SAN JOSE -- When she heard Angel Villalona would be back with the San Jose Giants this season, Donna Musgrave didn't wait to be asked. She called to insist that Villalona should stay in her home again, just as he had as a shy 18-year-old in 2009.
That was back when Villalona was a can't-miss prospect. That was back before he was accused of murder in his native Dominican Republic.
"I called (the Giants) and said, 'You send him to my house. Because nobody is going to say nothing about Angel if he's staying with me,' " Musgrave said. "I knew what he was like before, and I knew he was a very nice kid. I knew he would have a hard time coming back. And I knew that coming back to us, there wouldn't be any problems."
Acquitted of the murder charge amid the prosecutor's claim that he paid off the victim's family, Villalona is back in baseball, back in San Jose and perhaps back on track.
"I think he's better than his old form," manager Andy Skeels said.
Six years after the Giants lavished $2.1 million on the 16-year-old infielder, Villalona will play in the California-Carolina League All-Star game Tuesday night at Municipal Stadium. He is also one of the six sluggers who will compete in the home run derby before the game.
To Villalona, his selection to the Cal League squad represents a signpost on his way back from the brink of personal and professional ruin. Facing a potential 20-year prison term, he spent nearly two months in jail and several more under house arrest before being released.
Now, he is back in San Jose. The last time he was here, in 2009, he was on a roster that included other promising youngsters such as Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Madison Bumgarner.
They went on to hoist the World Series trophy last October as Villalona watched on TV from the Dominican Republic.
"They're the good guys. Good for them," Villalona said in Spanish during an interview conducted with San Jose hitting coach Lipso Nava serving as interpreter. "They're my former teammates, and I wish them the best.
"If I'm going to make it or not, that's out of my hands. But I hope it happens. And when it happens, I'm going to be ready."
Thankful for the opportunity
Villalona relaxed on the dugout bench during an interview before a game last week. The team stipulated that he would answer questions only about baseball, not his highly scrutinized legal case.
If Villalona did make reference to his troubled past, he did so only in the vaguest possible terms, such as the several times he thanked "God and the Giants" for giving him the opportunity to play professional baseball again.
While in his native city of La Romana in September 2009, Villalona was accused in the shooting death of Mario Felix de Jesus Velete, a 25-year-old convenience store worker, after a fight in a popular nightclub.
Villalona's supporters said he was targeted because of his wealth; his detractors say he bought his way to freedom. La Romana prosecutor Jose Antonio Polanco told USA Today Sports in February that the murder weapon was not found and that his star witness, a friend who accompanied de Jesus Velete to the bar, disappeared after Villalona paid the victim's family about $138,000 to avoid a lawsuit.
Polanco conceded to USA Today that he did not have written proof of the payoff but said he heard it from Villalona's lawyers.
Sociology professor Ramona Hernandez, the director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute in New York, followed the case intently. She understands why outsiders would be suspicious considering the victim's family decided not to talk or press charges.
But Hernandez warned against leaping to a conclusion of a corrupt legal system. She described La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic (population 214,000), as a "considerably large town with a rich history and a very complex society."
"So having a complicity -- everybody silent about something that they saw -- is complicated, to say the least," she said. "Do you know what I'm saying? This isn't a little remote place where you could actually buy everybody. ... La Romana is not that."
She said Villalona's team of highly paid lawyers might have simply given him an advantage over an overworked prosecutor, just as it could have happened in the U.S.
"So if you want to blame a legal system, you have to begin from there. If you have the best lawyers, is that corruption?" Hernandez asked. "Well, if that's corruption, we have corruption everywhere."
Shaking the rust
Granted his freedom, Villalona was reinstated from baseball's restricted list in February. In San Jose, he is batting .243 and is tied for fifth in the Cal League with 14 home runs. His numbers have been held in check by a wretched start.
Facing professional competition for the first time since his arrest and still rounding into shape after ballooning to 290 pounds, Villalona opened the season in a 2-for-44 slump.
