A giant of a kid, homesick and still growing up, navigating his way through the labyrinth that is professional baseball; that is how I would describe teammate Angel Villalona. The game delivered him good times and bad, and he reacted as any teenager would react when under a pressurized microscope. He threw an occasional tantrum but got over it and would soon have a smile on his face.
Now this giant of a kid, the source of such high expectations, is the main suspect in the murder of Mario Felix de Jesus Velete in his hometown of La Romana, Dominican Republic. The incident took place in a bar on Saturday night.
I hope that details come forth that exonerate my 19-year-old friend and teammate. The news is shocking and almost incomprehensible. To think that a man with whom I just recently played is now connected to the death of another human being is hard to swallow.
I am told often by my teammates that the streets of the D.R. are dangerous. At times they exaggerate no doubt, but the latest data puts the murder rate at 23.57 per 100,000. This is much higher than the United States’ rate of 5.8, but also much lower than the famed city of Detroit, which posts a rate of 46.
Still, most of my Dominican teammates claim to carry a pistol with them wherever they go.
“Everyone else has a gun, so you have to carry one too,” one of them told me recently. “Especially if people know you are a baseball player, they might try robbing you, so you have to carry one for protection.”
I don’t know how much of their pistol-packing claims are based on truth and how much are based on myth-building machismo, but enough of them have made the statement that it seems plausible that a plethora of guns fill the streets of the D.R. With that many loaded weapons around, nothing good can come from an altercation.
I’ve had good relationships with every one of my Dominican teammates, Villalona included. Even while assimilating to our culture and learning our language, they like to laugh in the clubhouse and have a good time. I’ve roomed with Dominicans and have forged great friendships with some of them. Still, I realize that the culture from which they come is different than our own.
"It can be dangerous," I remember one of my teammates saying of La Romana. "The area Villalona is from is rough."
To generalize, the Dominicans are a proud people, and if an altercation occurs, they don’t back down. They don’t shy away from a fight, as most claim that they have fought throughout their lives. Having seen a couple of them in small fights, and having seen some of their scars, I tend to believe them.
Again, I hope that Villalona didn’t commit this murder, but if he did, justice needs to be served. The thought still reigns as almost incomprehensible, but I have to remember that my teammates don’t grow up in cushy little suburbs in the United States, playing 60 games a year for traveling Little League teams that extort $5,000 for the “opportunity” to play. Instead, they come from a still developing country with a high crime rate, where $5,000 represents more than half of the average household income.
I’ll be watching this story closely as additional information arises. I’ll be thinking of Villalona’s hearty laugh, and the monstrous power he displayed daily in BP. Hopefully he’s innocent, and I’ll see him back in a uniform soon. But a man died, and if my teammate is guilty of any wrongdoing, then regardless of his fame, fortune or immense potential, he needs to be punished.