Villanueva proud to be Latin voice in MLBPA
Cubs pitcher has become an active leader, mentor for players' union
MESA, Ariz. -- Alfonso Soriano remembers being a little confused during the first Players Association meetings he attended in 2000 with the Yankees.
"My first couple years, the union would speak, and I didn't know what was going on because I didn't speak much English," Soriano said. "Now with [Carlos] Villanueva, he can help all the young guys who don't know English."
On Thursday, representatives of the Major League Baseball Players Association will meet with the Cubs players before their workout. It's an annual event during Spring Training, and Villanueva will be there to make sure the Latin players get the message. He's on the MLBPA executive board, and the only non-American-born player.
"He represents us," Soriano said.
Former Brewers teammates Craig Counsell and Dave Bush recruited Villanueva to get involved.
"It was just a chance for me to contribute to the Latin part of it," said the pitcher, a native of the Dominican Republic. "I didn't know that in all the years, we rarely had any Latin players [involved with the MLBPA]. Miguel Batista went [to meetings], but he was never directly involved. If we were there for the meetings, it was more token."
Villanueva would help explain the message to the Latin players, who may not be able to follow the details.
"After a little while, I felt it wasn't that I wanted to be there, it was more of a need to be there," Villanueva said. "I felt responsible for the other guys who didn't have a voice. We didn't get excluded or anything, but I know there were things that needed to be changed and things that needed to be understood by some people who just don't know, either from the MLB side or the association side."
For many players, English is their second language, and for many, such as Cubs prospects Jorge Soler and Junior Lake, they're still working on basic conversation skills. Villanueva, who attended a bilingual high school in the Dominican but did not go to college, could tell that a lot of the players struggled to understand the meetings.
"For me, it was a big deal," he said about being involved.
After the 2011 season, Villanueva followed the discussions between the players and the owners regarding the collective bargaining agreement, and took the next step. He attended the MLBPA meetings, traveling between Miami and New York several times a week for the negotiations.
"I said, 'I'll be there every meeting,'" Villanueva said of his conversation with the MLBPA. "We had some meetings some days from 8 o'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock at night. It was pretty interesting but we got it done. I got voted by the guys as one of the executive members. It's something I take seriously. If anybody has a question or anything, I'm there."
Each team has its own player representative, but Villanueva is on another level with more responsibility. He learned from others on the board such as Curtis Granderson.
"I know for a fact that our association is the best of the major sports and we're proud of that and we want to keep it that way," Villanueva said. "As long as I can help for the time I'm here in the game, then I have no problem with it."
Villanueva was a free agent this offseason and signed a two-year deal with the Cubs. He's 29, so he's not ready to retire yet, but he admits he has thought about becoming even more involved in the MLBPA when he's done playing.
"I kind of feel like I'm being recruited a little bit for it," he said. "It's always good to have doors open, it's always good when I do decide to finish my career, or when my career is done, to have options. It's something I'll think about later. I'll always be around if they need me, I just don't know in what capacity."
Villanueva became interested in current events because of his grandfather and father.
"I always like to know what's going on, whatever it is, in the Dominican, here, political, entertainment," he said. "I take pride in it. My dad taught me that. My dad wakes up and reads the four major papers in the Dominican from cover to cover, and he does the crossword [puzzle] and everything. My grandfather did the same.
"I think they feel they're going to lose their mind when they get older," he said. "They keep exercising their brain and mind just in case. They're always filled with information."
His father was a civil engineer, and is now retired, but stays busy, helping with family businesses.
"My dad, he's something," Villanueva said of his father, Carlos. "He's a special mind."
Did he inherit that?
"I hope so," Villanueva said. "He is special. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. He took care of me, he was everything when I was a kid growing up. He took me two hours to go practice, and put his life on hold. He never pushed me, and was always there for me. He's not a man of many words, actions definitely speak louder for him. He's definitely an example, a great example."
And many of the Latin players can say the same of Villanueva.
"It's good that he takes the time to represent the Latin players," Soriano said.
Villanueva said the MLBPA has been patient with him and taught him a lot.
"I'm not doing it for [the union], I'm doing it for the guys who are here and have sacrificed a lot of things, strikes and everything before me," Villanueva said of his involvement. "For us to get even simple things like salary raises, that's a big deal. You hear stories about guys in the '70s and '60s, and now it's so much advanced. It's definitely interesting and caught my interest at a young age."
He gives credit to Counsell, Bush and Chris Capuano who influenced him and encouraged him to participate.
"They made me understand what the importance was for the Latin guys," Villanueva said. "They don't really have to care that much about the Latin players but the fact that they really care and they want somebody there to be a voice for the guys who don't understand, that meant a lot to me coming from them.
"It's always good to have a voice," he said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.