"It was very difficult to watch because I knew what he could do," Musgrave said, watching from the stands last week. "And I was afraid his problems were because maybe he was a little bit leery of what people were going to say, what people were going to think."
Skeels brushed off Villalona's slow start as "ring rust." Villalona played in the Dominican Summer League and played in the country's winter league, but the manager said that was no substitute for Single-A pitching.
"I think there's a false assumption that somehow in the minor leagues you're facing the guys who could be stacking hammers at The Home Depot and just happen to be out here," he said, rattling off the names of notable major leaguers who have passed through the Cal League in recent years.
"These guys are the best in the world. They're just not in the big leagues yet because of a lack of experience. The idea that you're going to jump in and face these guys and right away feel like you should be dominating is wrong."
Bobby Evans, the Giants vice president and assistant general manager, said Villalona "has matured and is continuing to mature" upon his return to the organization. Villalona's weight is now listed at 257 pounds. By all accounts, he sticks around after games to put in hourlong workouts.
"The challenges he's faced put him into a position where he's been humbled, and he's operating from a place of thankfulness," Evans said. "But he's also operating from a place of hope. He realizes he can reach his dreams."
Evans also offers this: "It's evident that he hasn't lost his bat speed."
Potential still there
Villalona's potential once looked boundless. Skeels shook his head as he recalled the night in Augusta, Ga., when the raw, big-bodied teenager crushed a ball that sailed over the left-field fence and across a parking lot before splashing into Lake Olmstead -- more than 550 feet from home plate.
"It landed in outer space," Skeels said.
San Francisco infielder Nick Noonan, who was also on that Augusta team, confirms the account. "That was probably the furthest I've ever seen a ball get hit," Noonan said last week. "I'm sure it went over 500 feet, sure of it."
By the start of the 2009 season, Baseball America ranked Villalona as the third-best prospect in the Giants' minor league organization, behind only Bumgarner and Posey.
Now, scouts are restrained, even tepid, in assessing Villalona's chances of making an impact in the majors. One roving minor league instructor for an opposing team described Villalona's chances of reaching the big leagues as "fringe-y" because he is limited defensively and undisciplined at the plate. "He'll swing at anything," the instructor said, projecting a best-case scenario of a player who could hit .240 with 20-25 home runs in the majors.
A scout for an American League team who saw Villalona within the past few weeks was more optimistic. Defensively, he called him a "poor man's Pablo Sandoval" because his remarkable agility gives him surprising range for a big man. The scout also saw signs that Villalona was thinking more during at-bats, coming to the plate with a game plan instead of just hacking away.
"I saw some hittability there," the scout said. "And guys who have the ability to hit for power are so hard to find. Even if he gets up there (to the majors) at 25, he can still have a nice career."
Making him feel at home
After signing his big contract with the Giants in 2006, the teen who grew up in poverty developed a reputation for immaturity and carefree spending. Donna and Ed Musgrave, who have been hosting two San Jose players a year for at least eight years, know a different side.
Donna called him "a very sensitive man, very kind. People don't know he's funny, but he makes me laugh, he really does, because he's so innocent."
A little more than a month ago, when she told Villalona how much she liked his shoes, he offered to give them to her on the spot. Donna laughed and told Villalona that his big shoes would never fit her size-8 feet.
That was the end of the conversation. Two weeks later, he handed her a brand new pair of shoes in exactly her size.
That's why she finds it so hard to reconcile the softhearted Villalona she knows with the one accused of a heinous crime.
"Truthfully, I don't know what happened. I will never know what happened," Musgrave said. "I find it difficult to believe that what we read in the paper was the absolute 100 percent truth. I know what the Dominican is like. And I figure we may never, ever know the truth. So I just never believed that it was true."
Villalona, though polite during the interview, kept his answers brief. He smiled wide only when asked about the Musgraves.
"They're always willing to help me," he said. "They take care of me. I don't have words to thank them. I'm really blessed to be there with that family."
Staff writer Alex Pavlovic contributed to this report. Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.