TORONTO -- Carlos Villanueva can empathize with the Dominican Republic youth who feel they are trapped on an island with little hope and no way out. He was one of them, too, and like a number of the impoverished kids who inhabit the Hispanic country, he realized at a very early age that baseball would be his escape.
The Blue Jays right-hander started playing baseball when he was 5 years old, inspired by his father and uncles who played the game at an amateur level. Villaneueva said it was a way to get close to his dad, who played every Saturday, and when the two of them weren't throwing the ball around, they would sit in front of the TV and watch games for hours on end -- usually of the Yankees and Red Sox.
Not only did baseball help forge a strong father-son bond, but it was a way for Villanueva's mother to find some down time at home.
"I was very, very hyper, and I think my mom was sick of me," Villanueva joked. "She told my dad, 'Just take him to the ballpark and make sure he gets really tired, so when he comes back, he goes straight to bed.'"
Villanueva was one of the lucky kids who had two parents guiding him. His mom and dad not only supported his passion for baseball and aspirations of making it to the big leagues, but they preached to him the importance of earning an education.
The 28-year-old Villanueva said there is an overwhelming number of children in the Dominican who grow up without either parent, don't complete high school and end up working in sugar-cane fields.
"You have to understand these are kids that come from very poor places and they don't have people to teach them the right way," Villanueva said. "Most of them have no mom or dad. All they know is, 'Go to the baseball park.'
"It's definitely not an easy thing coming from the Dominican. An important thing for my mom was to finish high school. Most of the guys back home don't really have the chance to even get a high school education. Basically, my mom told my dad, 'Over my dead body he is going to sign before finishing high school.'"
Scouts were looking at Villanueva when he was 16, but he didn't sign until he was 18 years old. He said interested teams were hesitant to offer him a large contract because he was already considered old by many scouts. There were younger kids, or ones who alleged that they were younger, who could throw harder than Villanueva and flashed greater potential.
"It was a long process," Villanueva said. "Back then, there was a big [issue] with age identity."
Villanueva said a lot of kids were influenced by outsiders to lie about their age and use performance-enhancing drugs in an effort to raise their stock.
"I'm not defending it, but when kids change their birth certificates and when they do the steroids, most of the time, it's somebody else that is trying to take advantage of them," Villanueva said.
Villanueva believes that a big obstacle facing the Dominican kids is a lack of playing time, which ultimately sets them back against kids of similar ages from other nations. The fields they do play on are without grass and are overcrowded with as many as eight programs sharing one field at the same time.
The kids' skills are raw -- they are taught to throw hard, run fast and hit the ball far. With very few organized leagues, players' mechanics and fundamentals are typically ignored until the kids are signed.
Villanueva, however, said he's starting to see progress.
"They are conditioned more to tryouts," Villanueva said. "They are doing a better job now, there are more leagues and they can play more."
Skill and talent are only part of the equation, which is why Villanueva can't stress enough the importance of schooling, so kids aren't taken advantage of and are viewed in a better light. Villanueva believes most Latin American players aren't viewed as intelligent as their counterparts.
"I think we get put aside a little bit sometimes because of the education factor," Villanueva said. "We are deemed not smart enough sometimes. A lot of coaches, a lot of teams get frustrated with the players."
When Villanueva goes back to the island now, he is one of the heroes. The kids see the big league lifestyle, the fame and fortune, and they realize what is possible with hard work and determination. They look up to him, like he used to look up to other pros.
Villanueva wanted to be like fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez, whom he idolized and watched whenever he could.
But Pedro, he said, "was just overpowering, and I couldn't do that, so I went more realistic. [Mike] Mussina was the guy."
Villanueva feels he learned a lot watching Mussina in the 1990s and tried to emulate the right-hander's approach to pitching. Villanueva's favorite player growing up, though, was a Hall of Famer -- former Blue Jays second baseman Roberto Alomar.
Like many Major Leaguers, Villanueva trained at a multivenue sport complex called the Olympic Center. In the offseason, he goes back there and plays catch and hits grounders to kids every day.
Villanueva not only practices the youngsters on sharpening their skills but offers advice to anyone who will listen, reminding them to stay disciplined and positive through the ups and downs.
"They see it as an impossible dream, and that's the way I saw it," Villanueva said. "If I can help one of two of the kids, then I'll be happy."
Villanueva must be doing something right, because he has kids tell him all the time how much they're learning.
"And that will really make me feel happy," Villanueva said. "I try to do as much as I can for the whole country."