MEXICO CITY -- Already, the elation associated with Christian Villanueva’s first major league call-up came with a bittersweet taste.
His older brother, Eduardo, would not be there to share the moment. In March of this year, an unforeseen health issue in his lungs, according to the family, ended his life at the age of 29. “He’s a big part of why I’m here,” Villanueva said.
Still, the moment merited celebration. Villanueva, a 26-year-old third baseman from Guadalajara, Mexico, flew his mother, wife and newborn son to San Diego for his debut.
Soon after, the emotional swirl continued.
On Sept. 19, a day after becoming the 126th big-leaguer born in Mexico and culminating an eight-year grind through the minors, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake devastated the central valley, killing hundreds and decimating dozens of buildings in Mexico City.
“We’re going through a hard time right now [in Mexico]. There are so many tragedies in the country, people are losing their families and home,” said Villanueva.
Since the earthquake, his inspirations to perform have broadened. Aside from his family, he’s now playing for an entire country. “I want to be able to at least bring a smile to my people through it all.”
Signed by the Texas Rangers in 2009, Villanueva had spent eight years toiling in the minor leagues before breaking through with the Padres.
A highly-rated prospect, Villanueva was traded from Texas to the Chicago Cubs in 2012 as part of the Ryan Dempster deal, but found his path to the bigs was more difficult after the team drafted Kris Bryant.
Even with the future NL MVP in front of him, Villanueva progressed in the minors and was in the running for a roster spot prior to the 2016 season. However, during a spring training drill in late February, he broke his right fibula and missed the Cubs’ eventual run to the World Series, where they beat the Cleveland Indians and notched their first title in more than a century.
“It’s a tough break, literally, for him,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon after the extent of the injury was diagnosed. Despite being sidelined for it all, the team awarded Villanueva with a World Series ring even after electing to let him walk in free agency.
“I’m forever grateful to them,” Villanueva said. “They showed their appreciation for me, and it’s something I won’t forget.”
Villanueva pressed on, a familiar face offering to sign him with the Padres last winter. The Southern California club was in full rebuild mode after their flurry of trades and signings under GM A.J. Preller failed to net the team a postseason spot in 2016.
Preller had previously served as the Rangers’ Director of International and Professional Scouting, and was present with the team when Villanueva signed his first professional contract.
“You never think it’s going to be easy. I was grateful for the opportunity [from A.J.], but at the same time I’m thinking this is a new team, I have to start all over,” Villanueva said.
A strong offensive season at Triple-A El Paso garnered some looks from San Diego manager Andy Green, who called him up on Sept. 18 after Villanueva posted a .296 batting average with 20 home runs and 86 RBIs in 109 games with the Chihuahuas.
“He’s worked a long, hard road to get there,” Green told reporters before Villanueva’s first game. “He’s had some injuries along the way; it’s exciting to watch him get to the big leagues.”
A little over a week after his call-up, Villanueva is off to a strong start.
Hitting 102 home runs over eight seasons in the minors, he’s connected for four round-trippers in his first nine MLB games. Villanueva’s hope is he can impress enough over the small sample size and entice San Diego to bring him back.
“After [the debut], I went back to the hotel and I thought back on how hard it was for me to get here. It was really special,” he said. “At the same time, I know I completed my first goal. The next one is much harder, I need to stay here for several years.”
Villanueva went hitless in his first four MLB at-bats. Then, on Sept. 20, fewer than 36 hours after the Central Mexico earthquake, he broke through with his first career multi-hit game. Against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he followed up a single with his first home run, hitting a J.J. Hoover slider past the right field wall into the bleachers at Petco Park.
As the ball raced towards the seats, Villanueva smiled. “I hit it really well. I knew,” he said.
“You recognize that’s a lifetime of dreaming culminating in one moment. He’s chasing down a dream he’s had since he was a little boy,” Green would say after the game, a 13-6 loss.
Reaching home plate after the home-run trot, Villanueva pointed to the sky.
“It was for [Eduardo]. For my family, for everyone in the country.”