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Rewind Yourself: The Eduardo Villacis story

Desperate times call for stupid actions.

General view

“Rewind Yourself” is an anthology of stories of the stupidest moments in Royals history. See episode one for an explanation of the name of the series.

When I had my kids learn how to swim, we took baby steps. First we got them acclimated to the water in the kiddie pool. When they were a bit older, we had them wear floaties and hang out in the shallow end of the big pool. Then we held them and taught them to make swimming motions to understand how the process worked. Then we would let go and have them swim a few feet to the edge of the pool, always hovering nearby in case they couldn’t make it. Finally, they were able to swim, and now they are virtually a pair of fish in the water.

Other parents? They just throw their kids in the deep end of the pool and hope for the best. This is the story of Eduardo Villacis.

Villacis was a young kid in Venezuela discovered by Jorge Posada, Sr., father of the Yankees All-Star catcher and at the time, a scout for the Colorado Rockies. He signed for $4,000. He had pretty good numbers with the Rockies in the low minors, although he did not pitch many innings, presumably due to injury.

In 2002, the Royals had signed a 30-year journeyman named Bryan Rekar and sent him to Omaha. When Darrell May went down with injury, Rekar was summoned to make two starts and was disastrous, giving up 12 runs in seven innings. Royals General Manager Allard Baird was heavily criticized as a GM, but we should applaud him for getting anything for the 15.43 ERA of Bryan Rekar, much less convincing the Rockies to give up a live, young arm in Eduardo Villacis.

Villacis performed well at High A Wilmington, with a 2.25 ERA in 17 relief appearances, then did well the next season there with a 2.82 ERA in 92 23 innings, mostly in relief. But he was a bit old for his level, having been 23 in his second stint at Wilmington, and his strikeout and walk numbers were lackluster. He certainly was not a prospect by any means, but he was a serviceable arm, who maybe one day could be a useful reliever.

The Royals in 2004 were a revolving door at the big league level, particularly in the pitching staff. They would end the year giving up more runs than any other starting pitching staff in the American League. They had managed to compete in 2003 with a patchwork of pitchers, but in 2004, the duct tape and ball bearings were not holding it together anymore. The team dropped 13 of their first 20 games, and looming was a visit to New York to take on the awe-inspiring Yankees.

After dropping the first game of the series, there were questions who would take to the mound for the Saturday contest. Veteran Kevin Appier was on his second stint with the team, and near the end of his career, so it was not a surprise when he landed on the disabled list in late April. Darrell May was scratched from a start, forcing the Royals to use reliever Dennys Reyes in an emergency start. This left them a bit short-handed for starters, but there were some options.

Most fans wanted to see first-round pick Zack Greinke, who had been named the #14 prospect in the game by Baseball America before the season, coming off an impressive performance in High A and AA in 2003. He was off to a good start for AAA Omaha, but was still just 20 years old. The Royals had seen enough many pitching prospect fail before - Jose Rosado, Dan Reichert, Jeff Austin, Jim Pittsley - that they handled Greinke like a delicate flower. Greinke would not get the call.

Kris Wilson and Jamey Wright were two veteran pitchers in Omaha who had been in the big leagues enough that they would not be expected to stand on the mound in Yankee Stadium in complete awe of the situation. They would not get the call.

No, the call went to young, anonymous Eduardo Villacis from Caracas. Villacis had began the 2004 season in AA Wichita, and had a 2.41 ERA in 19 innings May. He had only made two starts, throwing less than 60 pitches in each start. When Wranglers manager Frank White notified him of the promotion, he could hardly believe it.

"You're not kidding me, are you?"

Villacis had made eight starts in his professional career. His ninth would come in Yankee Stadium. General Manager Allard Baird tried to play up his chances of success.

"He's a strike thrower, which is important against a team like the Yankees."

What he meant, was that if the pitcher never throws strikes, the game will never end, so Villacis gave the Royals a chance to get the game over quicker.

“I don’t know too much about this kid.”

-Tony Pena

Villacis faced a Yankees lineup that featured Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, and Ruben Sierra.

"We did have some guys scratching their heads because we'd never met him..A lot of guys, when he took the mound today, didn't even know his first name. He wasn't in the big-league camp, and he wasn't in the roster.”

-Mike Sweeney

Villacis actually carried a lead when he took the mound at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the first. On the second pitch Eduardo Villacis threw in the big leagues, future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter knocked it up the middle for a single. Alex Rodriguez would single. So would Gary Sheffield. Villacis would try to pick Jeter off second base, but committed a throwing error that allowed him to advance to third. Villacis, the strike-thrower, would walk two hitters in the inning. Eight men would bat that inning. The Yankees would end the inning up 2-1.

“Nobody called me like, ‘Hey man, congratulations, welcome to the team. And it was tough. Because the impression that you get when you move up is like, ‘Nobody gives a (expletive).’ So, you’re there on your own.”

-Eduardo Villacis

Villacis would settle down in the second for a scoreless frame, but the third was another trainwreck. Two more walks. A wild pitch. 38-year old slugger Ruben Sierra would demolish a three-run home run. 5-1 Yankees.

In the fourth, he finally retired Jeter for the first time, but allowed a single to Bernie Williams. Mercifully, the start was over. Manager Tony Pena signaled for reliever Shawn Camp.

“Well, we didn’t expect you to throw a no-no,”

-Tony Pena

In fairness to Villacis, he didn’t pitch that badly, considering all the circumstances he was thrown into. The Royals lost the game 12-4, but the game really got out of control when Curtis Leskanic, a ten-year Major League veteran, gave up five runs in a single inning.

It wasn’t so much the start that was stupid, just the process the Royals went through and how emblematic the start was of how poorly run the Royals were at the time. They were a desperate club, looking for anything that remotely looked like winning. Villacis was started pretty much because the Royals were not allowed to forfeit the game. He was a sacrificial lamb, a placeholder to pass the time until the Royals could have a more competent organization.

The next day, Villacis was back in Wichita. Three weeks later, the Royals placed him on waivers. He was claimed by the White Sox, and he pitched in their system for a year before getting dropped and playing independent ball for a few years. His strange journey would eventually take him to Switzerland, where he would serve as player/manager in a Swiss league. He no longer has to worry about pitching at Yankee Stadium.

“It’s just one of those things, where you have a chance to do it once in your life.”

Many thanks to this article from Rustin Dodd, who tracked Villacis down and got his story.