Juan Richardson will likely never play in the major leagues, a forecast that changed after an eventful seven seasons in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
The new Wingnuts third baseman isn't getting any younger — he turned 32 earlier this year and is entering his 13th season of professional baseball. He hasn't advanced a level since moving from Single- to Double-A in 2004.
The plans Richardson had when he left the Dominican Republic as a teenager in the late 1990s didn't materialize, but his passion for the game has never cooled.
"The reason why I come back is because I love this game," Richardson, who speaks Spanish, said through Wingnuts hitting coach Jose Amado. "It's my life, it's what I do for a living. As long as I stay healthy I'm going to keep playing until whenever I can't do it."
Richardson was supposed to be the final piece of a dynamic Phillies infield, joining early 2000s prospects Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley to lead Philadelphia to multiple playoff appearances. Richardson's power was graded just below that of Howard, who has five 30-homer seasons in the majors.
The postseason trips have happened, but not Richardson's involvement in them. He stalled with the Phillies in 2004, about two years after it was found he used a falsified birth certificate upon leaving the Dominican.
More than 500 players were discovered to be using fake documents that offseason, and Richardson's age went from 21 to 23. He acknowledged the fake certificate but claimed it was only off by a few months. He also said no one advised him to use an inaccurate certificate.
The discovery prompted the Phillies to put Richardson on the fast track, and he kept up at first. With Double-A Reading in 2003, he was leading the Eastern League in home runs at midseason when he fell down stairs at his home and broke his ankle. He missed the rest of the season.
"It was devastating to me," Richardson said. "It brought me down a lot. But I have love for the game and I wanted to keep playing."
A shoulder injury in 2004 limited him to 64 games. After one more season in the Phillies organization, he was allowed to leave as a minor-league free agent.
As one of the Phillies' top prospects, Richardson felt pressure to produce and follow the organization's timetable for his arrival to the big leagues.
One of the knocks against Richardson was his lack of plate discipline, and he never had an on-base percentage higher than .339 with the Phillies organization. Richardson said his approach was tinkered with and he never got comfortable at the plate.
"The hitting coaches were trying to change me and do this and do that," Richardson said. "I've always had the same approach since I was pretty young."
Once he was no longer a prospect and organizations weren't as invested in him, Richardson saw his plate discipline improve. He re-emerged on the radar, even slightly, by hitting .311 with a .382 on-base percentage in Double-A with the Cardinals organization in 2006.
But Richardson didn't move up to Triple-A and went to the Royals in 2008. After a year in Double-A, he was let go. He played in the American Association with Lincoln the last two seasons, missing nearly all of 2010 with an injury and rebounding to hit .313 with 14 home runs.
"After I signed a free-agent contract, nobody messed with me," Richardson said. "Whenever I came to a team just to come and help, I could relax a little bit more because there wasn't as much pressure and people telling you what to do and how to do it."
Richardson, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound right-handed hitter with 152 professional home runs, plays baseball year-round. He has family in New York and the Dominican, but his closest relationship is with the game.
The Wingnuts coveted Richardson and acted quickly when he became available in the offseason. He's batting cleanup and is counted on to help lead an offense with multiple veteran hitters.
"I'm pretty happy to be here to play for a team and a guy (manager Kevin Hooper) that lets you be yourself," Richardson said. "I'm pretty excited. It feels like home."