Fred Villarreal Jr. methodically planned out his dream of playing professional baseball.
But the former Brownsville Veterans Memorial star did not pencil in any shortcuts on his path to signing a minor league contract with the Seattle Mariners, which the team officially announced June 18.
“It’s always been a childhood dream to play where I’m at right now,” Villarreal said. “I know my parents are proud, and as a son, it’s always awesome to put a smile on their face.”
His parents, Fred Villarreal Sr., and Maria Villarreal, instilled humility and a strong worth ethic in their son, never taking his talents for granted. His father is a 30-year veteran of Carling Technologies, which has a location in Brownsville, and his mother managed an MRI clinic for several years before transitioning to in-home health marketing.
At a young age, Villarreal Jr. wasn’t shy about telling anyone who would listen about his baseball ambitions.
“He promised a house to everyone,” Maria said. “To his grandmas, to the housekeeper, to everybody. He wanted to be big. He would say, ‘I’m going to be a professional player.’ He would have a fever and say ‘Mom, I’m still going to pitch.’”
But as diligent and determined as he was, turning down his first contract offer from the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016 to play college ball with the University of Houston was not an easy choice for the highly coveted right-handed pitcher.
“At the beginning, he wanted to go (sign a professional contract with Tampa Bay),” Villarreal Sr. said. “For me, I wanted him to go to college, but we told him, ‘It’s your decision.’ We were behind him wherever he went. (Playing college baseball) was the best decision he could make.”
The emphasis on obtaining a college education was as important to Villarreal Jr. as it was to his parents. His oldest brother, Troy, is a pharmacy technician and his cousin, Danny, is a music student at the University of Texas at Austin.
Villarreal Jr. chose to follow Troy and his mother into the medical field to study public health.
“The whole plan for me was, how I got drafted out of high school, that was a huge accomplishment,” Villarreal Jr. said. “If I were to take that, who knows what could happen? … The right thing to do was to start school, see how far I could get and get drafted again.”
Villarreal Jr. and his 93 mph fastball drew the eyes of several major league scouts, as well as Oklahoma State, Miami and Tulane. Meanwhile, the University of Houston was rising under coach Todd Whitting, and the Cougars went on to capture three of the past five American Athletic Conference regular season titles. Villarreal Jr. wanted to be a part of UH’s success while also fulfilling his desire to play and attend school closer to home.
Whitting first saw Villarreal Jr. at a Perfect Game event in Atlanta.
“I immediately fell in love with him and liked the way he competed,” Whitting said. “I liked his stuff and his mound presence. For me, the first time I saw him play, it was a no-brainer.”
Villarreal Jr. also played on the Houston Banditos, an elite travel team that has alumni like St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt among its ranks.
When Villarreal Jr. tore his serratus anterior, a rib muscle originating at the side of his chest, he realized just how prescient his decision was to defer his professional dream. Now just a semester away from earning his bachelor’s degree, his future remains as bright off the field as his prospects are on the mound.
“Coming back, I played my worst I ever had,” he said. “To pitch at a high level, there’s a lot of things you have to do right. For me it’s all feel. I played that summer, and it’s all feel. I came back for my junior year with a huge chip on my shoulder, like this is the year. I had a great year, happy to have put myself in a spot to get drafted again, my parents are happy. All this was for my parents.”
Villarreal Jr. and his family recognized that he could overcome the talent gap between himself and some of his peers with consistent effort.
“How I grew up, I was not always the most talented, I’d say,” Villarreal Jr. said. “It just took a lot of work with me and my father, all credit to my father, he pushed me every day to improve.”
All of the motivation Villarreal Jr. needed was supplied internally.
“Fred would never say, ‘I wanted to be better than (another player),’” Maria Villarreal said. “It was a constant competition with himself.”
Whitting said he thought Villarreal made a significant leap during his junior year under the tutelage of pitching coach Terry Rooney, who joined the UH staff two seasons ago.
Much like his habit of working out before school started at Brownsville Veterans, Villarreal put in the work at Houston to set himself apart — throwing “shadow bullpens” to refine his delivery without putting additional stress on his arm and focusing on preparing an optimal diet to maximize his gains in the weight room.
“His biggest gains and progress came this year,” Whitting said. “His stuff was always there. He matured a lot on and off the field. … It’s really fun to see a kid like Fred when he engages with himself personally, and devotes himself to getting better, and that’s what he did. When you work that hard, success is going to follow,” Whitting said. “He ended up being one of the top closers in the country for us.”
The culmination of Villarreal Jr.’s hard work resulted in being the UH closer being named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s Stopper of the Year Award watchlist and the AAC All-Conference Second Team. Now, Villarreal has taken his signature mohawk and his talents to the Pacific Northwest.
“Once he started going above and beyond and working outside of what was required, that’s when you really jump to the next level,” Whitting said. “You’ve got to tip your hat to him for doing that, because not all players take it upon themselves to do a little bit extra, not just the bare minimum for getting themselves better. He’s always had a great mentality, he’s kind of like a bulldog out there. He’s extremely focused. When you have the gift that he has, the ability that he has and that makeup, you’re going to get a pretty good player.”
The plan for Villarreal Jr. now is to ease into the Everett AquaSox system, after logging 59 innings in 2019 as the closer for the Cougars. Closers warm up often, even when they do not get called in to pitch, and that can take a toll on a young arm.
Despite being thousands of miles away from home, Brownsville has been and will continue to be on his mind as he embarks on the next phase of his baseball career.
Before he left for Peoria, Ariz., to complete a physical and sign his rookie contract with the Mariners organization, Villarreal Jr. posted a message on Facebook sharing his desire to “put Brownsville on the map” and “build a powerhouse of athletes” when he returns home, along with local coach Sammy Hernandez.
Above all, Villarreal Jr. is still his mother’s son. Hosanna World Changers, the church the Villarreal family attends, has recently completed the construction of a baseball field. The site off of Dr. Hugh Emerson Road now can sow the seeds of player development that he hopes to grow through his mentorship and instruction.
“A lot of kids look up to him,” Maria Villarreal said. “He already has those little fans. I told Freddy, ‘You can do your camps there, and we can pray before with the kids.’ He knows what it takes. He’s the perfect person to tell them, to encourage them to work hard. To be better than themselves.”