SAN JOSE, Calif. — Wearing a big smile as he goes through pregame fielding drills at first base or waits his turn to take batting practice, Angel Villalona is enjoying the most basic aspects of being back on a baseball field.
Playing professionally again at last, the former Augusta GreenJacket is delivering at the plate and with his glove, going about his business with a quiet professionalism – thankful for a second chance in the San Francisco Giants’ organization at age 22 after four years away dealing with a dismissed murder charge that nearly derailed his career.
“First of all, I’m thankful to God. Each day I’m confident and thank the Giants for all the hard work we’ve been doing,” Villalona said before a game last week, speaking through San Jose hitting coach Lipso Nava, the former manager of the GreenJackets. “I’m positive each day and working hard. It’s good to be playing here and getting a fresh start. If I have a good day or a bad day, I know the fan support is going to be there.”
From the moment Villalona showed up at spring training five months ago, he vowed to return to his former successful self.
On Monday, he earned a promotion to Double-A Richmond from Class-A San Jose. He batted .229 with 14 home runs and 42 RBI while also playing solid defense in 73 games for San Jose.
“Angel was surprised first, then I think it registered and he allowed a huge grin,” San Jose manager Andy Skeels said Sunday night. “He has been working very hard and I am glad he’s going to get the opportunity to face a new challenge in Double-A Richmond.”
This is a long time coming for the former top prospect who received a $2.1 million bonus when San Francisco signed him at age 16 in August 2006 – the largest bonus San Francisco had ever given to an amateur player at the time.
In February, Villalona finally reported to spring training, a year later than everybody expected. He had his visa delayed the previous year for what the team was told were weight and health issues.
So, Villalona was forced to spend the 2012 season with the Giants’ Dominican Summer League affiliate, hitting .303 with seven home runs and 34 RBI in 44 games.
Villalona was charged in the September 2009 death of a 25-year-old man after a bar fight in his native La Romana, Dominican Republic. Police said Villalona turned himself in 12 hours after the Sept. 19, 2009, shooting. He was freed on bond that November after the victim’s family asked a judge to drop the case. But Villalona, who pleaded innocent to the murder charge, was also stripped of his U.S. visa at the time.
In fall 2011, Villalona dropped a lawsuit against the Giants seeking $5 million in damages after the team decided to reinstate him. He alleged the Giants kept him on the inactive list even though he had been cleared of homicide charges.
Still, not until he got back to the Giants’ system in the U.S. did the organization truly know what kind of player it still had.
In early April, Villalona’s comeback season began with hitless game after hitless game as he struggled to rediscover the power stroke that drew comparisons to Alex Rodriguez and Adrian Beltre when he was just 16.
Skeels knew he would find out fast just how Villalona would respond when things weren’t going his way.
“I’ve been very encouraged this year. He started off the season really slowly, so I think one of the things we were really looking for was how was he going to handle it?” Skeels said. “Was he going to continue to work his way through it, was he going to handle himself the way we wanted him to? And he did.
“How do you know he’s grown up? He doesn’t act out when things don’t go well. That’s an important part of the maturation process.”
Villalona batted .208 in April, and his opening month started with a 2-for-41 funk and eight hitless games in his first 10. Then, he quickly turned things around on the way to becoming a California League All-Star. He went 2 for 4 with a strikeout as the designated hitter in a 12-2 loss to the Carolina League All-Stars on June 18 in San Jose.
San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy and the Giants brass are pleased to hear how Villalona is doing in all facets.
“I’ve heard good reports on how he’s doing, how he’s handling himself, carrying himself, and of course swinging the bat,” Bochy said. “It’s encouraging for all of us with him coming back and getting back on the field. He’s handled everything.”
It sure helped that Villalona found a comfort zone off the field, too. While with San Jose, he lived with the same host family that housed him four years ago, Ed and Donna Musgrave.
“I love her, she goes above and beyond,” Villalona said last week. “She knows how to cook.”
The Musgraves hosted Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo, too.
Donna jokes that for the 6-foot-3, 257-pound Villalona, it’s “chicken and rice or rice and chicken, and beans, too.”
“He’s so much more mature, you can tell,” she said. “When he was here before, he was 18. He was a teenager. He’s a man now. He’s a lot different now, he’s looser, he’s friendlier, he’s more sure of himself and he’s talking more. He understands me and I’m a very dry person. I like to put zingers in there. He used to look at me, and now he looks at me and laughs.”
Musgrave kept asking the San Jose Giants whether Villalona would be back because she wanted to take him in again despite his legal woes.
“This year I called and kept asking: ‘How’s Angel doing? When is he coming back?” Musgrave said. “I said, ‘You send him here to the house, unless he doesn’t want to come.’”
In a gray T-shirt, black shorts and black socks up to his knees, and his curly hair puffing out from his cap over his ears, Villalona waited his turn for batting practice last week, chatting with Latino teammates behind the protective screen at second base.
He bounced to the music while waiting to step in for his pregame swings. He bunted the first try, then cleared the fences for a home run two swings later.
His play at first base has been equally strong.
“He’s a gifted defender. He has good hands,” Bochy said. “We’ve always said that. He’s continued to do that. That’s what sometimes goes unnoticed with him is how gifted he is defensively.”
Villalona plans to continue making an impression, hoping to make a quick rise to the big leagues. Patience, he knows, is a big part of continuing to move up and make strides.
“It’s something I always believed I could do,” Villalona said. “The hard work is the only thing that’s going to dictate where I go or don’t go.”