other amenities. Puebla was his first and last (2001) team in Mexico; he played for seven other league teams.

In 1996, he played in 14 games with the St. Paul Saints, Northern League, .255-2-8. In 1999, he was Rubén Sierra’s teammate with the 1999 Atlantic City Surf. Villanueva, in 59 games, hit .323-16-45, with a .480 OBP, .618 SLG and 1.098 OPS. (Sierra’s were: .294/.377/.555/.932.) With the Surf in 2000, Villanueva, now age 35, had a .309/.397/.605/1.002 slash line. In 124 games, he drilled 38 HR and drove in 95. Thus, in three Independent League seasons, his slash line was: .308/.416/.596/1.013, with 56 HR and 148 RBIs in 197 games.

Villanueva played in the 1997 Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League. With the China Times Eagles, he was 38-for-104 (.365) in 29 games, with 5 homers and 24 RBIs, per his SABR bio. His complete minor-league and MLB stats are at baseballreference.com. He hit 25 NL HR and 79 U.S. minor-league round-trippers.

PRWL and Three More Caribbean Series (1997, 2000-01)

During the next decade, Villanueva hit 70 of his 105 league HR, in the PRWL, leading the league with eight for Santurce, 1995-96; and 11 with Santurce-Caguas, 1996-97. He became the second player in league history, after Willard Brown, to win three regular season HR crowns, and retired at age 38, following the 2002-03 season, with Caguas, with a .259 AVG, 105 HR,  425 RBIs. He reinforced Mayagüez in the 1997 Caribbean Series (.200-0-2); champion Santurce, 2000 Caribbean Series (.667-0-4); and was on Caguas’s roster for the 2001 event (.150-2-3).

Mako Oliveras, Santurce’s 1999-2000 skipper, told Villanueva, with Caguas, to “get ready to help us in Santo Domingo.” Villanueva was the DH versus LHP for Oliveras, platooning with Alonzo Powell. Both went a combined 11-for-23, with Villanueva (four-for-six) and Powell (seven-for-17). Undefeated Santurce (6-0) had: .368 AVG, .427 OBP, .573 SLG and 1.000 OPS. Villanueva recalled Tony Valentín’s game-winning HR in Game Six versus the Dominican team.

In 2000-01, Caguas owner José “Pantalones” Santiago gave Villanueva $5,000 up front for his season salary, the league maximum, with the promise to give him another $1,500 if Caguas won the title and qualified for the Caribbean Series (which they did). “Joey Cora was the GM; Sandy Alomar Sr. was my [Caguas] manager,” recalled Villanueva. “Sure enough, Pantalones kept his word and gave me $1,500 in cash. He treated me very well…a very positive person.”

Caguas (2-4) was fourth, as the 4-2 Aguilas Cibaeñas won the 2001 Caribbean Series in Culiacán, Mexico, followed by 3-3 Hermosillo and 3-3 Lara Cardinals, from Venezuela. In seven Caribbean Series, Villanueva played 38 games, with 124 AB, 22 runs, 35 hits, nine doubles, eight HR and 34 RBIs. He tied Luis Raven of Venezuela for fourth-place in HR, per Table II; and, was eighth in SLG (.5483), in Phase II (1970-2020) of these events.

Record of Héctor Villanueva in Puerto Rico https://beisbol101.com/hector-villanueva/

Table II: Caribbean Series Career HR Leaders, Phase II (1970-2020)

PlayerCountryABHRAB per HR
Miguel TejadaDominican Republic2701518.0
Tony ArmasVenezuela1711115.5
Carmelo MartínezPuerto Rico1121011.2
Luis RavenVenezuela109813.6
Héctor VillanuevaPuerto Rico124815.5
Carlos BaergaPuerto Rico152721.7
Tony BatistaDominican Republic163723.3
Ricardo CartyDominican Republic74710.6
Robert PérezVenezuela190727.1

Source: Tony Piña Campora—www.beisboldelcaribe.com  

Table III: Caribbean Series Career SLG Leaders, Phase II (1970-2020), 75+ AB

PlayerCountryABTBSLG
Armando RíosPuerto Rico-Mexico9763.649
Carmelo MartínezPuerto Rico11266.589
David OrtizDominican Republic12170.579
Tony PérezPuerto Rico8549.576
Candy MaldonadoPuerto Rico7543.573
Juan GonzálezPuerto Rico7542.560
Miguel TejadaDominican Republic270151.559
Héctor VillanuevaPuerto Rico12468.5484
Miguel FloresMexico8446.5476
Jesús AlfaroVenezuela8043.538
Manny MotaDominican Republic10556.533
Celerino SánchezMexico9852.531
Luis RavenVenezuela10957.523
Adan AmezcuaMexico9247.5109
Raúl MondesíDominican Republic9448.5106

Source: Tony Piña Campora—www.beisboldelcaribe.com  

2015 Caribbean Series Hall of Fame Induction

The 2015 Caribbean Series Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony took place in Puerto Rico, host of the 2015 series. Six former players (or managers) were inducted in this Pabellón de la Fama del Caribe: Roberto Clemente, Juan “Igor” González, Conrado “Connie” Marrero, Napoleón Reyes, Héctor Villanueva and Bernie Williams. (Marrero and Reyes were from Cuba; the other four, from Puerto Rico.) It was special for Villanueva to be inducted in this select regional entity.

Villanueva hit at least 383 HR in his pro career: 25 (MLB), 79 (U.S. minors), 105 (Puerto Rico), 105 (Mexico), eight (Caribbean Series), five (Taiwan) and 56 (Independent Leagues). This does not include post-season HR in Puerto Rico or Mexico.

With deep appreciation to Héctor Villanueva, for his time and sense of humor. Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado, Rory Costello, Mike García, Mako Oliveras, Reinaldo “Poto” Paniagua, Tony Piña Campora (Villanueva’s Caribbean Series stats), Raúl Ramos and Luis Rodríguez Mayoral.

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